Arts & Entertainment
3 min

30 years of impromptu potlucks and queer-friendly stages

Vancouver's Folk Fest remains a mecca for queer women

TOTALLY SURREAL. 'I was tap-dancing one night in a circle with Utah Philips and Ani [DiFranco]. Totally surreal!' says Bitch. Credit: Xtra West files

Musician and activist Bitch — formerly half of Bitch and Animal — has certainly left her impression upon Vancouver, but when asked if she has any special memories of the Vancouver Folk Festival, the singer is unyielding in her response. “I had my life changed there!” she enthuses.

“I have never stopped talking about it since I went. Both times, musically, I had my mind blown. A lot of festivals I go to, it is mainly white guys in jam bands, so to have people from all over the world representing so many different cultures and ideas, holy crap. I was tap-dancing one night in a circle with Utah Philips and Ani [DiFranco]. Totally surreal! The energy that event brings together, it is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else.”

The Vancouver Folk Festival truly does have that certain ‘something’ that is tough to match elsewhere. Walking onto the grounds, the feeling of peace, activism and inclusion is immediate; the closest many will get to the vibe of Woodstock circa 1969.

People are kind to each other, children get moved up to the front of the washroom line, and picnics become impromptu potlucks on the blankets in front of the mainstage.

Queer FM host Heather Kitching believes that the annual tradition is more than just good music, it provides metaphorical gas in her activist tank.

“When you sit amongst progressive people and someone is on stage echoing your feelings about what is wrong with the world, it is really cathartic,” she says.

The Festival has long been a mecca for queer women; artistic director Dugg Simpson believes that much of that credit goes to previous director Gary Cristall. “I may be more conscious than other programmers at other festivals because of that heritage,” he says. Gary played a huge role in supporting the dawn of ‘women’s music’ with Holly Near and Cris Williamson and everyone.”

Simpson says that working with queer talent is a wonderful opportunity “but not a huge challenge. I don’t do what I call ‘pity fucks’ because that is just sad for everybody. It is easy [to showcase queer performers] because of the level of talent that I run into, as well as knowing people like Meegan and Ivan who give a leg up to learning about new artists.”

One of the things that the event does especially well, according to Ivan Coyote, is to historically celebrate without segregating performers in any way. “The thing I’ve always liked about the festival is that they don’t have a ‘queer’ stage; they don’t have ‘gay programming’ because then nobody who doesn’t want to see it doesn’t have to. It has always been really mixed in with everything.”

Folk music by nature has long been a form of the people’s protest music, and there will certainly be much of that onstage this year, which also happens to be the festival’s 30th anniversary.

The Under the Volcano stage is traditionally a hot spot for those looking for an activism infusion and this year will be no different. Volcano producer Meegan Maultsaid admits the message is absolutely as important to her as the music. “I try to make sure that political and social activism is the loudest voice; I want to focus on the importance of highlighting marginalized voices, to highlight voices that ‘rage against the machine.'”

As for Bitch, her not-to-be-missed moment at this year’s fest will likely come when she performs “Rise,” an incredibly powerful take on Bush’s reign and the Iraq war off her new disc, for the first time on Canadian soil. “I’m so looking forward to that. I feel very fed by the energy when that song moves people,” she says.

She is also excited to be performing with her band The Exciting Conclusion which — on this go-around — includes her longtime partner Daniela Sea, otherwise known as the transgendered character Max on the L Word. Sea will be moving between keyboard, bass, viola and acoustic guitar.

The couple first fell in love at the Folk Festival five years ago, Bitch confides.

“Being there for the last couple years, it is one of my favorite places on earth, really, I am so enamored.” Unlike their negative experiences crossing the border into America, Bitch states that the pair has only had positive experiences flying and driving into Vancouver.

“We always call it ‘happy Canada,'” she laughs boisterously. “The border guards LOVE it when you’re on a lesbian show!”

The couple will spend the month of July in Vancouver while Sea films The L Word here; Bitch also plans to perform at Playland’s Gay Day, Jul 21.