The 41st Annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival returned to the shores of Jericho Beach this weekend, with dozens of bands from all around the world, playing three days of workshops and concerts.
Instead of breaking it down by day like I've done previous years, I think I'll split the workshops and sets I only caught bits & pieces of, from the "full concerts" or solo sets.
First, the workshops, which are some of my favourite parts of the weekend. Seeing bands share the stage & occasionally collaborating on the fly is always fun, and more than a few times I've discovered someone new because I was at a workshop to see a different band.
Saturday I arrived just in time for Dirty Windshields, which as you may be able to guess by the name, was Grant Lawrence and friends. Grant introduced the show, which was less "workshop" and more "variety show", and then was out between each of the acts to read stories from his books. Musicians included Dustin Bentall & Kendel Carson, Dawn Pemberton, Little Miss Higgins, and Donovan Woods, and they each played a couple songs, with a focus on the road or travelling. I would have liked to see a little bit of collaboration, or interaction, from the artists, even just everyone out for a song at the end (a Smugglers song, perhaps?) but I also understand that would have been tough to coordinate for a one-off workshop like this, and with so much talent on stage, it was still very enjoyable. Especially when Little Miss Higgins got the crowd to sing along to "Bargain Shop Panties" which was... equal parts awkward and hilarious.
From there, I caught a little bit of Gord Grdina's Haram next, the large band playing kind of a world fusion jazz vibe. Gord went from playing guitar to kneeling at the front of the stage, facing the band, basically conducting everyone. After that I watched some of Small Glories, the duo of Cara Luft and JD Edwards. They were fun storytellers -- in song and with their banter -- with a bit of a country-twang.
After that was a whiskey-soaked workshop featuring Petunia & The Vipers and Little Miss Higgins. Both had an upbeat and rocking vibe, which complimented each other perfectly. They frequently jammed with each other, especially the rhythm section and trumpet, joining in on most of the songs.
The first workshop for me on Sunday was Carole Pope, Skye Wallace, and Wallis Bird. Or, it was supposed to be, but Pope was unable to make it to the festival in the morning. Because of this, Wallace and Wallis ended up trade off a few songs each, going back and forth. Skye played some of her folkier material, armed with her acoustic guitar, but with no less ferocity than normal, as seen in her new song "Swing Batter" about a woman who murdered her abusive husband with an axe.
Wallis confirmed the ‘rumour’ Skye heard about her ripping the strings off her guitar the previous day, and ended up doing the same after her first song before jumping on the piano, and later playing one of my favourites from the workshop, an amazing one called "Deep Reveal", looping just her voice and thumps on the microphone for percussion.
There wasn’t too much musical interaction between the two (just some banter back and forth) until about with 10 minutes left, when they decided to do an impromptu song together, getting some requests from the crowd before settling on "Girls Just Want To Have Fun". I was already a big fan of Skye, and after the workshop I was sure to keep an eye (ear?) out for Wallis Bird in the future.
Following that was a workshop featuring Iskwé, Art Bergmann, Guy Davis, and Just Duets, but unfortunately I wasn’t close enough to the stage, so the quieter/stripped down/acoustic show was drowned out by some a nearby stage’s more bombastic sound. But while I didn’t catch much, but I did manage to hear a great rendition of "Soldier" by Iskwé, where many of the musicians on stage joined in, including some strings, for a beautiful version of the song.
Luckily, Iskwé was playing a workshop later that afternoon, with Quantum Tangle, which I made sure to see as my last thing on Sunday. Iskwé and the duo of Tiffany Ayalik and Grey Gritt mentioned being friends, but rarely having the chance to play or jam together, so both bands were quick to join in with the other, from the very first song where Ayalik provided some throat-singing for Iswke’s "Healers".
The name of the workshop was "Love is Love" which was fitting when Quantum Tangle played their song of the same name (after a brief demonstration on throat singing). Iskwé lead the crowd in a singalong for her song "The Unforgotten", and Quantum Tangle finished everything off with their single "Freeze, Melt, Boil".
It was probably the best and most "workshop-y" of the weekend, with nearly everyone on stage playing for all of the songs throughout, and the perfect way to end off Sunday, and the entire weekend.
But of course, the weekend wasn’t all workshops. When it came to full concert sets, there were three people I most wanted to see: Neko Case, Iskwé, and Skye Wallace. I was fortunate enough that the timing worked out and was able to see all three, each on a different day.
Neko Case headlined the main stage on Friday night, hitting the stage on a windy night with the sun just dipping behind the mountains (at one point Case joked she forgot to start singing because of the view from the stage).
She focused mostly on the new album, Hell-On, starting with the soft opening to "Pitch and Honey" before it burst forth with energy, as she went through songs like the fierce "Bad Luck", the anthemic "Winnie", and perhaps my favourite from the new album, the heartbreaking "Halls of Sarah". Her incredible voice carried through the park, but I also wouldn't be surprised if it drifted across the Burrard Inlet as well.
Case also dipped back into her back catalogue, with "Hold On, Hold On" and the tempestuous "This Tornado Loves You", finally ending off the show with "Man", going out with a bang on the first night of the festival.
From the shade beside Stage 3 on Saturday, I caught the full set from Iskwé, who I hadn't seen perform live before so was looking forward to it.
The first thing I noticed was not only how animated and confident she was on stage, but how she played to the entire crowd; not just everyone sitting out front, but the people gathering at the sides as well.
Iskwé went through songs from her album The Fight Within, influenced by her Cree and Métis background, many of serious nature -- the powerful "Nobody Knows" about missing and murdered Indigenous women and "Safe" about the #MeToo movement, featuring just her & her guitarist. But even with the subject matter, the set never felt dour, thanks to the electro-pop vibe of the songs, and also her lighter demeanor while chatting between each.
After a fun cover of "You Oughta Know", she ended the set with "The Unforgotten", which featured a call-and-response in Ojibwe (I think) that she taught the crowd, meant to call in the spirits to come sing with us, and was given a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the set.
I knew nothing else happening Saturday was going to top that, so that’s where I left for the day.
And finally, in the middle of the day on Sunday, in the least shady stage beneath the death sun, Skye Wallace played her own solo set. Joined by a full band this time, her set was more high energy than the workshop a couple hours earlier, playing some favourites, but also spotlighting some new songs from her upcoming album, which I am very much looking forward to if the songs were any indication; she seems to have turned the ‘rock’ and maybe even ‘punk’ dials up a little for the new stuff.
Familiar favourites included dark and haunting songs like "Rumbling Soul" and "Dead Things Part 2", her voice soaring for "Klondike", and the more raucous "Scarlet Fever" and "Blood Moon", an excellent one-two punch to finish off the set.
Skye told the story of her and her mother coming to the folk fest years earlier, leaving her very first EP around under trees -- "planting seeds" as her mom said -- so was very grateful to be finally playing the festival herself (with her mother in the audience, no less!).
All in all, it was another fun folk fest weekend (even if I did get a little crispy in the sun) and already looking forward to see who they bring in next year.