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Folk Festival delivers usual diversity to low turnout

Dulsori at the 2014 Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Dulsori at the 2014 Vancouver Folk Music Festival July 20. John Endo Greenaway photo.

Recap and photos – 2014 Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Sunday July 20

– recap by Shawn Conner/photos by Robyn Hanson (except otherwise noted)

There were no attendance records set Sunday, the final day of this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival. By the looks of the grounds mid-afternoon, people were staying away in droves, either because of the grim-looking cloud cover or because a lot of potential customers had made the trek north for the Pemberton Music Festival. More likely it was the former reason – too bad, because the rain never came and the lineup was characteristically diverse, entertaining and surprising.

We arrived 2-ish, just in time to catch the second half of a set by Mokoomba, a Zimbabwean band whose Afro-fusion was definitely sunnier than the skies. They were joined onstage by Manitoba poet/songwriter Leonard Sumner (Mary Lambert, a scheduled Sunday headliner, was also supposed to appear on the stage). Parking ourselves in the beer garden for the remainder of the set, we reflected on the yet-to-appear-but-rumoured-to-be-coming update to provincial liquor laws that would let us drink beer somewhere other than a beer garden. Such reflections were further fueled by Jon Langford‘s whiskey-soaked vocals and violinist Jean Cook‘s sweet accompaniment on songs from the Mekons frontman’s new solo album, Here Be Monsters. The duo was joined for a song by aboriginal folk singer Roger Knox.

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Jon Lanford, Roger Knox and Jean Cook at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival July 20 2014. Robyn Hanson photo.

Oh My Darling was wrapping up their set by the time we reached Stage 3 in the eastern edge of the park. The Winnipeg quartet was in upbeat bluegrass-y mode, harmonizing beautifully on originals like “Take Me to the River” and encouraging the audience to do some foot-stomping and hand-clapping to a song I believe is called “Don’t You Rock ‘Em Daddy-O” (that may have originally been recorded by Lonnie Donegan).

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On Stage 5, Vancouver band Pacifika enthralled a sizeable audience with their pop-friendly tropicalia. Backed by a five-piece band, singer Silvana Kane provided some much-needed sensuality to the festival with some sexy dancing and vocals, particularly when she sang in Portuguese. (Pacifika plays a CBC Musical Nooner 12 p.m. Wednesday July 30 at the Outdoor Plaza at the CBC Vancouver Broadcast Centre.)

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While the big news at Pemberton was the so-called “mysterious” death of a festival-goer (a press release issued by the New Orleans-based promoter simply stated “… we remain saddened by the loss of Nick Phongsavath, and our heartfelt condolences continue to go out to his loved ones”), the most buzz at the folk festival was generated by the last-minute cancellation the night before of Joan Baez‘s Saturday night closing set (other folk festival acts stepped in to fill the gap that opened up following Alejandro Escovedo‘s set, which was capped by a barn-burning version of Neil Young‘s “Like a Hurricane” – or so I heard). The 73-year-old Baez’s reason for the no-show? Laryngitis. 

Though the Sunday lineup was mostly, as mentioned, solid, I had to question the decision to give Mary Lambert a headlining slot. The Seattle singer has had a good year, singing on a hit pop-rap tune (“Same Love”) by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and performing with the duo on the Grammys. But her set was full of stops and starts and between-song humble-bragging, about that Grammys performance and also appearing on the cover of that week’s Georgia Straight. In what one might generously call a delightfully perverse move, her set also included a cover of “Teenage Dirtbag”. No doubt it’s a track that goes over gangbusters with her regular audience, but I have a feeling that the 2000 alternative-rock song by the band Wheatus flew over (deservedly so) the greying heads of the folk-fest audience.

More deserving of the mainstage slot, if only because of the size of his band (14-strong), was Nigerian favourite son Seun Kuti. The original songs from the offspring of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti aren’t anything to write the diaspora about, but Egypt 80 – his band, handed down from his father – is, and they transformed the singer’s ideas into grooves that almost justified the songs’ seven- and eight-minute lengths.

Our final act (though still early in the evening) was Dulsori. The Korean band follows a drumming tradition from its native country, but the ensemble also boasted a charismatic frontwoman/vocalist. The energy and sheer joy of the performance were high points for this festival attendee, and the kind of surprise that always makes going to the folk fest – even on a cloudy day – a chance worth taking. (Dulsori also plays the Mission Folk Music Festival this weekend.)

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