Vancouver International Folk Music Festival Day One (Jericho Beach, Vancouver BC – July 18th, 2014)
A glorious run of unseasonably warm weather for a couple of weeks in Vancouver had me all but convinced that the 37th annual edition of the Vancouver International Folk Music Festival would see rain. We can rarely rely on the sun for that long in the Pacific Northwest, so it seemed like a sure thing. As it turns out I was wrong — again, I should add, for I made the same prediction last year — and the day of the festival’s opening dawned bright and clear. Given that the event takes place on the sand and grass-covered expanse of Jericho Beach in Vancouver, it’s a good way to start; no one wants to sit in a puddle of mud all weekend. (Well, no one except the kids at Glastonbury, anyway.)
Good weather also tends to give the festival a bit of a boost in ticket sales, as last minute buyers and weather minded hold outs decide to attend. With reports of ticket sales being down after last year’s quite excellent event, every little boost was surely welcome. There’d been much grousing about the lineup being the weakest one in years — with Joan Baez on the bill, the general sentiment amongst my friends and colleagues was that the “old guard” had won this year and we got a traditional Folk Fest bill rather than a more progressive one with a younger appeal.
Friday night at the Festival is a main stage night only. For those of us working stiffs it’s a change to cut out a bit early and head to the beach in sandals and linen wear for a night of music. This year Friday night also happened to feature the strongest lineup from that progressive folk perspective
When I arrived, Zimbabwean musicians Mokoomba were in full force on the stage. It’s acts like this that give the festival it’s breadth and make it less of a concert and more of an exploration of the world’s sonic landscape. It was pretty clear from the waves of coloured fabric moving against the bright blue sky that the crowd was enjoying itself. A nice way to start a weekend by any measure.
North Carolina (or Texas, depending on your perspective) native Tift Merritt was up next and delivered a solid set of fairly straight ahead roots country. Merritt alternated between guitar and piano with steady accompaniment on pedal steel. A slightly off-colour joke about cousins and North Carolina fell a little flat on the audience. It may have been a bit too early, or just a bit obtuse.
Local Vancouver comedian Charlie Demers acquitted himself admirably as a host when faced with a bit of a delay before the Great Lake Swimmers took the stage by keeping the witty banter going from the stage. “I’m not here to provide information,” he quipped in response to an inaudible question from the audience. “I’m here to fill awkward silences with slightly more awkwardness.”
It took only a couple of minutes after that for the Great Lake Swimmers to take the stage and deliver a quiet, beautiful set including material from both their most recent release New Wild Everywhere and slightly older modern classics like Pulling on a Line, Still and What Time Is This. The band’s taciturn singer and songwriter Tony Dekker is one of the finest in Canada, and any lack of stage banter didn’t seem to disappoint the audience this time.
Rock and rollers Wintersleep picked up the pace a bit as a lead in to Andrew Bird whose magical looping fiddle tricks quickly had the chilled out beach sitting audience on their feet. With a stage set that included a dual coned whirling gramophone Bird handily led his Hands of Glory band through an incredible set. I’ve seen Bird play smaller venues a couple of times and it was refreshing to see him perform his distinctive brand of music to the huge folk festival crowd. The traditional lantern parade that ends each evening made a particularly fine accompaniment for Bird’s sound. The show wound down with a traditional bluegrass number played by the whole band as an encore around a single microphone.
All in all, this first Friday night was a pretty decent start to a summer tradition with far more hits than misses — at least until near the end. For those paying attention rumours started to trickle in on Twitter from the new Pemberton Music Festival — about four hours north of Vancouver — that a body had been found on site. The story quickly became global (see Billboard and Spin Magazine) and for those who were aware made it hard to rejoice in the company of others.
Possibly worse from the festival’s point of view were rumours that started about 2 in the morning that Saturday night’s headliner, Joan Baez, had cancelled her appearance with almost no notice. As it turns out, those rumours wouldn’t be confirmed until the next morning at about 9 a.m. If the old guard had, indeed, won and booked Baez in hopes of attracting a crowd it’s hard to imagine how anything worse could have happened. Still, Saturday’s lineup was rich with workshops for a full day of music and a headlining slot by Alejandro Escovedo. We’ll cover that next.
A more complete gallery of images is available over on my Flickr pages. I’ll have a look at Day Two’s workshop’s — and how the festival did without the planned headliner — tomorrow, along with more photos.