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Back to the Garden: An Ode to the Joys of Folkfesting

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There's a special feeling in the air. Actually it's a special aroma -- slightly damp grass mixed with patchouli oil and whale tails. Yes it's the start of that singular season in Vancouver -- folk music festival time.

It's hard to explain what it's like to someone unfamiliar with West Coast ways. It's not just about the music, but about the whole experience: the stunning natural backdrops, the post-hippy family-friendly tradition that binds it all together.

This is the time of year to get out your long cotton skirts and sensible sandals, don colourful t-shirts with images of the goddess Lakshmi, and just indulge in the whole Lotusland fantasy -- even if you're a chartered accountant.

Sure there are folk music festivals in Toronto, but they're an entirely different animal. Folk music festivals are something we really excel at out here. (Note to world watching: no, there has never been a riot at a Vancouver folk music festival.)

As the 34th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival gets ready to roll this weekend, I am slightly shocked to realize that I've been attending -- off and on -- since the age of 15. I still remember that first summer festival. It was a magical experience. I ran with wild packs of teenagers -- most of us hippy offspring -- dancing and spinning around like dervishes to the wide array of music on offer until, finally dizzy with exhaustion, we'd seek a shady spot to rest in until the next adrenaline-fueled descent into frenzied movement.

Times change. These days, I'm more likely to bring a chair, wear a knee brace and seek out quiet shady spots almost immediately. A friend once told me he found Vancouver to be like "a really slow merry-go round". Some days, this can take on a somewhat sinister meaning but with the folk fest, it's rather comforting. I can come back from Baghdad, or some other dusty war zone where music festivals have become clandestine, underground affairs -- if not disappeared altogether -- and revel at the sight of all ages and fashion senses enjoying outdoor melodies together. Decades later, the same busloads of hippies from the Gulf Islands still stream in, albeit in more geriatric circumstance than before, and almost everyone you meet at the folk fest is someone you've seen before, in that vague kind of outdoor festival familiarity.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival has evolved and changed of course. (Now there's even a beer garden on site, to supplement the more traditional cannabis inspired recreations.) It's gotten bigger (almost 35,000 people attended last year) and wider in its definition of "folk music."

It's the kind of place where you can listen to Ricky Skaggs on the banjo, Natasha Atlas' jazz infused, serpentine, Arabic love songs, or take in local musician Veda Hille's (with lyrics by Bill Richardson) Craig's List Cantata.

In fact it has so much on offer that it can be really difficult for the indecisive -- and often requires extreme scheduling and brisk walking to fit it all in. And while this year I'm savouring the potential dilemma of having to choose between actor Tim Robbins on guitar and Tuareg musicians from the Sahara, I am looking forward to the smaller, more intimate Mission Folk Music Festival the following weekend.

This will be the Mission Festival's 24th year, and with the vision of artistic director Francis Xavier Edwards remains a purist's, bespoke folk music celebration. Located on a much smaller site, in the Fraser River Heritage Park, it offers a village like atmosphere, free from the tyranny of too much choice (and for the truly indecisive a much shorter stroll from stage to stage).

Rootsy and down to earth, this year's festival features international folk music from as far afield as Ireland, Mongolia, and the Appalachians. But the highlight for me is always the global jam session party at the festival's end. Last year I vaguely recall dancing with a Central African musician playing an instrument made from a goat horn, while an Iraqi-Canadian flamenco guitarist strummed a fandango -- and all in the gloriously middle of nowhere feeling quiet of semi-rural Mission.

So make haste West-Coasters -- or blog readers from farther afield -- and take advantage of this special and all too brief folk music festival season. All too soon, the summer, post-hippy idyll will be over, and the harsh reality of living in one of the world's most expensive cities for housing, in a province with the highest child poverty rate in Canada, as the global economy collapses will be upon us. But for now, let's all enjoy getting back to the garden.

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