VANCOUVER FOLK MUSIC FESTIVAL 2009Dates: 17-19 July 2009 Venue: Jericho Beach Park Reviewed by Lauren Eldridge and Melanie Shim
Friday 17 July: The First Day
Upon first settling down at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, we are near a stage that features Joe Pug. He plays typical singer-songwriter acoustic music, but it is very American. He sounds so much older than his 23 years. He may be on the rise in the States, but we still prefer Dan Mangan.
On the main stage, in-between act Women in Docs are from Australia. Their soothing harmonies are even more impressive when we learn that one of them, Chanel, arrived in Vancouver at 2am and this is their second gig of the day. In their own words, “we’re called [Women in Docs] because we wear Doc Martens. Women who have tried to lug amps in stilettos understand.”
The Weakerthans are one of CBC Radio 3′s favourite bands, and it’s easy to understand why. They sound even better live than recorded, and talking to the audience in between songs enhances their stage demeanour. Their second song, “Tournament of Hearts,” is about curling, and dedicated “to all those doing their dry land training while they wait for the curling season.” Goaded on by a member of the audience, front man John Samson admits his displeasure with the 2010 Olympics, and calls for a panel discussion and debate in the beer garden later in the evening. During the set, he tells us of a game they used to play in Winnipeg: they would stare into a purple light for about four minutes, then run around the parliament buildings. They called it “Purple City.” They’re a little bit Death Cab For Cutie, a little bit Paper Moon, and a whole lot of awesome.
In-between duo Suzie Vinnick and Rick Fines sound like a blues version of Adele, accompanied by guitar. It’s a sizzling combination, and highly recommended for blues fans who appreciate great vocals and guitar.
Lauren has been eagerly awaiting a live performance by Iron and Wine. Much to her delight, he opens with “Such Great Heights,” his cover of The Postal Service song that was chosen for the Garden State Soundtrack. Samuel Beam’s acoustic guitar is uber folk, and his prophet beard only enhances that image and sound. Lauren wanted to hear “Such Great Heights,” “Naked As We Came,” and “The Trapeze Swinger,” and he played all three. His stirring sounds and melancholy melodies are indescribably good.
Melanie, on the other hand, has been giddy about the Arrested Development for days. They are truly remarkable, and everyone was on their feet and dancing. After all, how can you not move to their groove? Although their most recognized song is “People Everyday,” (which happens to be our favourite song), people often forget that they had some great hits with “Mr. Wendal” and “Tennessee.” Arrested Development puts on a seriously inspired performance and even if dancing is only encouraged in the specified “dancing lanes” beside the main stage, this musical super group has everyone on their feet, moving and swaying to their funky beats and positive messages. An incredibly memorable experience, these Atlanta, Georgia artists are veterans and know how to put on a ridiculously entertaining and fun show.
Saturday 18 July: The Second Day
While resting at a smaller stage in the late morning, we caught three folk acts that were quite different. Joël Fafard’s guitar sounded more like a banjo, and we were too far away to hear his banter. Kate Reid was an even funnier version of Yvette Narlock, singing about her sexual orientation and how other people respond to it. Her soul-baring music goes hand-in-hand with her humorous outlook on life, and her songs are a lot of fun. We also catch some music by Shari Ulrich with her partner, and her daughter Julia Graff. Her music is sweet and pretty, and we get to see more of her tomorrow.
The highlight of the day is Basia Bulat. She wears a pretty red dress and can’t stop smiling. Her particular brand of folk is poetic, and tinged with a western feel, and her multi-instrumental talent allows her creativity free reign. Her second song is about running; specifically, “keep running back to me.” It’s really good! She also plays a song with just the ukulele and her two female back-up singers, and their three-part harmony is chillingly well done. Her second-last song features the lyrics, “I love the way we come undone.” She finishes her set with a hand clapping and foot stomping a cappella song, which reminds us of Bedouin Soundclash and involves the lyrics, “Soon one morning, death comes creeping in the room. Crying Oh my Lord, what shall I do?”
After these afternoon performances finish, we settle down at Stage Five for the evening. Sara Rénélik is Canadian-born, and met her Haitian roots first through dance, and then song. Sultry beats and compelling rhythms define Sara’s music. Her sweet voice can be low and soothing, or high and chilling; she hits every note.
Mark Berube & The Patriotic Few sing great songs about the country, the news, and everything in between. A lyric that really stands out is, “As we read the bible, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read.” Since they all sing backing vocals, they have a huge sound. Dan Mangan joins them on stage for the song. They also have a song about Vancouver, which was written a few years ago, called “Pretty Little Bird.” Mark Berube and the Patriotic Few have an accordion, which we can’t help but think is so French, but it couldn’t be more at home in this band. As far as their upcoming shows are concerned, they may be opening for Dan Mangan at the Biltmore Cabaret on October 24th.
Next act Geoff Berner is a highly unusual artist. He begins his set with numerous disclaimers, including language warnings and hopes that we’ve all been drinking (and enjoy dancing). After a couple of upbeat numbers, he then instructs the dancers to start bumping into each other. It’s like the bar mitzvah you wish you had, but know you wouldn’t have been old enough to attend. He treated the event as a free speech zone; blunt lyrics and modern themes are an interesting contrast to the particularly Jewish-style music of the klezmer. Their songs include “If I Had My Way,” “The Way That Girl Drinks Beer,” and “My Half-German Girlfriend.” The songs are simple, almost childish in their upbeat and silly humour, but with grown-up language. Their most popular song may be their “Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games:: “The Dead Children Were Worth It.” It’s so bad, but so good. Check out Geoff Berner’s website for a free download of the song.
The next main act is Mr. Something Something. Think Barenaked Ladies meets Five Alarm Fire, but better looking and with a brass and woodwind section. They are good, but can’t hold our attention, so we head home for the evening.
Sunday 19 July: The Third Day
We set up camp at Stage Five again, knowing that we’ll be seeing some great performances all day. It is the bands we don’t know who are about to sweep us off our feet, and Sunday could be the best day of the festival.
The Breakmen begin their set with a banjo, a mandolin, an acoustic guitar, and a guest fiddle. They play twanging music with three-part harmonies that are reminiscent of an era long gone. As the mandolin is replaced by a harmonica for their second song, beginning a game of musical instruments (which here is a play on musical chairs, not just describing what instruments are for) that truly showcases the musical talent and ability of this band. It’s hard to believe that they’ve only been together for four years, but something must have clicked and never stopped. Their third song is “That’s Where I Lay Down,” from their new album When You Leave Town. Their bluegrass country tunes are infectious. One particular line of lyrics catches our attention: “You never know you’re leaving until you’re looking back at what you left… I don’t know if love comes and goes or if its rock steady and it’s me who roams.” They also play “Brookemere,” after a British Columbian town of the same name. Fun song about rambling, which we suspect is called “Didn’t He Ramble.” They also play an instrumental number called “Jethro’s Chocolates,” written by Ben Rogalsky (second on the left in the above photo). Then they play “Buy Me A Ticket.” There is also a toe-tapping tune about “get up early on a Sunday, got a meeting with the Lord,” a pseudo-gospel number that is quite catchy. Their best performance is their hip-hop/rap parody about going out to a club and getting drunk, and is quite possibly the funniest thing we heard all weekend (save for Geoff Berner’s “The Dead Children Were Worth It”). This upbeat and hilarious ending to a remarkable set is met with a standing ovation that is completely deserved.
Perhaps the best treat on Sunday is the “Wade in the Water” workshop, which is hosted by Basia Bulat, and includes Dan Mangan, three members of the Great Lake Swimmers, Steven Page, and Shari Ulrich (whom we had a taste of early Saturday afternoon). Basia Bulat kicks off the workshop with “I Was A Daughter,” and she is accompanied by her partner in crime Allison “Wonderland” Stewart on viola. Great Lake Swimmers play Lauren’s favourite song, “Various Stages,” which is about manic depression (not wading in water). Tony Dekker plays the acoustic guitar and the harmonica, and Basia sings the harmony. Shari Ulrich, with her daughter Julia Graff on violin, play “Why Can’t We Get Along?” and encourages everyone on the stage to jam with her. Dan Mangan then plays his most upbeat song, “Sold,” which is a commentary on modern consumer culture. Steven Page’s turn begins with him admitting his trepidation over the title of the workshop, explaining that “it would probably have something to do with water and spirituality, but I am afraid of water and don’t have a spirit.” Now that the artists have comfortably strayed from those subjects, he decides to play a song that he barely remembers (a choice that does require a certain amount of faith in God), called “Clifton Springs.” He promises, “if I get it right, I will baptize myself in the water.” He manages most of the song, but “I wish I could remember the last verse, because it’s the one that really packs a punch. Where you think, Ah, that sounds like my life, but just a little bit different. When the album comes out,” he promises, “you’ll hear the last verse and go, Yessssss!”
For the second round, Basia plays “I Don’t Mind If It Rains.” Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers tells us that they don’t even have songs that aren’t about water, so it’s a safe bet that they can play anything they like. He chooses “Your Rocky Spine” and the crowd goes nuts; it’s a popular song. Shari plays her one song about water, and then Dan Mangan plays “The Indie Queens Are Waiting.” Steven Page sings his one song about the water, and then it’s off to the third round with Basia Bulat singing an Odetta tune, “Deep Blue Sea.” Everyone starts singing along, and Dan Mangan joins in with a wood block! He has great rhythm. Great Lake Swimmers play a call and response song, “God’s gonna trouble the waters,” but the real treat is the grand finale. The entire panel closes with “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” a Canadian classic from the National Film Board animated short. It was such a great vibe!
Later in the afternoon, the crowds gather at stage five for Dan Mangan. It is his first time performing at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and shouldn’t be his last; Dan (the) Mangan is gold. This time he is joined on stage by his band, and they perform many songs from his new album Nice, Nice, Very Nice, which will be released in Canada on August 11th. They open with “Road Regrets,” a good tempo song. Then they play “Sold,” then the band clears the stage. Dan sings “The Indie Queens Are Waiting” as a duet with Veda Hille, who also accompanies him on keys. His next song is “Journal of a Narcoleptic,” which he wrote because he sleeps non-stop. Dan claims to have fallen asleep at a Pearl Jam concert, and one listeners shouts out, “That’s not right.”
Dan Mangan’s ability to engage the crowd with his polished and perfected stage demeanour is largely due to his talking between songs. He wrote “Tina’s Glorious Comeback” (which can be found on the new album) because of the old wooden bus stops in Vancouver that have now been replaced by metal ones. “Fair Verona” is loosely tied to, and roughly based on, Romeo & Juliet. This is a long story, he claims, so Backstage Vancouver will be digging deeper in an interview. “Some People” is based on certain customers he has encountered in his years in the restaurant business, wondering if they behave the same way when they go home, and if they would treat him differently if he wasn’t wearing the uniform. Next up is “So Much For Everyone,” and his final song is “Robots.” Dan unplugs his guitar and circulates through the crowd for the sing-along ending of the song, and his grin has not left his face for his entire set! Encores are not very common during festivals; acts need to be on and off the stage promptly to keep the flow of the show going. Dan managed to charm the crowd so much that the stage manager appeared on stage and encouraged the crowd to yelp and yell for an encore. Dan is so wonderfully amazing in person and on stage, and plays “Basket,” for his encore. This particular song was written for his Grandpa, about the rather terrifying but inevitable reality of losing your memories, the thoughts that make you who you are. The band comes back onto the stage for one last song, “You Silly Git,” a title based on a line from Monty Python.
Dan Mangan will be celebrating the release of his album at the East Vancouver Cultural Centre on August 28th and 29th, and tickets go on sale on August 1st.
Rock Plaza Central open with “I Am An Excellent Steel Horse” from their previous album Are We Not Horses. Then they play “Oh I Can” from their latest album, …At The Moment Of Our Most Needing. And then we realize that they’re on to something. Their music is hopeful and uplifting. They boast great instrument variety, and good vocals (all five of them sing). Front man Chris Eaton tells us that they hosted a workshop on Saturday with Great Lake Swimmers and The Breakmen and called it Banjo Wars 2009. At the workshop, he was asked what kind of banjo he played, but he couldn’t remember what the two types were called, so he said he played spazz banjo. Later in the set, the trumpet player uses his cell phone to take a video of the crowd saying “Hi” to his mother. Not all of their songs are uplifting; in fact, the music from their third-last album The World Was Hell To Us is dramatic, end-of-the-world music. They also play “Our Hearts Will Not Rust,” which is part of the story of Are We Not Horses. It is a love song between a robot horse and an angel, and the epic tale of the album must be appreciated in context. “Holy Rider” is a short, meaning-packed song featuring the lyrics, “I don’t want to fight anymore, I just want to find my way home to you.” Another song features a haunting warning: “Don’t you believe the words of handsome men.” They sound like a soundtrack of an epic film, something as dramatic as Kill Bill. Their encore is “My Children, Be Joyful,” and the whole concept of Rock Plaza Central is captivating. The trumpet and violin duets are great, as are their five-part harmonies. We can’t wait to learn more about this intriguing band.
The headliner of Stage Five is Great Lake Swimmers. Their second song is “Let’s Trade Skins,” and they also play Lauren’s favourite: “Various Stages.” For their most popular song, “Your Rocky Spine,” they are joined by Basia Bulat. Several songs also feature Basia’s band mate Allison “Wonderland” Stewart on the violin. Tony Dekker plays the harmonica and acoustic guitar, which makes our knees weak. His vocals have an ethereal quality to them and the added harmonies and layered instruments further create a wonderful listening experience. As the sun is setting, Great Lake Swimmers seem to be the perfect soundtrack; as dusk fell, Tony’s melancholic voice put us in a lovely trance, making us wish the weekend could go on for a little while longer.
What a beautiful weekend full of fantastic music, great summertime weather and gentle Folk Fest attendees that are just as passionate about music as we are. Thank you to everyone involved for continually putting on this incredible event. Next year, if you’re going to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”