I know it’s rained at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. I’ve stood in the mud many times, worrying what I would do when my last dry layer was soaked. I know, too, that at least twice rainy weekends have almost drowned the Festival in debt. Yet somehow in my mind, when I think of the Festival, the sun is always shining.
But to be exact, I need to expand the image. In my mind, it is early afternoon. A mild breeze is coming off the water. It makes Jericho Park, the home of the Festival for most of the last thirty-five years, looks deeply green, and makes the temperature in the shade several degrees Celsius cooler than in the sun. The young crows are picking at the garbage, so surprised by their luck that they forget to be afraid of humans. Everywhere you look, blankets and elaborate fortifications of chairs, tents, and banners are spread in front of the main stage, reserving spaces for the evening concert.
Overhead are a few wisps of cloud, just enough to keep the worst of the heat away for most of the days. But as the day continues, an increasing number of the crowd are opting for the three stages in the shade, where the risk of sunstroke is lower.
From wherever you are, you can tilt your head in a different direction and catch the strains of whatever is playing at another stage – sometimes, two or three. Very occasionally, you can hear applause or a roar of approval, but not often. The problem isn’t the quality of the musicians, which varies wildly, but has included dozens of superb acts over the year. The problem is that, after the first set or two, most of the crowd are too drowsy in the sun to get excited by anything except the very best.
And everywhere, there are people – people sitting cross-legged on the grass, or stretched out staring up at the sky, people dancing to one side of the stage, and people trudging in long lines along the increasingly dusty footpaths to the next stage, or to grab something to eat in the food corner.
Mostly, the crowd is couples and of European descent, but there are always families and cliques of teenagers, and a scattering of other ethnics as well. Recently, women and men in their late sixties and seventies have also started to become more common — some of them with enough tattoos to forever put to rest the idea that people will regret their tattoos when they’re young. A few of every age are in scooters and wheelchairs – including ex-Vancouver city council radical Tim Louis – because both the site and the Festival are more accessible than almost any other event that claims to be. And weaving through this crowd are volunteers, driving performers and drum sets and bass fiddles to distant stages, or picking up garbage or selling raffle tickets (the ticket sellers, by tradition, in costumes).
Most of the crowd, though, are in T-shirts and shorts, or tank tops and halters and long cotton skirts. A few are in bathing suits (and looking increasingly red and pained as the day continues), and women in elaborate and expensive fantasies of what they imagine the counter-culture must have been – fantasies that seem to owe more than a bit to ElfQuest. Some wear costumes. A few women go bare-breasted, believing themselves in a safe place, and a few men who want to show off the results of their weightlifting do so as well. However, far more have hats, either carried with them or improvised from programs or whatever else is at hand. Many have bare feet, despite the warnings in the program that shoes are advisable.
Or so the gestalt image appears in my mind. In reality, I know that that the Festival is not always The Peaceable Kingdom that its organizers sometimes like to pretend. In the early days, drugs were often obvious (and spot the narc one of the informal games that everyone played). More recently, the addition of a beer garden has created an increased need for security (or so I’m told). There are complaints, too, about the high prices charged for tickets and food, the selection of acts, and just about any other aspect of the Festival that you might name.
But I’m talking about my imagination, and not trying to give a balanced assessment. In my mind’s eye, at the Festival my brain is always slightly sodden with the heat, and the rest of me mildly dehydrated and seeking more fluids. The next day, or maybe the day after, I will be back at work, but that time seems centuries away. For the coming hours, I am relaxed and doing nothing but listening in a way that I rarely manage at any other time, even when on holiday.
Last year, I didn’t feel that way. As I said, it was raining. More importantly, the trip was a pilgrimage in which I remembered being there with my deceased partner. “It’s the nearest thing we have to religion,” she used to say, and, it’s true: although we missed the first two, and one for a vacation and one for a wedding, the years in which we missed the Festival altogether were rare.
But this year, I went alone, not expecting to do more than strike up a few casual conversations, and the magic was back. This year, it was the Festival of my dreams once again, and I know that next year I will be back and it will be a blazing hot summer day.
After all, isn’t it always?