This past weekend was the 39th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival, with dozens of bands from all around the world converging on Jericho Beach Park.
I wasn't able to catch as much of the festival as past years, but what I did see was good.
Friday night I caught the tail end of the main stage, starting with Portland's own M. Ward. He may be known as half of She & Him and a quarter of Monsters of Folk, but before either of those was a very accomplished artist, and he showed off on the big stage.
With the sun setting behind the crowd, Ward played some compelling folk rock, showing off his guitar skills with "Time Won't Wait". He played songs new and old, from "Magic Trick" to "Girl From Conejo Valley" before joking that since it was a folk fest, he was going to play some folk music, while the band took a break and he ripped out an amazing instrumental song on acoustic guitar.
Ward also pulled out a few covers, from Paul McCartney and Buddy Holly, before ending with a couple intense songs, "Never Had Nobody Like You" and "Rollercoaster". Though, the actual end of the set was a little awkward, as Ward thought he had time for one more, but was waved off by festival staff (I think the stage was running a little late). So he just shrugged, said "bye" and walked right off stage, leaving his bewildered band to follow.
Between each act on the main stage there are quick "tweener" sets while the techs get ready for the next band, and up after M. Ward was Lisa LeBlanc. I've seen a few tweeners loose a crowd's attention, but Lisa had everyone hanging on, with some fun songs and shredding banjo, wrapping up with a fantastic cover of Motörhead's "Ace of Spades". Seriously.
And finally, wrapping up the first night was hometown heroes, The New Pornographers. It was their first time playing folk fest -- "probably because we're... not a folk band" AC Newman joked -- and put on a fun set, despite a few setbacks. The lack of Dan Bejar and Neko Case hurt a little, but also I think there were a few technical problems plaguing the set, and the sound wasn't all that great.
But aside from that, the group gave an energetic performance of songs that spanned their six albums, from the title track of their first album Mass Romantic to the title track of their latest, Brill Bruisers, and everything in between. Highlights included "Testament to Youth In Verse" with it's singalong NOs at the end, and the gorgeous and heartbreaking "Adventures in Solitude" with Kathryn Calder's voice soaring through the night -- and Newman half-jokingly-but-actually-seriously asking the crowd to cut the clapping, which was understandable as it was... let's just say not quite the right beat for the ballad.
They wrapped up the night with one of my all-time favourites, "The Bleeding Heart Show" as it built to a grandiose climax, just about the perfect ending to the first night.
Unfortunately, I missed the whole day Saturday, and Sunday went off to a rough start; getting there mid-day hoping to see a little bit of Sarah Jane Scouten, but the schedule I had off their website was apparently wrong, and she was not on stage... however it was CR Avery playing instead, so it wasn't a total wash, as I caught a little bit of his beat boxing slam poetry.
From there it was over to catch Les Hay Babies, but the stage seemed to be running late or there were technical problems, because 15 minutes after the start time they still weren't going, so I wandered off to catch a workshop...
Which ended up being my only workshop of the weekend, but a damn good one: Land of Talk, The Weather Station, and Cian Nugent. Called Temperature Rising, it featured my favourite thing about these workshops, and that's the collaboration between bands. Liz Powell of Land of Talk was up first, and actively encouraged the rest to join in, which they did. And Liz certainly reciprocated on their songs. Powell played some Land of Talk favourites like "Quarry Hymn" and "Some Are Lakes", bringing out her bandmates to join in. I wasn't familiar with Cian Nugent, but they had an alt-country vibe (more on them later) and the lovely voice of Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station drifted through the trees. Definitely one of the better workshops I have seen in the few years I've been to the festival.
I wish I had been able to catch more of the workshop, but I had to run back to Stage 5 for a full show from Lisa LeBlanc. She was someone I didn't know a whole lot about before the weekend, maybe hearing a song or two on the radio, but after her tweener Friday night I knew I had to see her full set. And it did not disappoint.
The Acadian singer song started with her softly strumming the banjo and whistling (excellently, like, Andrew Bird levels of whistling) in what you would expect from a folk fest act with a banjo... before turning that expectation on its head, exploding and rocking out. Her songs were a mix of French and English (she joked that it was going to be a "Franglais" set) with Lisa and her band brough the energy of the crowd up.
Part way through the set the band took a break and she played a softer song about a long distance relationship between Vancouver and Moncton, aka the worst decision she ever made, before the band came back for the tropical-tinged and humourous "Dump the Guy ASAP".
The set ended with a bang, a great one-two of "You Look Like Trouble (But I Guess I Do Too)" and, once again, the same cover she played Friday night, "Ace of Spades" this time with a full band slaying. I'm willing to bet she's the first person to be covering Motörhead at the Folk Fest.
Between her tweener Friday and the full set, LeBlanc definitely made a new fan, and I highly doubt I'm the only one.
After her, on the same stage was Cian Nugent. I liked him enough during the workshop (and there wasn't much else going on in that particular time slot) so I decided to catch their full set.
Much like their workshop, I felt strong Wilco influences in their songs, a bit of an alt-country bent to them. The Irish trio played a fine set and, ironically enough since they reminded me of Sky Blue Sky era, they were kind of a perfect soundtrack as the clouds rolled in and the rain started. The brought their set to an end with a long and winding song which I really liked, but didn't catch the name of.
[note from Jess] Meanwhile, I popped over to see New York's San Fermin who were one of my biggest draws to the festival this year. They've been well played on the radio in Canada, their main attractions are a big brass section, a sprawling band in general, and the yin-yang voices of Charlene Kaye's soft, sweet vocals and the low, rich voice of Allen Tate. Kaye went off on her own doing vocal runs that made the crowd freak out, and nailed every note along the way. The majority of their set came from their second album Jackrabbit, an they played their single "Emily" very early in the set.
They also used their timeslot to experiment with some new tunes, tantalizing fans for a forthcoming record in the making. The new tunes made the feeling extra special, and since the whole set was just on the verge of a potential thunderstorm forecast for that evening, the mix of wild weather and new musical combinations had the hair standing up on everyone's arms. At the end of the set, Kaye jumped into the audience to dance with the first few rows in the crowd that had all gotten up (at her request) and it really looked like a meaningful connection through the music and the movement.
Little Scream was up next, as Laurel Sprengelmeyer and her band were just wrapping up a whirlwind tour of Europe. The set started off calm and relaxed, as it slowly built in energy; I always like when a band has a "flow" to their set, and they had a really nice pacing, building to their current single, the bouncy "Love as a Weapon".
Laurel didn't say much during the set, thanking everyone near the end and then asking what time it was. You'd think she was asking how much time she had left, but she quickly proclaimed "Wrong! It's romance time." before going into "The Kissing" which may have my new favourite opening line in a song, “Every disaster has a beautiful start”.
From there, it was a tough choice: stay to see a full set from Land of Talk, or head over to see The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer close out Stage 3. Having seen a bit of Land of Talk in the workshop, I chose the latter, heading over to see Shawn "The Harpoonist" Hall and Matt "The Axe Murderer" Rogers backed by the powerful pipes of Dawn Pemberton and Andrina Turenne (who I literally while writing this realised is part of Chic Gamine).
As usual, the duo put on a badass blues rock show, with songs like "Cry" and "Mama's In The Backseat", and I believe they even mixed in a few newer songs, as well.
Throughout the set were pieces of "Pulling Punches", interludes to show of the amazing and soul-shaking voices of both Dawn and Andrina, even leaving their bandmates in shock at times (when Dawn Pemberton looks at you and lets out an awed "yeah!" you know you've got a great voice).
After the soulful "Sweat This Pain" and the incendiary "Get Out" the show came to an end, but the crowd wasn't having any of it. And either the stage director is a really good actor, or he acquiesced to a legitimate encore, the band coming back for one last song, appropriately enough, "Love Me 'fore Ya Leave Me".
There were still acts on the main stage, and I may have been able to catch the tail end of Land of Talk, but to be honest that was as satisfying an ending that could happen, so I decided to make that my last show of Folk Fest '016.
Next year will be the festival's 40th year, and I can't wait to see who they bring in to celebrate.