Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Folk fest shifts direction

But queers still part of the lineup

SHE LIKES OURS BEST. 'I'm not going to say it's my favourite because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings... but it is my favourite, actually!' says singer-songwriter-guitarist Patty Larkin. Credit: Vanguard Records (Jana Leon photo)

There’s been a major shakeup at the 32nd annual Vancouver Folk Fest, most notably the new artistic director (aka talent booker) Linda Tanaka.

As a result, this year’s event features a lineup that — while still honouring the musical stylings that made the event great — adds a significant amount of what some might call alterna-folk, as well as some bigger ‘pop’ names, to the event.

Indie chart-toppers Iron and Wine and the incredible Canadian troupe Great Lake Swimmers will broaden the fest and play alongside event faves ranging from folk demigod Dick Gaughan to hometown heroes Veda Hille and Geoff Berner.

Factor into the mix soul legend Mavis Staples (formerly of the Staples Singers), Arrested Development and former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and you’ve got a whole new feeling.

Naysayers worry that the weekend will become less political and more mainstream, while those who are more pro-change believe the financially struggling event will have a better shot at longevity. Either way, this year’s lineup is arguably one of its strongest in years.

Among the queer artists set to play this year’s fest is local singer-songwriter Kate Reid (who was profiled last issue), and these three talented performers:

Patty Larkin

Celebrated singer-songwriter-guitarist Patty Larkin has spent more than 20 years in the business and her newest CD, Watch the Sky, finds her repeatedly reaching a state of sonic and lyrical gorgeousness.

At times, you’ll hear inflections of latter-day Jane Siberry or Kathleen Edwards, but always on her own terms.

Larkin has been praised by industry mags ranging from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly, and the newest CD — self-produced and featuring her on all instruments — may well be as powerful and personal, honest and raw as anything she’s done.

“Much of the writing for this record was done just with a guitar in a friend’s barn,” Larkin explains, “but I also spent time singing with my laptop all by myself. Before, my songs were more a-b/a-b, but I think I just wanted to get dreamier.”

When it comes to taking her show on the road, the musician is quick to show partiality to the Vancouver Folk Fest.

“I’m not going to say it’s my favourite because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings… but it is my favorite, actually! They get their themes and their politics going in the right direction.”

Larkin and her partner have been together for 24 years, and adopted two children together six years ago, yet some of the highlights of the disc are songs that refer back to their very beginnings. In that regard, “Hallelujah” might just be the perfect wedding song for queer activists. It’s a track that balances her falling in love with her being persecuted for being in love.

Lyrics include “they told me they didn’t blame me/with my face lying down in the dirt.”

“It combines a celebration of love with lapsed Catholicism,” laughs Larkin, “and that works for me.”

Cheryl Wheeler

Although Cheryl Wheeler and Jann Arden don’t write similar styles of music, they definitely share one very specific quality — the ability to write intense songs then be as funny as standup comics in between the sombre stuff.

Wheeler’s creations are poignant and powerful and have been covered by everyone from Garth Brooks to Bette Midler. Her newest CD, 2009’s Pointing At The Sun, features a prime example of mixing solemnity with levity.

Having spent years performing something she calls The Cat Trilogy exclusively live, Wheeler finally succumbed to her audience’s demands and recorded the tracks for this new release. The trilogy is all about one specific cat named Penrod, who passed away just before the album was recorded.

“At the beginning of the track ‘The Cat’s Birthday,’ when you hear the ‘shacka-shacka’ sound, those are his ashes put inside a percussive instrument we invented called the ‘catash.’ You should have seen the drummer after we finished the track!” she laughs. “I told him, ‘I have another percussive instrument I’d like you to play’ and then I opened the box and hand him this plastic bag and said, ‘this is my cat.’ He looked stunned and said, ‘I’m allergic to cats.’”

d’bi.young

Toronto dub poet and playwright d’bi.young may well be the most deeply loved lesser-known performer at this year’s Folk Fest. Her performances and plays at the annual Sistahood Celebration have been nothing short of legendary.

“Vancouver is one of the cities that has completely midwifed my artistic development,” young says. “They have brought my work out there raw, to do theatre, to do poetry. Vancouver has given me so much love.”

The self-defined storyteller is all passion, conviction and consciousness and she deeply believes in bringing that focus to every performance. “If you give a poetry show or theatre show and two or three people come, you can’t walk offstage saying you’re not going to give them anything. Is the shift of one person’s energy considered successful? One person matters.

“I’m 31, I’ve been in this for 27 years. The energy, the sacredness with which you approach storytelling is one of the most important things. I would be concerned that if I took it for granted those gifts would be taken away from me.”

When not performing her own work, young is dedicated to helping others hone their craft. She founded anitAFRIKA! Dub theatre, which she describes as a “radical arts centre” created with the desire to create social change through storytelling.

“I always dreamed of having a theatre school as long as I can remember,” she says. “I used to watch the TV show Fame; it had a really profound affect on me, coupled with the fact that I was being raised by a revolutionary mom and raised in an artistic environment. I grew up wanting to teach and wanting to help develop storytellers to find their way.”