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Letter from Vancouver: Bologna, Paris, eat your hearts out

July 20th, 2009 · 23 Comments

My first full week back in Vancouver and I am of course overwhelmed with how beautiful and lively the city is, filled with festivals and outdoor movie screenings and people walking around and sunshine and it seems, today, like the perfect perfect city.

This will pass, but it was an especially lovely weekend and the Vancouver Folk Festival, which I’m a two-and-a-half decade devotee of, crowned it. I have to admit that a teeming Italian plaza, while nice, doesn’t quite match listening to music that transports you (my weekend favourites: the Great Lake Swimmers, hypnotically mind-altering) in a place where you can see the mountains, the sea, the downtown towers glittering in the sunlight while you lie on the warm grass and let the sound wash over you.

The festival always brings such quirky moments, too, that make you glad to be alive so you can people-watch. There’s nothing quite like watching a whole crowd of secular atheists, every Sunday morning of the festival, standing up and singing songs like (at this one): “Thank you, Jesus, how sweet it is to be loved by you.”

This festival also had its first beer garden (all went exceptionally well, I heard, except for a very few customers who had to be turned back when staff thought they’d had enough), which also brought out its first police patrol. So four officers every evening got to wade their way through the crowd of dancing people. There they were in full blue uniform, making their way around the gray-haired guys in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts, the girls in their swimsuit and sarong outfits, the baby strollers, the rasta-haired and all the rest.

I heard from a friend that he asked one of them if he didn’t feel overwhelmed. The answer from the burliest one patrolling the crowd: You can’t feel overwhelmed when you’re with your people, man. I also heard they were mentally designing new uniforms for themselves for next year’s festival, but something more in keeping with the crowd — maybe a nice tie-dyed number.

The festival’s three nights were preceded, for me, by a strange and memorable night of performance art — or something — Thursday, where the local small collective of Vancouver writers had organized a little get-together in a parking lot on industrial land near the train tracks.

So there was a collection of us, drinking beer and wine and roasting marshmallows over the fire amid the chain-link fences and trucks and view of downtown Vancouver over the treetops, while poetry was read aloud on the stage constructed for the evening and there was a reading of a Brecht play that at one point entailed one of the character’s pulling down his pants to moon the audience. And then there was whack-a-mole. All delightfully weird.

It’s not so bad here.

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  • The Folk Fest this year was great. An amazing lineup of bands.

    Dan Mangan, Great Lake Swimmers, Basia Bulat, Mark Berube, Paperboys, Weakerthans, Geoff Berner, and Shari Ulrich were my favourites – but everyone was fun to listen to.

  • Eric

    When I got off the plane from Paris I noticed how green and lush the Vancouver is compared to Paris. It’s a truly beautiful city.

  • I too was at the Folk Festival, but couldn’t help but wonder where all these interesting merchants go when they are not at the festival. Do we have regular weekly markets where they can show their wares? If not, why not?

    ps. In case you didn’t see her, Heather Deal looked fabulous in her tu-tu!

  • Frances we had very similar weekends. The Great Lake Swimmers are the first band in years I can say I really love.

    Overall, I’ve often felt that the best part about leaving Vancouver is the feeling you get when you come back. Even a little bit of travel lets one forget just how good the air feels, and how livable the city is despite little annoyances and the slow-motion bludgeoning of pre-games development.

    Thanks for this post, it made my day.

  • EastVancouverite

    I saw the free outdoor screening of Ghostbusters on Sunday night in David Lam Park.

    So much fun!

    The BIA organized the event and asked everyone in a very wholesome, neighbourly way to clean up after ourselves so that the Park Board does not incur any expense. Sure enough, the place was spotless when the last of us filed out.

  • Frances Bula


    I can’t believe I didn’t see you there!! I saw everyone else — Heather in her tutu, Gregor in shorts, Geoff Plant in shorts, David Cadman, Tim Louis, Joost Bakker, Mike Magee, Bob Penner, Peter Ladner, various city staffers, some retired, some not.

  • I wasn’t at the Folk Fest, but did make the parking lot soiree mentioned later in the piece. Interesting side note, a couple of the guys who watch over it said writers don’t litter like musicians!

  • Frothingham

    I have been to the Folk Fest. Don’t know why… But I have ridden by it every Sunday morning during the event. This year it seemed quieter than past years in terms of people. But glad to hear all went well even with the beer garden. vancouverites are growing up.

  • gmgw

    I’ve attended every Folk Festival since old number one , in Stanley Park back in August of ’78. As the saying goes, I’ve seen a lot of changes (and have had my musical awareness expanded by near-infinite proportions). For many years I was a volunteer and general hanger-on, and I still maintain a (by now somewhat tenuous) connection to the organization. This has been an especially challenging year for the Festival, with a new Artistic Director/General Manager (Linda Tanaka), taking full control after 11 years with Dugg Simpson in the role. For the record, I think Linda– who acquired a wealth of valuable experience during her many years heading up the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues festival– did a terriffic job under frequently trying circumstances.

    The proposal for a beer garden outraged and horrified many Festival old-timers (on the Festival’s Facebook page, someone half-seriously suggested a “marijuana tent” instead). The VFMF’s “dry” status has always been at the core of its reputation as a supremely family-friendly event. The beer garden idea had been proposed many times over the years and was always rejected for this and other reasons. As an old-timer I was initally among those in opposition but gradually was brought round to thinking that it might be a necessary evil– “neccessary” as a source of revenue, not as a recreational amenity.

    I think it worked, with reservations; I wasn’t happy with its location on the site; it was too noisy, too close to two different stages and obstructed traffic flow in a very busy area. I think most people who were uncomfortable with the idea eventually held their noses and said “well, if it helps lower the deficit…”. Not until the numbers come in will it be known whether the gamble was worth it. Personally, I suspect the beer garden will become a permanent fixture.

    I think the Festival now stands at a crossroads. There was a strong feeling of change in the air this year, both out on the site and backstage. Linda Tanaka has gone on record as favouring corporate sponsorship, another idea that would cause a lot of Festival purists to have strokes; and she will almost certainly take the Festival’s programming in more “marketable” directions, although she was astute enough this year to balance mainstream-friendly acts like Steven Page with determinedly downhome performers like the Ebony Hillbillies (it’s just their music that’s downhome– they hail from New York City). I think it’s crucial that she maintain that sometimes delicate balance if the VFMF is to retain its cultural credibility.

    There were rumours htis spring that the Fesival was in dire enough straits that this years’ edition might well prove to be the last. And if it had rained for two weeks prior and everyone had stayed home (and beer sales were in the toilet), that might even have proved true. But there was an encouragingly large crowd this weekend, with, thankfully, a large under-30 contingent (the loyalty of this demographic is crucial to the VFMF’s survival– they are its future). Watching Los De Abajo’s utterly incandescent main-stage performance on Saturday night, and the near-orgasmic reaction of the crowd, and then seeing it happen again with Bellowhead and Mavis Staples on Sunday night, I had the same reaction I have nearly every year: This event is too damned important to be allowed to die. When you can present a musical group 90% of the crowd had never heard of two days before, a group that does not get played on the radio here, whose records are almost impossible to find here, and then have that same group (Los de Abajo) keep nearly 10,000 people on their feet for an hour, dancing their asses off and screaming with joy at the end of every song, you’ve got something worth preserving.

    Oh yeah– My faves? The mighty Bellowhead, the phenomenal Los De Abajo– the energy they generate on stage could power entire cities–, the shit-kickingest acoustic power trio ever: Reverend Payton and his Big Damn Band, just amazing (ever seen a washboard set on fire onstage? Check ’em out on YouTube), and the Ebony Hillbillies who seemed like ghosts from a vanished era. Oh, and a special word for the ever-wonderful Bill Richardson, back MC’ing on the main stage on Sunday night after far too many years away, and doing his usual superb (and hilarious) job. This man is a national treasure. Ottawa ahould establish a whole new upper range of the Order of Canada, just for Bill.

  • Except gmgw it wasn’t called the Folk Festival it was called the bee-in at Lumberman’s arch and it was way before 1978. I was at no one . . .

    Maybe you are too young to remember . . .

  • PS How toxic are your bikes after you dump them in the land fill?

  • PPS Oh and how toxic is the vehicle you also own when you dump it in the land fill?

  • PPS Eat your heart out . . .

    Huh sorry I need much more “in-depth” to give me goose bumps.

    There is a time and place for everything of course: your chattering playmates are allowed their space: a dozen self congratualtory repetitive feel-gooders . . . peddling the same stuff to the same old pals . . . but in love letters not here . . .

    Your blog could be so effective if given intelligent input . . . I’m sure Hallistas are tuned in. But what do they hear . . . ?

    “Ooooh I just got off the plane to green green Vancouver: I’m so happy.” His Mum, no doubt, is happy too . . . but surely . . .

    Your nice friends’ just don’t cut it on a news worthy blog . . .


  • gmgw

    I’m old enough to not only remember the Be-Ins but to have attended them (and by the way, the first one, at Easter/67, was at Ceperley Meadow, near Second Beach; Berkeley’s Country Joe and the Fish were the featured performing artists, and Vancouver’s United Empire Loyalists played as well); but the Be-Ins had and have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Folk Festival, organizationally or structurally, nor were they its inspiration, despite what you may have read in the papers lately. The only (remote) commonality is that the first VFMF, like the Be-Ins, took place in Stanley Park.

    For the record, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival was founded by Mitch Podolak, founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Mitch approached the dearly-loved and much-missed Ernie Fladell, head of the City’s Social Planning department at the time, with his idea for a folk festival, and Ernie threw his boundless enthusiasm and his department’s resources into the project (Ernie would soon also found the Children’s Festival). Mitch brought in Gary Cristall to run the Vancouver end of things, and the rest, as they say, is history (the Vancouver festival became independent of Winnipeg in 1980).

  • Yes Ernie Fladell was a good guy . . . in my opinion the only mover and shaker with charisma at the Hall . . .

    Don’t discount the early be-in’s effect on the later folk fest . . . it planted the seed . . .

    Now please to serious biz . . .

  • Oh I forgot to mention my other highlight – Veda Hille’s Craigslist Musical (gmgw’s reference to Bill Richardson reminded me). funny stuff.

  • Oh and I forgot to mention also Mr gmgw . . .

    I am surprised you were there . . . you project a much younger impression . . .

    . . . in which case age has certainly not blessed you with wisdom . . . if I may, sir, respectfully point out . . .

    Please therefore try to grace this blog, which I suppose Frances intends to be more than trivial repetitive gossip from half a dozen . . . errrr . . . “pals”, with some insight into your wisdom . . .

    I would really honoured to be enlightened . . .

  • “drinking beer and wine and roasting marshmallows over the fire “…

    and the police did not come to harass you or confiscate your booze ? ?
    but then I suppose they were to busy in the DTES harassing the poor & the “disheveled looking types” ,upcoming Olympics and all.

  • Frances, I was there with my daughter Claire, wearing the bright yellow shirt she bought me at Christiania in Copenhagen a few years ago. You may have seen it from behind…it featured a North American native Indian and an important message for all the kids in the crowd…SAY NO TO HARD DRUGS!

  • gmgw

    I, too, forgot to mention a Festival highlight… Dick Gaughan, still a brilliant guitarist, singer, and songwriter after all these years. He may be mellowing ever so slightly as he gets older but if you’re hearing him sing his ferocious version of “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy” for the first time he’ll still scare the hell out of you. One of Scotland’s great gifts to the world.

    And let me put in one more word for Bellowhead, who may just be the best live group on the planet these days (La Bottine Souriante is still great but Yves Robert is sorely missed). Their gig at the Rogue Folk Club tonight was staggeringly good; one for the ages. Take a look at some of their live performances on YouTube to see what I mean.

  • gmgw

    Urbanismo, sorry to disappoint you, but at the risk of repeating myself, the Be-Ins had *no* effect or influence on the Folk Festival. Zero. Zip. Nada. Apples and armadillos. I was around the VFMF a lot in the early days and I can categorically assure you that the comparison was never, ever made (except perhaps as a joke). What else would you expect from a festival founded by two dedicated Trotskyists? (And I don’t mean Ernie Fladell.)

    Regarding the sources of my alleged (choke) “wisdom” (and I note that you seem to be unable to make up your mind about that)… if you manage to stay alive as long as I have and keep your eyes, ears and mind open, it’s amazing how much you can learn (and one of the most important things to be learned is how very much more remains to be learned).

  • No dissappointment gmgw. Thanqxz for the heads-up. You have more musicology wisdom than I do.

    I guess I was otherwise engaged . . .