A tale of three festivals, here and now

Vancouver Folk Fest. Natalie Maines (photo above) – Dixie Chick Maines didn’t shut up or stop singing.

by Bruce Mason

• BC is blessed with numerous fests, including film, theatre, dance, fringe, kids, wine, slow food, fast bikes, wooden boats, dragon boats, stampedes, even chainsaw and Elvis festivals. In stark contrast to the burgeoning and moneyed global festival phenomenon, BC’s local festivals not only offer entertainment, but also connection and the opportunity for community building.

Summer celebrations around the province have local flair and varied features; many are grassroots, community based not-for-profits. Some include non-ticketed events, free for the taking, such as the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration ( until June 8 ) and the very ambitious, must-experience TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. With a long list of free events and attractions, among many other things, it seeks to recapture the Olympic Spirit and take back downtown.

Vibrant street festivals include Greek Day (June 23), Steveston Salmon Festival (July 1), Khatsalano Music and Art Festival (July 13-14) and the Powell Street Festival (August 3-4.) From Surrey’s Canada Day Celebration and Fusion Festival (July 20 -21) to the eagerly anticipated Stanley Park Anniversary (August 24 – 25), there are innumerable invitations and opportunities to share in and enjoy local, regional, city and rural events. And you don’t have to break your budget.

Take your pick, but do take in one or two. Come with family and friends and meet new people who like the same stuff as you. Tune in by Googling BC Festivals. Turn on the diversity. Drop out from technology for a few hours by sharing tunes and more. There’s beautiful music in live community building.

Common Ground hopes to whet your appetite and imagination by zeroing in on three choices on this summer’s mind-boggling menu. These are non-profit organizations well into a second generation of audiences and all-important volunteers: 1) The 2013 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival (June 21- July 1, multiple locations). 2) The Vancouver Island Music Festival (July 12 -14, Comox Valley Fairgrounds) and 3) The Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 19 – 21, Jericho Beach).

Mary Chapin Carpenter
At VIMF: Mary Chapin Carpenter – Ashes and Roses, No Going Back (latest release and Emmy film)

Each of these music festivals has strong, year-round community roots. Their websites are updated regularly – hallmarks of modern festivals – with schedules, bios, videos of performers and other essential information for planning to get the biggest bang for your tickets before arriving on-site. We talked with the people responsible for programming, individuals like Gary Cristall who was active in the first Vancouver Folk Fest 35 years ago at Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park. Gary is a long-time artistic director, currently working on the definitive book about Canadian folk music in the 20th century.

“I’ve written 400 pages, up to the ‘50s and a few years away from the finish,” Cristall reports. “There have been a great many changes, including the very notion of what folk music is, now more diverse and inclusive yet still evolving. Mariposa was and is the model, with multiple stages and one main point of entrance. We used to pay all artists the same amount. There were no stars; everyone was treated the same. It was less of an industry and it was easier because there were fewer festivals and less competition for talent,” Cristall notes.

He recalls advice from the late great Utah Phillips who offered two tips: first, never forget you are putting bread and butter on artists’ tables and treat them with respect. Secondly, give the audience what you think they need, not just what they want. “To program a major festival, you have to be an amateur musicologist, build a big record collection and believe you have the best taste in the world,” Cristall says. “I always looked for something that knocked me out and remember moments when a solo artist with a single acoustic instrument held tens of thousands of people spellbound, often beyond expectations. And I was constantly surprised – especially at workshops – by people who had never played together before and would never again be in the same musical configuration.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – a phoenix of hope, faith and joy at VFF

Local jazz has benefitted from the creative direction and vision of artistic director Ken Pickering. He has consistently curated impressive, innovative programs celebrating the evolution of the art form in all its manifestations, developing and maintaining a globally recognized reputation for the city’s festival.

John Orysik was also there at the beginning when the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society formed as a charitable arts organization in 1986. It has become BC’s largest music presenter, not only producing one of the world’s most critically acclaimed jazz festivals – which draws more than a half million patrons annually – but also producing a profound impact on the regional culture and the community at large. “We want to continue to help develop an appreciation for artistic excellence and highly skilled improvization. It’s at the very heart of jazz. We seek out the real dream-makers to present a summit meeting of great artists to connect with audiences. They add new perspectives across the broad spectrum of influences, including traditional and contemporary jazz, Latin, blues, rock and world music,” Orysik says.

The festival features more than 300 concerts (150 free) and 1,800 musicians in 35 venues across Vancouver’s Lower Mainland and North Shore including the Downtown Jazz Opening Weekend and the David Lam Park Jazz Closing Weekend. The society also produces the annual Music Series for the Winterruption Festival on Granville Island, the Time Flies Improvised Music Festival and year-round concerts and education programs.

It also generates $35 million into the local economy over an 11-day period.

Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley has also benefitted from the artistic direction of Doug Cox who, 13-years-ago, brought a wealth of experience as a producer of volunteer-run events as well as the perspective of a professional musician who spends eight months of the year touring the world.

“We’ve always insisted on the best players and treat them very well, offering exposure to 10,000 people,” Cox says. “Proximity to an airport and the passion and pride of 1,200 volunteers – some second generation and from as far away as Campbell River and Victoria – are among the reasons why the Vancouver Island Music Fest is in the bucket-list of places to play for many major artists.”

Cox cites studies showing that every dollar spent on festival tickets spins off four more into local economies and that sales of CDs at festivals have surpassed retail outlets. VIMF camping is sold out and every hotel, motel and B&B will follow suit. This year, for the first time, a regional economic impact study is being conducted.

Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls: “our hearts out-rule our heads” at VIMF

Like all the others interviewed for this article, Cox, who is resisting requests for large screens, stresses that community building is an important festival goal. “Live music is powerful and it’s critically important to the mental health and wellbeing of a community. It’s wonderful to see the lights go on in the minds of people in the audience, to witness real growth in tolerance and new-found exposure to and acceptance of diversity,” Doug reports.

“We count highly educated, sophisticated lawyers, doctors and teachers in our festival’s prime audience of baby-boomers. Increasingly, we see more youth who have grown up with us. And it can literally bring tears to the eyes of anyone standing on the stage and looking out on the dynamic mix of hippies, bikers, bankers, fishermen and young families,” he adds.


Almost 1,500 folks build an instant community every year on Jericho Beach where 65 acts will perform on eight stages. Vancouver Folk Fest publicist Gwen Kallio describes the artistic director’s job, atop the complex organization: “Imagine juggling a half dozen Rubik’s cubes on a tight deadline, overseeing everything from booking, transporting and housing musicians to security and the myriad concerns and headaches required by a population of 40,000. All that is compressed into a relative snap of the fingers for three days and then just as suddenly, tens of thousands of people vanish – until next year – leaving behind the huge task of tearing-down, packing and cleaning up.”

Linda Tanaka, who has this ultimate responsibility for 2013, admits that competition for well-know headliners such as Steve Earl and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines is tight. But playing Vancouver is a feather in any artist’s cap. As well, there is a rich world of emerging excellence awaiting your discovery, sources for festival-goers’ hopes for additional, unanticipated inspiration.

“There is a renewal of spirit, a coming together of diverse acts and audiences to connect and interact,” says Tanaka. “For me, the sharing of stories is very important, something I look for. And this year, lots will be told and performed to the audience, including Sierra Leonean refugees, first timers from China, Italy, and little-known experiences across Canada and even closer to home.”

There are ample headliners to attract your attention

From the Jazz world: legendary pianist Herbie Hancock, Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, Nikki Yanofsky, and the David Murray Infinity Quintet, featuring Macy Gray.

Comox will host the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hiatt, the Wailin’ Jennys and Indigo Girls, among others.

On Vancouver’s Jericho Beach: Earl and the Dukes, Maines, Hannah Georgas, the Waterboys, Woody’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and many more.

Don’t forget household names are just the tip of the unforgettable experiences and warm welcome awaiting at the amazing array of festivals around the province this summer. Expect to be surprised.

Next month, Common Ground will explore August’s unique offerings, including Shambhala in Salmo, Wanderlust in Whistler and Burnaby’s wonderful one-day Blues and Roots Fest with Blue Rodeo and others congregating around Deer Lake.

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