The Vancouver Folk Music Festival recapped and reviewed by Deborah Holland
The Night Before Day 1 of the 2019 Vancouver Folk Festival
It just took me two and a half hours to work out a schedule so I can see all the artists I want to see.
10,000 steps? Hah! No extra exercise needed this weekend.
Monday morning. Festival is Over
Siri: What are bone spurs?
This year, I was unable to send daily missives from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and that’s because I spent so much time at the festival that I was too wiped out to do anything at the end of each day but go to bed.
So, here’s my re-cap of the three days
I arrive around 7 p.m. and head right to the food trucks. My favorite veggie burger in the world food truck is not there! Luckily there are many, many, vegan choices. My favorite is newcomer Govinda’s Veggie Bomb. Govinda, by the size of the daily lines, will surely return. I recommend the Bomb Bowl and the chocolate shake. And of course, there’s THE best vegan ice cream on the planet: Ernest’s. I still hope the veggie burger people come back again. (By the way, feel free to make fun of the vegan thing. I did for almost my entire life.)
OK. Done with food, I promise.
On to hear one of the seven acts I’m most excited to see. The Dardanelles from St. Johns, NL are just starting at Stage 3. I’m going to remind the reader that I have only lived in Canada since 2010. There are many music acts that are well-known here that I have never heard of before, and I am still playing catch-up (I now know about Ron Hynes). I’m still far from the stage, and my first thought is the front guy, (who’s talking to the audience), sounds so much like Tom Power, the host of Q on CBC (I know). I get closer and think he even looks like Tom Power! How bizarre is that? OK, so now I know Tom is in the Dardanelles.
Siri: Is Ireland considered part of the British Isles?
Siri: What’s the difference between a jig and a reel?
The Dardanelles play traditional Newfoundland music, which is of course by way of the British Isles, and if anyone can do it better I haven’t heard them. They play traditional music, but that doesn’t mean they don’t break some rules. There are surprising key changes, off rhythmic accents that are cued by eye contact, and tempo and feel changes. I have a smile on my face for the entire concert, as do many others, and there are lots of happy jig and reel dancers with improvised “dosey does” and “swing your partners.”
The band plays mostly instrumentals, but when they turn to vocal songs Matthew Byrne takes over, and what a voice! He also speaks about the history of the songs and how a particular song became “Newfoundland-ized.” I don’t know about you but there’s something about the sound of a button accordion and fiddle playing a Celtic melody that hits a particular spot in my body and makes me feel the world is good. Can I say it is also so much fun seeing this other side of Tom Power? He is like a kid on stage, obviously having the time of his life.
One of the problems with having a schedule is there are things you will miss (actually though, even without a schedule you’re going to miss stuff). On my way to The Dardanelles, Le Vent Du Nord was playing on the mainstage. They sounded incredible, and I made a mental note that I had to see them but sadly never did.
I head back to the mainstage to wait for Larkin Poe. I don’t recall if other festivals do this, but when one act is setting up on the mainstage, off to the side a solo, duo or trio performs a short set. Raine Hamilton String Trio from Manitoba is doing that now.
Overheard in the beer garden: “Go see Raine Hamilton. She’s great. Don’t let the mohawk scare you.”
Raine has a beautiful voice and songs, and the “chamber music-like” approach with her trio is the perfect accompaniment for her music. She is definitely one of my happy surprises of the festival.
“What Just Happened???!!!” – MC Treasa Lavasseur after Larkin Poe’s set
Siri: How old are Rebecca and Megan Lovell?
Imagine a tornado or hurricane of music energy. Swirling around in there are The Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, Heart, Son House, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Etta James, ZZ Top, and Dolly Parton, and even then it doesn’t describe Larkin Poe.
Self-described “Ambassadors of the Blues” (though their music is a mix of blues and other Americana genres), sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell will make you believers again that there is still great music being made and performed. Twenty-eight-year-old Rebecca fronts the band on electric rhythm guitar (though she’s a mean soloist herself). Even if she was JUST a singer, she’d be the best new vocalist on the scene. She belts out in a low alto growl and seamlessly switches to a head voice. She completely commands your attention. She’s a GREAT singer. If she was JUST a rhythm guitar player, that would be enough too. Her tone and style are right up there with all the great electric rhythm players. I suspect she would solo more but the solo spotlight is reserved for 30-year old sister Megan. Rebecca plays the extrovert. She’s all swagger and strut, and she speaks about music as though she’s in front of a class of students. She knows her music history and wants you to know it too. Megan plays the introvert (one suspects they are like this off-stage as well, but I don’t know). She doesn’t talk (except to say one quiet “thanks”) and seems happy to let her sister do the talking for both of them. But then she takes a solo. Her lap steel playing is top-notch. She smiles and calmly walks around the stage while playing searing, blues solos and is equally as commanding. I was not expecting them to have a rhythm section with them, and honestly, I didn’t even think about them for the first few songs. Oh yeah, there’s a bass player and a drummer.
Then there’s the songs. You’ll hear some blues standards like Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues,” “John the Revelator,” and Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” (best version ever!). The original songs are also great. I hear the influence of hip-hop and rap in the lyrics. They have that run-on, highly rhythmic, syncopated edge to them. It’s a great fit cradled in the music of the blues.
I’ll close talking about Larkin Poe with two thoughts. First, I’m so glad to get to see them up close in a more intimate setting because for sure, next time, they’ll be playing at an arena. Second, if there EVER was even a tiny vestige of credibility given to that stupid line that “girls can’t rock,” Larkin Poe puts the nail in the coffin of that forever.
When Larkin Poe leaves the stage I think, “Wow, I feel sorry for whoever has to follow them.”
And on comes the only act that could possibly follow them: a ukulele duo with upright bass called Ruby and Smith. Talk about a palate cleanser. Dressed to the nines, the “First Lady and Duke of Uke,” Daphne Roubini and Andrew Smith are charming with their straight-ahead 1930s-influenced sound. It is simple, sweet and very good.
Friday night’s headliner is Corb Lund, and it’s obvious many in the audience have come to see him. Again, forgive me. I have heard of Corb Lund but have never heard him. I am expecting some version of “modern” (slick) country music. I figure I’ll listen to a song and then go home. Whoops! He’s the polar opposite of slick modern country music. And I am “forced” to stay longer. He had me at “Dig Dig Gravedigger.” The volunteers who have the unenviable job of trying to keep the dancers out of the non-dancing section just give up. It is at this point in the evening that the festival becomes a party.
I drag my tired ass home.
I know it’s going to be a long day, and I have some errands in the morning, so I arrive early afternoon a few songs into Amos Garrett and Julian Kerr. I’ve been a fan of Amos Garrett’s playing since Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis, and I am looking forward to hearing him live (No, of course I didn’t know he was Canadian). He and keyboardist Julian Kerr trade off lead vocals on a repertoire of mostly jazz-blues standards (or bluesy-jazz if you prefer) but it’s Amos Garrett’s playing that’s the special sauce. It’s a combination of many things including the tremolo settings he uses on his amp, the right-hand thumb pick and finger melody playing (I was right up front), the way he bends multiple strings and slides into chords, the way he is always tasteful not flashy, and the note choices he makes when soloing. It all gives him a distinct sound and style. Amos Garrett is a true original.
The rest of the afternoon is spent trying to hear as many acts as I can. I get to hear a few songs from Danny Boudreau, Illtiteratty, Rad Trads (more about them later), Don McGlashan, the legendary Ramblin” Jack Elliot (the Forrest Gump of folk music. He was there for everything that happened!), Celeigh Cardinal, and more beautiful ballad singing from Matthew Byrne. All are deserving of more attention than just the quick “sampling” I gave them.
Now I need my own palate cleansing so I head to the beer garden where I share the shade and a few drinks with two couples, one local (Bill and Ruth) and one from Australia (Linda and David). Both couples are blues fans so we talk blues and life stuff.
I spend a little too long in the beer garden (if that’s even a thing) and only catch the last few songs of the great sounding mainstage opening act, Front Country, from the San Francisco Bay area. Here is yet again another example of a young band taking a traditional form of music, in this case bluegrass and country, and putting their own twist on it. They’ve been called roots pop, and this seems an accurate description to me.
If Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn had played the button accordion and had a band that performed authentic New Orleans music it would probably sound like Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers. It’s still light out but the party starts. I had no idea you could even make an accordion sound like a wailing electric guitar, but Dwayne Dopsie does just that. He’s also the consummate showman and everyone is up dancing and singing – even me, which beyond some swaying and head nodding is rare.
Next, I walk over to Stage 3 to hear Mike Farris & the Fortunate Few (great band name!). Mike is from Nashville but sounds way more 60s Memphis. Mike has an amazing soul/blues/R&B voice (I overheard lots of people later talking about him) and had a smokin’ hot band.
I head back to the mainstage to catch the last two acts of the night, Basia Bulat and the Sam Roberts Band. I have to confess that by this point my ears (and body) need a rest. I know the audience is loving both acts, but I can only process them on a superficial level. Basia does a really interesting take on Joni Mitchell’s “Peoples Parties,” and I feel like Sam Roberts is someone I grew up listening to, but I don’t know any of the songs.
I went home last night and got a little sleep so I could be back at 10 a.m. to hear Aerialists.
I read their bio in the program, and Aerialists music is described as “prog-trad.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I have trouble with the word “prog” or “progressive” being used to describe music, because it makes me think of bands I’m not fond of, but then I ask Siri.
Siri: What is progressive or prog music?
Progressive music is music that attempts to expand existing stylistic boundaries associated with specific genres of music. … Music that is deemed “progressive” usually synthesizes influences from various cultural domains, such as European art music, Celtic folk, West Indian, or African.
OK then. This might describe EVERYONE at the folk festival, so I’ll try to be a little more specific. Aerialists create soundscapes based around harp (who doesn’t love the harp?), violin, electric guitar, bass and drums. They might start playing something that sounds Celtic but it quickly morphs into something experimental, kind of quasi-classical and then into modern jazz. They’re fluid. They play in complex time signatures and include everything from a Swedish song to a wonderful Bon Iver cover. Their vocals are not quite as strong as their instrumental chops, but I’m sure in time that will be fixed.
I’ve been hearing the name Luca Fogale as a Vancouver singer-songwriter that I should see.
I see (hear) what the buzz is all about. He’s a “sensitive” singer-songwriter (meant in the best way). His songs and singing are emotional, quiet, melancholy and dramatic, so it’s not surprising he’s already getting his songs placed in lots of mainstream TV shows. He’s not breaking new ground but he’s very good at being exactly who he is. I look forward to seeing him perform again, and since he’s local, I’ll get the chance to make that happen.
I know I won’t be able to stay until the end of the night when The Hamiltones are headlining and closing the show, so I make sure to see them at a workshop. The Hamiltones were here last summer as part of Ry Cooder’s band. They are three male soul/gospel singers and they are amazing.
Next up is Joey Landreth. I’ve seen Joey before as a solo act. I bought his records and have been a fan. Strangely I’ve never seen the Bros. Landreth (though I’d love to). I’m also a huge fan of his guitar playing, especially his slide playing. He’s one of the best out there today. Joey is also carrying on a tradition established by the legendary Little Feat, playing a mix of R&B, soul, country, etc. He’s my favorite kind of male singer. His tone is perfect, he’s got technique, he is soulful (not “The Voice” fake soulful), and he literally moves me to tears when he sings sad love songs. I revert to my teenage broken-hearted self which can be extremely satisfying (in small doses). He performs as a trio and, though I don’t catch their names, they are tight and funky as can be. Musicianship at its best.
(There’s some more eating and drinking and making new friends that goes on at some point in the afternoon).
As can often happen at a festival with multiple stages, two of the bands I really want to see are both playing at 5 p.m. Fortunately the stages are close by, so no sprinting is necessary.
I started with Rosie and the Riveters, who are probably the only band that could headline either at a folk festival or a Las Vegas hotel! Three women, one on guitar, (sorry I don’t know their individual names) with a drummer, colorfully dressed, all with amazing pipes (they take turns singing lead, and all three are great) and spot-on Andrews/Boswell Sisters three-part harmonies. This is done while singing songs that entertain and songs that deliver important messages.
Next is the five-piece Rad Trads from Brooklyn (rhythm section, trumpet and sax/keys), who I can only guess draw lines around the block when they play. And if not, hurry up New Yorkers because they won’t be a secret for long. Rad Trads are a throwback both musically and even in the way they look. They’re part Cotton Club, part Woodstock, part Jersey frat band that’s opening for the band that had the hit “Brandy.”
Siri:? Looking Glass
They’re more than a party band though. The songs are fantastic. They’re clever. Many have a Randy Newman style of humor about them, and all groove like crazy (cue the dancers). All sing lead, but it’s the drummer who shines as the one with the most distinctive voice. It’s Dylan in whatever period you think Dylan sounded the best. The horn arrangements are great, the soloing is great, and the joy is infectious. The last song was called “99 in October” and was introduced as a song about summer, love and global warming. I don’t often use this word, but Rad Trads are delightful.
My second total surprise of the festival is Irish Mythen (born in Ireland but now living in PEI). She IS the winner of The Voice! Irish is the side act during the set up for David Hidalgo and Steve Dawson, and she gets a most deserving standing ovation. Do yourself a favor and check this out:
During Irish’s last song, the most magical festival moment I’ve ever witnessed happens. David Hidalgo and Steve Dawson, having apparently missed their sound check, wander on stage (with bass player and drummer in tow) and start playing along with Irish. By the time the song is near the end she is being accompanied by David AND the bass player and drummer, as though the whole thing had been REHEARSED. The audience is going wild. It is a moving song she wrote about her aunt, called “Maria,” and you can tell she is blown away by what is happening.
I’m sorry to say David Hidalgo (who I adore) and Steve Dawson are the only disappointment of the festival. Maybe my expectations are too high, and some of the issues are out of their control (tangled guitar cables, instruments that wouldn’t stay in tune because of the scorching sun). It is the absolute hottest time of the day, 7 p.m., just as the sun is starting to set, and the sun is blazing down on them. That said, there are other problems. David is not at his best. He seems distracted. The band doesn’t feel cohesive. They trade off lead vocals and songs. Steve is a great slide player but his singing is average. I feel like I’m just waiting for David’s turn again, and then I feel like he is phoning it in. There isn’t any chemistry between the two. The song choices are wonderful and there are some great moments, but overall I think some rehearsal (and maybe a propper sound check) might have helped. Then again, maybe not. This is the first time in my short time as a reviewer that I have said anything negative and I’ll probably regret it.
Even though this is the last act for me, the festival, I conclude, even without big International acts, is a huge musical success.
Now I need a shower, foot massage and sleep.