Archive for July 15th, 2007

So here I am at home, propped up in a pool of my own indolence, my skin alive with the ultra-violet of a day outside and blissed out from ten hours of hearing some of my favorite music live. This weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver Folk Festival, one of the few times in the year that I genuinely relax as opposed to running errands or fulfilling social obligations in my spare time. The folk festival is the nearest thing to religion we have,” a friend once said, and, over the years, I’ve found that true. And, after this weekend, how I’m going to reconcile myself to another week of heavy keyboard pounding is a bit of a puzzlement to me just now.

What makes the folk festival so special in my year? Partly, it’s the timelessness of the event. We live far enough away from Jericho Park, the beach-side venue for the festival, that we usually only get there on the weekend of the festival. The few times we have, the park has seemed ghostly and deserted. We’re used to seeing it full of thousands of people: the straights, the activists, the lesbians, the families, the hippies-for-the-weekend, and all the rest, all dancing and staggering from stage to stage while the ducks collect in the remotest corner of the marsh, quacking nervously at the invasion and the crows and gulls gather, seemingly delirious at the unexpected smorgasbords.

In my mind, Jericho Park is always that way, so that I can barely distinguish one year from another. If I look closely, I notice that the average of attendees is rising (but not mine, naturally). And, if I strain, I can remember a few days when we huddled under umbrellas and wore toques, grimly determined to get our money’s worth even if we froze or caught colds.

Mostly, though, the festival leaves the impression of one continuous long day of sunshine and salt-ridden air and plants. Sometimes, like this year, the sky is full of the billowing clouds that I sometimes think only exist on the ceilings of Renaissance palaces. Other times, the sky is an unbroken stretch of blue glimpsed through the branches of the trees as I lie back in the grass a short distance from a stage, or an oven that seems to flash-bake the grass as we make weary dashes between the too-few scraps of shade, feeling like survivors of a trek across Death Valley.

At times, we’ve frankly chosen a workshop to attend on the basis of whether it was in the shade — and that, too, adds to the feeling of timelessness. Several times each year, I gaze up a stage, half-unsure what year it is. And with the people around me looking the same, and sometimes the same performers on stage, that’s hardly surprising.

Another thing I appreciate about the festival: It’s not Top 40, and you won’t find most of the performers on iTunes, either. You may hear a sarcastic reference to Led Zeppelin in a group’s between-song patter, or hear someone like Billy Bragg explain that he plays the festival “because even hippies deserve to hear good music,” but that’s about as close as you get to mainstream mediocrity at the festival.

Rather, one of the most enduring aspects of the festival is the discovery of new performers. It was at the folk festival that we first saw Stan Rogers, with his brother Garnet playing the fiddle and dancing as the sunset turned the sky red. It was the folk festival where we first heard the sardonic lyrics of Leon Rosselson and learned to appreciate the lyrics of Eric Bogle. We first saw OysterBand inject a bit of hard rock and showmanship at the festival, and heard Ray Wylie Hubbard’s bluesy mix. Some years are better than others, but every year leads to one or two minor discoveries. And if there’s ever an hour when the workshops seem less than intriguing, we can always choose at random to broaden our minds.

From the traddest of the trad to hard driving punk-folk, the entire spectrum of alternative music is available. You might suffer from musical overload, but boredom isn’t a problem.

And, if this is not enough, the festival is one of the few places where you can hear alternate political views taken for granted. Folk music, as the name implies, is about people and their problems. You don’t hear anyone singing about the joys of capitalism or the pleasure of wielding a CEO’s arbitrary tyranny, because these subjects would only seem suitable to those with a lack of empathy or imagination — and such people don’t become artists of any sort. And should you think that sounds humorless, just drop by one of the sessions where Utah Phillips, the emeritus of the festival, is holding forth about riding the rails or talking about old union figures like Joe Hill or British Columbia’s own Ginger Goodwin. If he doesn’t leave you simultaneously rolling on the grass with laughter, angry at what the history books and newspapers leave out and matter-of-factly convinced of the simple righteousness of his opinions — well, give your address so I can send flowers to your funeral. You can only be dead and too busy to have noticed.

None of this is to suggest that the festival is flawless. I could do without running the gauntlet of ticky-tacky hucksters to get to the gate (although they’re no fault of the festival, to be fair). Inside, the food is over-priced, and, at times, the festival staff picks acts more for their activist credentials than for artistry (I prefer to have both, or neither). And, this year, the outdoor atmosphere was marred by the addition of a giant screen to one side of center stage, which was used to run commercials (excuse me, I mean “public service announcements”) between sets at the evening concerts.

Yet, although I grouse about such things, all of them are too petty to actually spoil the festival. Despite such things, the Vancouver Folk Festival rises effortlessly above all misgivings, as much through luck as any planning by the organizers. Perhaps it’s simply big enough that I can avoid most of what I dislike, even, when, like this year, it’s crippled by debt and on a reduced budget.

But, one way or the other, the festival remains a bubble of timelessness that I return to again and again. It does me good — and, perhaps, makes me good, too.

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