So, Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Dad (who had the physical tickets) got lost trying to find the site Friday afternoon, so we missed the (apparently traditional) Musqueam opening and greetings, which this year were expanded to include a performance by a group of First Nations women including Ferron welcoming the festival community to the place that used to be Ee'yullmough, now Jericho Beach Park. Missed a chunk of the first mainstage act (Mokoomba) too, but got to see (total cutiepies!) Geomungo Factory perform "Freebird" on traditional Korean instruments at one of the evening side stages, so that was pretty cool. Other than that, Friday wasn't too eventful (the festival, anyway; earlier in the day I'd gone walking up West 4th with the intention of wandering the Endowment Lands all afternoon but found somebody's UBC staff ID on the sidewalk so kept going most of the way to the university to return it--ended up giving it to someone in the Endowment Lands office who said she'd call the university lost'n'found and get it back to the owner, before taking EL trails down to the beach to get back to the hostel).

Saturday was an excellent day for social conscience music, from drizzly morning Leonard Sumner solo concert, to "Rabble Rousers" workshop (Grievous Angels, Frank Yamma, David Rovics--who did this fantastic song "I'm a Better Anarchist Than You"--and ex-Saw Doctors Leo Moran and Anthony Thistlethwaite), to Pete Seeger tribute workshop (fun fact: it's VFMF tradition that a bunch of BC unions sponsor a Saturday afternoon workshop on the Utah Phillips Memorial Stage--aka Stage 2--and this was 2014's; huge audience for this one, both for theme and for the fact Joan Baez was supposed to be there--she had to cancel for medical reasons, alas, but we still got Eliza Gilkyson, Alejandro Escovedo, ought-to-be-legendary Josh White Jr, and Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, who I'll return to in a bit), to "CountryFolk" workshop (Sumner, Amanda Anne Platt of The Honeycutters, Suzie Vinnick, who told an adorable story about her dad turning a sweet cowboy ballad into a rousing shoutalong--"leather!", and Roger Knox with Jon Langford and Jean Cook, who I'll also return to; I got there just in time to hear Langford explain his and Knox's country-folk credentials: "Roger's from New South Wales, I'm from old south Wales, we're both from the south, we play country music"), to "Power in Song" (Polwart, Rovics, Yamma, and Ashleigh Flynn, though I'm obliged to admit that I napped through most of this one), to Knox-with-Langford-and-Cook solo, and right on into mainstage.

Baez's cancellation meant they had to do some shuffling: Noura Mint Seymali got moved to closer, Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys stayed where scheduled, and Karine Polwart got to take the sunset slot. She ended up one of the first artists at the festival to run out of stock at the merch tent, and frankly I'm not surprised: she's a beautiful, wistful voice and a captivating storyteller. One story she told a few times over the weekend to introduce her song "King of Birds" starts with a dedication to the Occupy movement, who had their London basecamp at St. Paul's Cathedral. the story of the king of birds, paraphrased from Polwart's stage banter )

Saturday's also the day I won the argument with my dad that started the night before when he expected me to agree with him that Leonard Sumner's mainstage tweener (which I didn't hear because I was off exploring the site or something) was terrible and that he had no talent, with the specific accusation that Sumner was "all message, no music". I did not agree, and asserted that Dad not liking rap or First Nations music had no bearing on the talent of people who make that. He backed down, grumblingly, and turned to his program, telling me where he planned to be at what time the next day and how much he was looking forward to Grievous Angels. Early Saturday evening we small-talked where we'd been all day; I'd gone to Sumner's concert and we'd both been at "Rabble Rousers", and I was able to press him on the false non-equivalency he'd constructed between Sumner and the Angels regarding their respective message:music ratios until he admitted that the issue was in his subjective taste rather than their objective talent (nothing against the Angels, I liked them a lot, but you can hardly accuse Charlie Angus of being mellifluous). Dad now claims he was referring to the old lineup, with a female vocalist, when he praised the Angels, but he didn't say that and he bought a bunch of David Rovics CDs, so.

The first session I really attended on Sunday (flitted around a bit during the first time block, a song here and two there) continued and condensed Saturday's themes in a really interesting way. Titled "The People, United . . .", it drew together a crew of familiar faces--Grievous Angels, Roger Knox with Jon Langford and Jean Cook, Frank Yamma with David Bridie, and Leonard Sumner--plus Iskwew Singers, who I knew slightly from last year's Edmonton Folk Festival. Every person on that stage was either indigenous (Australian Aborigine or Canadian First Nations) or working as an advocate for indigenous people (or an indigenous person): Bridie and Langford were at this festival mostly as supporting players for Yamma and Knox, respectively, and had only one concert block each for their own material (and how weird-cool is it that are two Aboriginal men, from different parts of Australia, performing different styles of music, but each accompanied by a whitefella using his higher music industry profile to draw attention to their work, playing the Canadian folk festival circuit at the same time?), Angels' frontman Charlie Angus took a break from music to help his neighbours organize roadblocks and is now the NDP MP for the enormous northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay). It was . . . kind of intense, actually. Tense excited energy swirling through patches of (rather large) audience, nurtured by the perfect kind of cloudy sky; collisions of well-meaning white Canadian awkwardness around racial Others and activated activist potential surging. There were jokes (Sumner: "I never really get to play with a full band behind me. Thanks, Grievous Angels." Angus: "Yeah, we're gonna have to charge you for that." Sumner: "Great! Then I'll charge you rent for that land you're living on!") and the laughter was enthusiastic and sour--but hey, good things aren't necessarily comfortable.

Not many other standout events on Sunday--met up with a high school friend, finished the cardigan I'd been re-knitting, heard Jon Langford play some of his own stuff--up until the Mary Lambert thing. Read more... )
That sucked and it made me go sit under a tree in a place with no people for an hour.

As an event the fest was pretty relaxed, overall. Chock full of lesbians, as previously mentioned--queer women and folk festivals go together like ginger and lemon anyway but this one was really owned. Silver-haired Birkenstock womyn who pioneered the Left Coast tofu cabin lifestyle, glitter-covered babydykes fused together in sickening teenage love, two-mama partnerships doting on cross-racially adopted babies, matched sets of waistcoated butch people . . . It was kinda nice, actually, apart from the "do I look gay enough?" stress I always get around capital-L-esbians when my head's not shaved. Mostly white people but by less of a margin, I think, than other festivals, which makes sense for Vancouver--though it's also, fortunately, a trend across the board, that the population of "folk" attending these festivals is opening up the same way "folk" music is, albeit laggingly. At least that's my hopeful perception, comparing festivals I've been to recently with those of my childhood, where the only people of colour I can remember seeing were either on stage or behind a concession counter. I could make other observations comparing particular aspects of this festival to particular aspects of others but I think this post is long enough already.

(to be followed by a hopefully shorter thing about my one-day jaunt to the Calgary Folk Music Festival and a playlist of new-to-me, and some rediscovered-by-me, musics)
After one lovely day in Victoria with my mum visiting some of her favourite places and another having breakfast with [personal profile] staranise before wandering downtown by myself--with a not quite as lovely day in between where Dad and I went to see the UTTERLY ENRAGING Monty Python reunion show and I stomped out at intermission then cooled down by taking a long solo walk along the ocean and hanging out with a deer--I caught the ferry back to Vancouver, slept on high school friend's couch (wearing borrowed clothes, with all my own stuff out on the balcony, because friend's roommate's MCS is scary severe), left very early in the morning and nearly missed my Greyhound because Translink confuses me, rode bus through mountains! all day long, and was collected by Aunt in Canmore and whisked back to her place.

While in Victoria I'd talked Aunt into accompanying me to the Calgary Folk Music Festival for a day ("talked into" is maybe the wrong expression; she was on board even before I got to the magic words "Bruce Cockburn"). The festival had already sold out of Saturday day passes, of course, but I managed to scoop a pair for face value on Kijiji, woot.

We didn't hurry into Calgary Saturday morning, took our time waking up and didn't rush the drive, so we didn't get through the gates until a little after noon (also I hadn't yet noticed that my iPod's clock didn't switch to Mountain! Standard Time when we crossed into Alberta, so I spent chunks of the weekend believing that it was an hour earlier than it was supposed to be, depending on which timekeeping device I happened to check, but this would not become a problem until Monday). Wristbanded and be-programmed, we plonked down at the nearest source of interesting noises, which happened to be Jaron Freeman-Fox, who is a much weirder person than his program blurb suggests. We planned to stroll around sampling sounds after that but ended up sticking the first place we landed because that place was in front of (well, off to the side of) Nick Sherman, with his charm and his face and his ink-covered arms and his beautiful husky-soft voice.

Next stop was "Letter to a Young Songwriter", because Aunt wanted to get as much Bruce as possible, and I stayed there for a bit before wandering off to check out some stuff towards the western end of the park, including more Roger Knox & pals (no, I had not had enough of them yet, thank you for asking). What Knox is doing, with the help of Langford and his multifarious musical connections (see below), is introducing the world to the rich and tragically underknown tradition of Aboriginal country music in Australia via an album of songs, some previously recorded and hard to find, others never recorded at all, all by Aborigine writers, performed by himself and a mob of talented and established artists in northern hemisphere alt-country and adjacent genres. The story, in a nutshell, is that classic country & western music snuck into Australia via white American servicemen after WWII and, like rabbits and cane toads, made itself at home. Unlike rabbits and cane toads, this introduction was embraced, especially by Aboriginal people, because it's music evolved for big skies, dust storms, camp fires, cattle drives, and telling sad, sad stories--of which the Aboriginal songwriters had plenty to tell. Knox, "the Koori King of Country", was a big deal in this tiny vibrant scene in the 80s, and AFAIC deserves to be a big deal all over the place.

Aunt and I were supposed to meet up again at "Hard Truths and Summer Breezes" but by the time I got there the set was over and the crowd dispersing, so I tried "The People's Mic" (full of folks I'd heard in Vancouver and praised in talking up the festival) and found Aunt there only once the audience started thinning towards the end of the session. The reason it took so long to reach Stage 3, and to get from there to Stage 2, is that the site layout was TERRIBLE. maps and complaints )

I understand that the organizers are limited by the island's size and permanent features, there are only so many configurations they can actually use, but come on. I cannot be the only person to get bounced from volunteer crew to volunteer crew looking for somebody to complain to. (Also, this isn't the organizers' fault but it really pissed me off: somebody hotboxed one of the portaloos that I tried to use right before I tried to use it and, like, what the fuck?!?!? First of all, I hate you. Second, WHY??? Third, I hope you catch many gruesome parasites, you gross, rude jerk. Yech.)

I'm not entirely certain what happened during the first part of the evening? I know Aunt and I were on our blanket in the wee triangular space we claimed at mainstage for part of The Lone Bellow, and then we must have gone to Stage 4 because I remember eating curry there and moving closer to the stage during the changeover before Waco Brothers, but I don't remember listening to Typhoon? I must have been absorbed in my knitting--oh! It was during this block that I went back to Stage 2 to look for the cable needle I'd lost that afternoon. I found it, and a bonus quarter.

Waco Brothers (here joined by or now including Jean Cook and her violin), ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh so good. I danced my legs off and yelled my lungs out and it was awesome. I am amazed and embarrassed that I didn't know about Jon Langford before this summer--like, I was distantly aware of Waco Brothers but couldn't have told you anything about them, and Langford himself I'd never heard of, and it's amazing because the guy is everywhere. He's in I'm-not-even-sure-how-many active bands (Mekons, who've been going since he helped found them in 1977, Waco Brothers, kids' band Wee Hairy Beasties, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts if you consider them a band rather than an event . . .) and plays solo with and without Skull Orchard, is one of the major moving parts in the engine of the alt-country label, Bloodshot Records, and a hero in the Chicago music scene, hosts a radio program, has both inspired and been involved in multiple theatre projects, collaborates with anybody who'll hold still enough long enough, and on top of all that he's a visual artist with a stack of exhibitions, books, a comic strip, and a line of beer labels to his name. It's terrifying how productive he is, especially when you see him in person: this shortish, balding, white-haired Welsh guy three months older than my mother leaping around on stage with more fierce energy than I have ever had or will have. I'm not entirely sure he's human. As a band Waco Brothers are a forceful reminder that the thing we now call alt-country didn't come out of popular country at all--it mostly came out of punk. The bands that kicked it all off in the 80s--Mekons, The Blasters, The Knitters, Rank & File, and everybody else in this rabbit hole I am happily falling down--did it by mixing classic country sounds into punk spirit and punk politics (which might have something to do with how people like Langford, Sally Timms, Dave Alvin, and Alejandro Escovedo are still doing the amazing stuff they do, and why they seem like such genuinely good people); at the time people even called it cowpunk. I expected them to bring out Roger Knox for a song at some point, like Langford had done during what was supposed to be his solo show in Vancouver, but they didn't; they brought Frank Yamma, who led the crowd through this down-in-it call-and-answer blues number, screaming "hey crazy mama" until our throats were raw. This show just did not let up--there were protest songs and union songs and love songs and hate songs and covers pulled from half a dozen genres, and at the end of the set Langford jumped off the stage and ran around in the audience and it was fucking glorious.

After that came the hotboxed portaloo incident, and rage, and looking for somebody to complain about the layout to, and after that came Bruce Cockburn, and that made everything so much better. It was magic. I don't even know what else to say about it, really. I knew the words to almost every song he played, all the singles and a couple of the obscure ones, and they're really good words. That's his biggest strength, from my perspective: good singer, amazing guitarist, bloody devastating poet. Cockburn's another of these folks who doesn't look like a life-changing music god, too--he can turn on that power presence, you see it in some of the photos and hear it sometimes in his voice and then you (I) get the spine-shivers, but most of the time he's just another white-haired white guy, bespectacled subtype. Even on stage, alone, in a leather duster coat with an emerald green guitar, he seems so mild, until you listen. Aunt suggests that the innocuous is a survival tactic, on a career level if not an actual mortality one, like the opposite of a scarlet kingsnake, to persuade TPTB to let him keep performing, which, when you record songs declaring your desire to convert Guatemalan dictators into pulpy splatter . . .

We didn't stay long into Seun Kuti's set, had to get going before things got too sleepy for safe driving on mountain! roads, but yeah. That was my day at the Calgary Folk Festival: excellent musical programming, excellent company (which the festival cannot take credit for), abysmal site layout, and another imaginary stamp on my folk festival passport.
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