The 41st Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Dates and Venue July 13-15, 2018 | Jericho Beach Park, Vancouver

Reviewer Aleana Reynolds

Friday 13 July

Opening night for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (VFMF) couldn’t have been more amazing weather-wise and what better way to start my very first ever VFMF weekend than with the mellow guitar tunes from Texan singer-songwriter James McMurtry. His lyrical story-telling set the perfect Friday-evening-kick-back-with-a-beer scene for many Festival goers relaxing in the sun.

Darlingside opened the Festival proper from the main stage. This Boston-based quartet’s first concert in Van City was whimsical and harmonious with all members of the band sharing the one vocal microphone. There were some initial sound feedback issues, but overall the set, made up of tunes from their latest album Extralife, was well-played and included an uplifting, toe-tapping rendition of The Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”.

Saturday 14 July

I arrived at the Park on a bright morning, and was welcomed with the drum beats of Quantum Tangle playing at an already crowded stage front. I listened to one song inspired by the fight against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, before moving on to the next stage, to catch the end of a performance featuring Irish singer Mick Flannery. True to his style of protest songs, Flannery’s repertoire included an amusing piece inspired in 2017 by media coverage around Kim Jong-un and Kim Kardashian, and contained the lyrics “F*** off world, f**k off politics, I’m going in the woods with a stick”. This went down well with the crowd and received a huge round of applause. Next was a Cajun Dance Party with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. While the party wasn’t quite rocking at this time in the morning, this group from LA belted out some rich Cajun tunes.

I opted for an early lunch as the pull of the food trucks became too strong! There was a lot to choose from, including a large variety of options for fellow vegans. Following VFMF’s environmental stewardship program, many vendors were also serving food on reusable dishware and festival-goers were encouraged to bring their own vessels and fill up with water at the water filling stations as no bottled water is sold on the premises – this was all great to see having witnessed the mountains of waste produced by other Festivals.

I was excited to see Las Estrellas de Vancouver for the fact that they’re an all-female mariachi band – a rarity in the world of Mexican music. Dressed in traditional mariachi costume, the set the band played was tight and well-structured. Extremely talented instrumental accompanied the emotional vocals. If only I could speak Spanish!
My Saturday favourite artist was Wallis Bird. I had a taste of her music during the morning as part of a trio performance and was excited to see her solo set in the afternoon. The Irish singer has roots in pop and electronica which showed in her use of guitar, piano, and live-looping machine during the performance. Her stage presence was awesome - whether it was her accent or her witty banter, the crowd lapped it up. The ballad “Home” was performed acapella and was a touching tribute to her parents. The set also included a soulful rendition of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” with guitar. This composer, arranger, and performer had the crowd on their feet and singing along.

One of the great things about the Festival are the acts that headline three artists in one. This was a great way to sample performances and to see artists jamming together. This was true of the Beyond Borders trio performance that featured Las Estrellas de Vancouver, Son de Madera (Mexico), and A Familia Machado (Brazil), with each group bringing their own taste of Latin American music to the stage. A Familia Machado featured three guitarists with perfect harmony. Son de Madera had a very Gypsy Kings vibe – all that was missing from this act was a flamenco dancer to beat out the percussion. And of course, Las Estrellas performed their unique style of mariachi music. The final jam session felt very much like a big family performance – one group blending with the other and while bringing their unique flavor.

Following the Latin feel, I was lucky enough to catch all three performances from JUNO Award winner Alex Cuba. Always accompanied by a band, his music - a mix of Cuban, pop, and soul - had crowds dancing along - so much that my view of the stage towards the end of each performance was blocked by a sea of swaying bodies!

Manitoba based Iskwé graced the Canadian music stage with an evening performance. Her all-Canadian band on bass, piano, and drums brought an electronic trip hop sound, and were all dressed in black. True to the program, the show, contained songs with powerful lyrics about Canada’s colonial past, including “Nobody Knows” which spoke to the loss of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. One break from this was a version of Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” which had the crowd singing along. The powerful performance ended with a standing ovation.

Sunday 15 July

The Sunday morning trio performance of Ranky Tanky (South Carolina), Dawn Pemberton (BC), and Jayme Stone’s Folklife (ON) felt very much like a celebration of Sunday morning gospel. I was drawn to this performance in the morning from one of the other stages due to the sound and the sheer volume of people heading over to that stage. The final collaboration in the classic gospel song “You Better Mind” was easily the best collab at the Festival that day.

This was followed by an emotional Festival performance. UK born and Edmonton-based singer-songwriter Martin Kerr brought a tear to the eye of many concert-goers with his sweetly-played love tunes. The story of his long-distance relationship with a Canadian girl and his travels around the world were the basis of his set. He even gave a shout out to Ed Sheeran which I’m sure many people drew comparisions to in his look and sound. Kerr’s acoustic rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “The Book of Love” was lovely and ended with an extra verse added especially for his wife.

The Festival was an eye-opener for this first-timer, and my expectations were pleasantly smashed. The combination of great performances, beautiful Jericho Park backdrop, and amazing weather over the weekend has me looking forward to returning next year.

© 2018 Aleana Reynolds