Culture

All the Fixin's for a Great Summer Folk Fest

Take an iconic town, add charming locals, top with DIY flair and sprinkle on world beats for the ultimate music experience.

By Maryse Zeidler, 18 Jul 2013, TheTyee.ca

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Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Photo by Derek von Esson via Your BC: The Tyee's Flickr Pool.

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Three artists to watch for at this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Danny Michel and the Garifuna Collective

After years of visiting Belize, four-time Juno nominee Danny Michel developed a close connection to the Garifuna people. This project is a result of that relationship and will be a performance that will be sure to get you dancing off those whale tails in no time.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars

Formed in refugee camps in West Africa, the Refugee Allstars became known among their fellow emigrants for their uplifting reggae rhythms and African grooves. The band was brought to light to the world when they became the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary and has performed to the delight of audiences around the world.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Alynda lee Segarra, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx, has a voice that will knock you out. Her blend of honky tonk, swamp pop and folk is fun and well worth a listen.

This weekend, thousands of people will engulf Jericho Beach for the annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

The festival is one of many not-for-profit arts gatherings around the province and the West Coast. Unlike the Coachellas and Sasquatches of the festival world, most of these non-profit organizations are publicly funded with a mandate to serve the community they operate in.

From Dawson City, Yukon to Portland, Ore., festival organizers strive to achieve their vision of the perfect local arts gathering. They mix a few key ingredients and, if they're successful, reflect the unique traits of their city.

Festival by craft

"To make a perfect festival, for us, it's definitely a part of the city," says Zale Schoenborn, director of the Pickathon Festival (Aug. 2 – 4). Now in its 15th year, Pickathon takes place just outside of Portland, Ore.

Schoenborn believes Pickathon is a perfect fit for the city. "Portland goes off the deep end in a craft kind of way," he says. Similarly, the festival takes a DIY approach to creating an ideal setting for its patrons.

Pickathon's stages are all custom-made. Schoenborn describes them as "a musical fantasy ride." The main stage is a giant sculpture made of five football fields' worth of tension fabric and 12-miles of rope that takes three weeks to build. Each stage has a unique feel and is built for beauty as much as functionality.

The festival tries to create an experience that blurs the lines between music, design and sustainability.

The festival is free of plastics and single-use utensils. To minimize carbon emissions, shuttle buses run from the nearest train station and free bicycle parking is available. And the festival creates a lot of its own power by using solar panels.

Most importantly, Pickathon eschews the prevalent American festival model of packing as many people into a field as possible. Instead, it prefers to focus on creating an optimal experience for its audience. "We have the land to have probably five times more people, but we choose to keep the density low," says Schoenborn.

Unlike most Canadian festivals, Pickathon doesn't get any government funding. And because it also shuns big-name sponsors and vinyl banners, finding the balance between creating a unique experience and covering expenses means that a weekend pass costs US$250.

"There is no perfect answer," says Schoenberg, adding that the festival often checks in with its audience to set the optimum balance between experience and affordability.

Location, location, location

A festival's location is one of the ingredients organizers agree can make a festival unique. Pickathon takes place on a farm outside of the city, its stages and campground nestled in the Pacific Northwest woods.

For other festivals, a significant selling point is their historic and remote location.

"The reason people want to come here is because of the city," says Jenna Roebuck, producer at the Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon (July 19 - 21). "Maybe even more so than the music."

This year the Dawson City Music Festival is celebrating its 35th year. Out of its 1,200 ticket buyers, many come from across the territory and Alaska. But the festival's iconic location in the Yukon also attracts people from the rest of Canada and the world.

"Our location is our charm and our biggest headache," says Roebuck. Being thousands of miles away from all the extra equipment they need to ship in has its challenges. And it can be hard to convince artists to make the long journey up north.

But Roebuck thinks the location also attracts certain kinds of musicians that add to the festival's feel. "The ones that come up here are almost exclusively adventurous."

Details like carefully matching each individual musician with an appropriate local billet create a welcoming experience for the artists. Other touches, like when former MP Larry Bagnell used to serve saketinis backstage, also help.

"Most artists get a sense of what it's like to live here," says Roebuck.

This hospitality extends to the festival's patrons as well. "Dawson excels at hosting -- it's a tourist community," says Roebuck. "[Locals] are always ready to show people a good time."

Out of the city's 2,000 residents, 350 of them volunteer for the festival. For some of them, the commitment is year-round. Because the festival affects the entire town, most people get involved. The local fire chief is the head of the volunteer transportation crew. The mayor will be emceeing the main stage shows.

To ensure it reflects the needs of its community, the festival programs an eclectic mix of artists. "Our maxim is 'something for everyone,'" says Roebuck. This year the lineup includes American singer-songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy, Tlingit cowboy and country music performer Art Johns, and Vancouver gospel trio the Sojourners.

Cultivating a community of artists

David Harder, head coordinator of the ArtsWells Festival (August 2 – 5), agrees that having an iconic, historic location can add to the value of a festival. ArtsWells takes place in the tiny towns of Wells and Barkerville in B.C.'s Cariboo region.

Over the August long weekend, Wells grows from a town of 250 residents to one of about 2,000 people. According to Harder, many ticket buyers are enticed by the idea of visiting a remote former mining town.

Now in its tenth year, the annual event is a multi-disciplinary festival that showcases music, dance, theatre, film and visual arts.

Part of what makes ArtsWells unique is it encourages artists to collaborate with local residents, many of whom are involved in the arts. "We see it as a big band/art camp," he says. The festival aims to blur the lines between professional and emerging artists.

Most of the artists stay in the campground along with festival attendees and perform several times throughout the weekend. Some teach workshops that allow audience members to learn "everything from Ukrainian dance to lyric writing to clowning."

The festival tries to cultivate a community of artists. Rather than change their lineup, they often present the same artists year after year. And many artists are keen to be a part of the magical, intimate environment. "Most of the artists who apply to the festival get what it's about," says Harder.

Programming that echoes the city

It's not just small town festivals that can build a sense of community.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 19 – 21) boasts an urban, beach-side setting and an eclectic variety of music. World music is now de rigueur at many festivals across Canada, but the Vancouver folk festival was one of the first to include it.

According to Linda Tanaka, the festival's artistic director, the songs audiences will hear this weekend aren't "just about music you hear on the radio." Instead, like many of its kind, the Vancouver folk festival is as much about discovering new artists as it is seeing the ones patrons already know.

During the daytime on Saturday and Sunday, the festival does more than just offer one concert after another on its seven stages. Instead, it also mixes different bands together. So an audience member might go to see a renowned blues musician and leave with a new appreciation for a Balkan fiddle player he or she has never heard of.

Nic Bragg, general manager at Vancouver's Zulu Records and guitarist for Destroyer, thinks Tanaka's programming is "definitely trending in the right direction." (Zulu Records works with the festival to sell artists' merchandise and CDs.)

Although he concedes that the programming could be more edgy, he points to Hannah Georgas, Cold Specks and DeVotchKa as artists who are pushing the boundaries this year. "If you look at the talent, it's there."

Out of the Canadian folk festivals, "ours has a bit of a different flavour," says Tanaka. Besides being known for its world music, it's also known to be political. She says this year, musicians like the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks will be filling that role.

In Bragg's experience as a musician playing around the world, he feels "a lot of festivals have succumbed to a corporate vibe." But not the Vancouver folk festival; it's stayed true to its original spirit and has a great community feel.

"It's more than just a rock festival in a farmer's field," says Bragg.  [Tyee]

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