Vancouverites enter a different world with return of Folk Festival

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When you saunter through the East Gate of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, just past the money-soaked Royal Vancouver Yacht Club on Kitsilano’s “Golden Mile,” you quickly get a sense that you’re entering a different world, a weird and wonderful parallel universe of what Vancouver should be like all year round.

No matter how kooky you’re dressed (or undressed), inside those gates there’s no judgment or prolonged stares. Instead, you’re greeted with a smile and often kind words from complete strangers. That’s the kind of inclusive vibe the Folk Fest has created over its 39 proud years of existence and perseverance, and you can experience it all for yourself this weekend in Jericho Beach Park (July 15-17).

While the organizers are checking the weather forecast every 10 minutes or so, no matter what this so-far cool and temperate summer of 2016 brings, it won’t put a damper on the 60-plus acts from 18 countries around the world performing on seven beachfront stages.

Personally, I’m most excited to see hometown heroes the New Pornographers bring their bombastic blast of indie-rock melodies to the main stage, but I also can’t wait to experience American balladeer M. Ward in the open air, and Hamilton’s upstart blues and rock singer Terra Lightfoot. While she has no relation to Gordon, she can write songs seemingly with the ease of a legend just like that.

Speaking of the blues, local faves the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer will be performing with the incredible gospel vocalist Dawn Pemberton. If you’re a fan of music, full stop, you simply can’t be miss this collaboration. (Full disclosure: I won’t be missing any of the artists this year, as I’ll be your humble Folk Fest mainstage MC throughout the weekend).

Folk Fest artistic director Linda Tanaka has booked the artists at the festival since 2008, and is often trying to find the perfect balance of performers. That means she hopes to find artists that align with the festival’s philosophies, in that they are both highly entertaining and engaging, but also politically-minded and ethical. Then there’s the finer balance of satisfying longtime folkie patrons (like with this year’s headliner Bruce Cockburn), but also continually attracting a new and young audience (not to mention intense competition from upstart mega-festivals around the Pacific Northwest region).

Tanaka readily admits that she is particularly looking forward to funky Afro-beat of Betsayda Machado y La Parranda el Clavo from Venezuela, and the soulful, deeply danceable traditional roots music of Lakou Mizik from Haiti.

“Both groups have overcome huge obstacles to get to the festival,” says Tanaka. “Lakou Mizik formed after the earthquake to inspire their people to keep Haitian traditions alive. The Venezuelan band held fundraisers to get to Canada and are hoping to do a few other events besides the [Folk Fest] to earn extra money to take home for food and medicine for their communities. I am sure our audiences will love them both”.

Since folk festivals were one of the first arenas to provide a platform for The Protest Song, you can expect to hear plenty of those too in these unsettling times. Local klezmer accordionist Geoff Berner is one of the only artists I have ever seen to perform with absolutely no fear. He’s always worth it, and he’ll be there, too.

So hop on your bike and use those controversial new bike lanes along the Golden Mile. They’ll take you straight to the festival, where you can experience musical gold from your own backyard and around the world all weekend long. Kids 12 and under get in free. Parents: meet you in the beer garden.

• For tickets and full schedule, head to TheFestival.bc.ca