Dispatches from the Mission Folk Music Festival
I just returned from the Mission Folk Music Festival, having spent most of Saturday and a good chunk of yesterday listening to music – some 13 hours or so. What kind of music? Well, folk music. I state this because I see debates here and there about what the folk festivals and those who have abandoned the folk moniker purvey. Mission is in the folk music business.
Now, for me there are two broad currents of music that make up folk. The first is traditional music handed down through the generations or collected and disseminated by collectors. The second is contemporary music created outside the commercial mainstream. Mission focuses on the latter, with the occasional bit of the former. Fair enough.
The festival has long been a bit of a jewel – small, nice site, no lines, parking for $5, and cheap cider—also $5 in the beer tent, I am told. They have had a couple of near-death experiences and, like all festivals, had to shut down the live show completely for two years as the result of the virus. This was their return to a live event. As far as I can tell, it was successful, and we can look forward to more, which is great.
There are 24 artists listed on the program. I heard 19 of them, which means I can give a reasonable assessment of the music on offer. The general ambiance of the event is relaxed, efficiently run with enough facilities to make it work well. There is free water, a water mister to cool folks off, a dozen or so food trucks offering a pretty good array of victuals, the aforementioned beer tent, a small but good crafts area, audience services and a merch tent – all the stuff a festival needs. Things started on time, and there were no serious glitches. There was no professional security in evidence, which lends an air of “stalag folk music” to some events. The whole feel is friendly and positive. It has a real good feel. This enhances the enjoyment of the music, which is performed on three daytime stages and an evening “main stage.” I attended the whole Saturday workshop program and most of Sunday’s, as well as most of the Saturday main stage. I didn’t attend the Friday or Sunday night shows.
For me, the heart of folk festivals is what goes on during the day. The evenings are fine but there is rarely any magic there. The unforgettable happens during the day, and this year at Mission there were a number of those moments. The first workshop delivered the first joyful noise. The McDades, the evolution of the old McDade Family Band, featuring three siblings, Shannon Johnson, Solon McDade, and Jeremiah McDade, shared the stage with a Chilean ensemble, Golosa La Orquesta. Somewhere between Celtic and Jazz, the McDades started with a tune called “McKinley Morganfield,” the name of blues legend Muddy Waters. Why is it called that? Beats me. The Chileans joined in as if they had rehearsed. They hadn’t. I asked. It was a joy to listen to – everything good about what happens at these events when folks who have never met before find their collective groove. The fiddlers from each group and the drummers shared solos and delivered what makes folk festivals worth the price of admission. The Chileans led off the next tune and the McDades followed and back and forth they went – a thrilling set of solid tunes with great improvisations.
Next up on the same stage – The Fraserview — was Maple Folks featuring three Canadian songwriters with accompaniment: Ontario’s Graham Lindsay, Quote the Raven from Newfoundland and local folks Strongbow and Wry. I was unfamiliar with all of them but enjoyed the songs and tunes. Occasionally it sounded like traditional folk music with some great fiddling. The songs spoke of home, a father’s death and love, good and bad – all universal topics. It was so old school folk that the emcee waxed nostalgic recalling the days when folk music meant – at least to him – guys with guitars and gals with fiddles. Frankly, I find most songwriters uninteresting but all of what I heard in this workshop was good, to my delight.
Things got even better with the next group, Kanatal, a quarte of two men and two women from Taiwan. They explained that Taiwan has 16 indigenous tribes, and they were each from a different one, speaking four different languages and carrying on as many traditions. They introduced their first tune as a thank you to the local Indigenous folks for offering their land to the festival. It was accompanied by a greeting ceremony. Profound and well done. The music was a wonderful blending of traditional and modern music and instruments. One song was in English, “Peace,” and referred to what is happening in the world from Ukraine to climate change. They sang several traditional numbers, each member introducing their culture with a song. I have heard traditional Taiwanese music before, but this went deeper and broader, and the band went out of its way to provide information and context.
The last workshop of the day was disarmingly titled Blues in the Afternoon. I’ve been to dozens, maybe a hundred or more, blues workshops over the last 50 years and didn’t expect much. Low and behold, this one took the cake. Toronto’s Shakura S’Aida had a great band – bass, drums and guitar, extended with Vancouver Island’s Doug Cox on slide guitar. They held down the Chicago end of the blues spectrum. Clerel, a Montreal-based Quebecois/Cameroonian, delivered something more in the Memphis line. Credited as Tony Ivan O’Hara, it turned out that this was the Strongbow and Wry trio. Tony is a great blues singer, and co-band member Jenny Bice, a fantastic blues fiddler. Sharing the stage as one big ensemble the three artists turned in a phenomenal performance, beyond anything I can remember since the early ‘80s when Jane Vasey rocked Memphis Slim’s world in Vancouver. This workshop was sublime.
Coasting on four great workshops, I settled down to hear what the evening concert might bring. The start was not as earth shattering as what I had just heard. B.C. ensemble The Crescent Sky, delivered a decent but uninspiring-to-me set of well-arranged tunes and harmonies that reminded me of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Maybe after the blues epiphany and Taiwanese magic it was a bit light, but it didn’t do much for me.
The next artist was a replacement for Amanda Rheaume, of whom I have heard great things. Chock one up for COVID. Her replacement was Suzie Ungerleider, formerly Oh Susannah. I had heard her recently with a band and didn’t like it at all, so I was mentally preparing myself for disappointment when she walked on stage solo and delivered a set of compelling tunes chronicling her Vancouver childhood: lost first love, car theft, high school, and a great song, “North Star Sneakers,” about former wild women, now mothers. It was a treat to hear a solo artist, particularly a woman, walk out on a festival stage with a guitar and some smart songs and hold an audience in their hands.
There were several Indigenous artists at this year’s Mission festival. One of the most ambitious undertakings is Good Medicine Songs/EySt’elmexw St’elt’lem: Sto:lo Elders and singers Siyamiyateliyot, Eddie Gardner, Ethel Gardner and Jonny Williams; Wilds band members Holly Arntzen and Kevin Wright; coordinator Valerie O’Connal from Skwah First Nation and Cheyenne Gardner. It is both an attempt to preserve and extend Halq’eméylem (traditional Stó:l? language of the Fraser Valley, B.C.) and to create new songs. The group opened with a powerful bilingual chant about the missing children of Residential School. The Indigenous tradition is accompanied by what Holly Arntzen called Eco Rock. It was a bit too didactic – more a pamphlet than a poem. Yhe concept is better than its present realization. Still, it is a valuable presentation dealing with contemporary issues in the first person plural. Having it on stage where the language was once spoken and within sight of a former residential school was a strong idea by the festival.
The final artists I heard before slogging home to Vancouver on Saturday night were the Estonian duo, Puuluup. With wry introductions, lots of humour and a clear passion for the traditional music of their country, Puuluup won the audience over in spades. Part electronica with loops, etc. and part traditional “talharpas”— something like a fiddle – along with vocals, they had the audience laughing and even doing traditional dances. They got the best response of the artists I heard that evening.
Happy as clams after a great Saturday, my companion and I got here early for the first Sunday workshop. We were not alone. Titled A Good Way to Greet the Day, this could have been but was not the traditional Sunday morning gospel workshop. Sakura S’Aida and Manitoba Indigenous songwriter William Prince shared the stage in a musical love in that was about spirit but was not spiritual. They obviously connected, and you could see each artist responding to the song sung by the other. These were not prepared sets. This was magic, and the audience felt it. William spoke of his life as an Indigenous person, about his father and about his world. Shakura did the same, speaking about her mother’s activism in the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina. The message from William’s father: “You gotta love what you do. Not a day goes to waste.” From Shakura’s mother: “Use your voice. When you see something wrong, use your voice.” Both sentiments are words to live by. It was as powerful an interaction between two artists as I have seen. The audience was spellbound.
The workshop that followed this love fest couldn’t exceed it. Puuluup met up with the McDades in a similar situation as the previous day. It was called On The Cutting Edge of Tradition and was pretty good but not as good as the previous day’s similar meet up. Puuluup did their best, even leading a decent part of the audience in a traditional Estonian dance. The McDades joined in on Estonian tunes and Puurluup reciprocated. It was good, but the magic of the McDades and Golosa la Orquesta on Saturday wasn’t there.
Speaking of Golosa la Orquesta, we decamped to the Market Stage for their concert. We consulted a Chilean friend to do some due diligence about their position in Chile. The news came back that our friend’s nieces were big fans, and the group was of significant stature back home. It’s always interesting to know how “world music” ensembles are regarded at home. Meanwhile La Orquesta was playing up a storm in Mission. It was the more salsa rock end of their repertoire and not bad. However, the best of the concert was when the two women in the group, both singing, one playing cuatro and the other fiddle, sang a song that spoke of “the right to breathe in peace” addressing the right of women to live free from abuse by their partners. They ended with a tribute to “our teacher,” the songwriter, Violeta Parra. It was wild and raucous and powerful with a great drum solo. I think Violeta would have enjoyed it. The audience certainly did.
The final workshop we attended was called It’s a Jamboree! I thought it meant it was a jam, but not so. It featured four artists from Bellingham, WA, just south of Mission. They are all involved in a music festival: The Subdued Stringband Jamboree in Deming, WA. The 22nd edition is this Aug. 11, 12 and 13. It was essentially a song swap with everybody helping out here and there; it was an interesting excursion into the world of American songwriting in the northwest today and a window into American reality. One song by Louis Ledford celebrated the Afro-American activist and politician John Lewis. Hot Dam Scandal offered up a dystopian apocalyptical vision of the world around us, presciently describing melting roads. Louis Ledford recited a poem with Hot Damn Scandal backing him about the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. Strangely – that’s his moniker – sang a song about things he would never do, from meeting Frida Kahlo to punching Elon Musk in the face. Overall, it was a quirky, loose and thoughtful session, including Robert Sarazin Blake offering up a song by Ron Hynes, the Newfoundland “Man of a thousand songs.” The workshop ran a little off course but introduced me, and I suspect a bunch of others, to four interesting artists from a little south of here.
That was my experience at the Mission Folk Music Festival. We left after the Jamboree workshop to get home and so I could write this review. Was it a good festival? Yes it was. It was a thoroughly inspiring, interesting, and informative experience. It has everything the larger festivals have but also has the charm of being a much more intimate affair. I’ll be back next year. You should be there too.