The Vancouver Folk Music Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a lineup that pays tribute to the event’s rich past while embracing today’s reality that genres are blurring in ways that once seemed unimaginable.
Headliners for the event, which runs July 13 to 16 at Jericho Beach Park, include Billy Bragg with Joe Henry, Kathleen Edwards, Shawn Colvin, Barenaked Ladies, and Rhiannon Giddens.
Bragg and Henry—who will perform songs from their collaboration Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad—will be the sentimental favourite of long-time folk-festival attendees. Known as the Bard of Barking, the 59-year-old Bragg first rose to prominence at a time when the Western World was ruled by right-wing likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. With Donald Trump now in the White House, songs like “Help Save the Youth of America” and “To Have and To Have Not” seem even more relevant today than in the ’80s. Over a career that’s spanned four decades, the Grammy-winning Henry has proven himself one of the most idiosyncratic and daring figures in Americana, working with everyone from Daniel Lanois and T Bone Burnett to Ornette Coleman and Helmet’s Paige Hamilton.
On the Canadian-bred front, alt-country fans should be thrilled by the return to action of Kathleen Edwards, who just four years ago retreated from the music business to start an Ottawa coffee shop called Quitters. Accurately dubbed a with-a-bullet breakout artist by Rolling Stone after the release of her essential 2003 debut Failer, the Ontario-born Edwards subsequently proved just that, with her last release, 2012’s Voyageur, going top two in Canada.
Speaking of Canuck chart-toppers, the Barenaked Ladies’ biggest challenge will be deciding which hits to leave out of their set. Whether the long-running Scarberians are dipping into their wacky-folk early years for “If I Had $1000000” or going doing the stupidly infectious pop road with “One Week”, there’s guaranteed to be no shortage of audience sing-along participation.
South Dakota-born Shawn Colvin might be best recognized for her Grammy-winning 1997 hit “Sunny Came Home”, but she’s been straddling the line between folk, Fab Four-inspired pop, and thinking-person’s country for over three decades. She’s also got impeccable connections, as evidenced by her 2016 collaboration, Colvin & Earle, with past Vancouver Folk Festival fave Steve Earle.
Guaranteed to be the show-stopping surprise as far as the headliners are considered, Rhiannon Giddens has rocketed from a member of old-timey cult faves the Carolina Chocolate Drops to collaborating with Elvis Costello to Marcus Mumford and hanging with the likes of Jack White and Patti Smith. Expect a set that will swing from rawhide-country blues to Muscle Shoals soul.
As always, the Vancouver Folk Festival won’t just be focussing on music from the Western world. Sixty acts from 18 countries will descend on Jericho Beach Park, from as far away as Greenland (the winsome Nive Nielsen & the Deer Children), Egypt (folk agitator Ramy Essam, who’s been profiled on 60 Minutes), and Haiti (the rhythmic Chouk Bwa Libète, a band which comes from the voodoo-steeped area of Gonaïves). Also making the trek to the West Coast will be France’s Blick Bassy, Spain’s Korrontzi, Australia’s Archie Roach, and Columbia’s Sidestepper.
One of the Vancouver Folk Festival’s big strengths has been the support it gives to talent in its own backyard. Multiple Juno Award–winner Alpha Yaya Diallo, much-respected veteran Roy Forbes, and indie-pop up-and-comers the Belle Game will all make appearances. Those for whom folk will always be first and foremost protest music, meanwhile, will want to catch guitar-wielding Lotusland activist Luke Wallace. C.R. Avery, meanwhile, will leave you wondering whether he’s best slotted under the description of poet, rapper, singer-songwriter, or all three.
As much as everyone loves Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie, there’s no denying that the genre that made those icons famous has broadened its umbrella over the years. The VFMF 2017 is smartly peppered with undercard acts which continue to move folk forward in interesting ways. Can’t-miss artists include doom-folk genre-masher Cold Specks from Toronto, cabaret-pop alchemist Leif Vollebekk from Montreal, and the critically adored John K. Samson & the Winter Wheat from Winnipeg.
Diversity is also the major buzzword when looking at the international-roster undercard. Australia’s Mae Trio specializes in honey-dipped harmonies straight from old-timey Appalachia. Seattle’s Noah Gundersen finds a soft-country sweet spot somewhere between Neil Young and Bon Iver. And England’s Will Varley is throwback folk at its most clever; if you want a truly damning commentary on our Internet-obsessed times, check out his “Talking Cat Blues”.
Those who will argue that the Congotronics series is the most deliriously mesmerizing thing to ever comes out of world music, meanwhile, should be elated that the Congo’s Mbongwana Star is headed to VFMF 2017. Get ready to lose yourself in the music in a way you never thought possible.
Early bird passes for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival 2017 are on sale now. For tickets and a full run-down of the event go to Vancouver Folk Festival website.