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Mavis Staples

Vancouver Folk Music Festival

(19 Jul 2009: Jericho Beach — Vancouver, BC)

A pristine summer day in a massive forest surrounded by beaches with towering mountains in the distance. To me, it was the perfect cure for a raging hangover. But for the organizers of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, they were the ingredients for a well-run festival, with equal emphasis on exposing an array of artists and maintaining Vancouver’s status as a socially-driven and socially responsible place to be.


The side stage featured the likes of lit-rockers Rock Plaza Central and the swaying melodramatics of Great Lake Swimmers, recently nominated for Canada’s Polaris Prize. The festival was to be closed on the main stage by Mavis Staples, a champion performer in her own right. A slow walk through the wide range of locally-crafted food options and hand-made garb only heightened my anticipation for the equally eccentric Rock Plaza Central.


Fresh off the release of their grower of a fourth LP, ...at the moment of our most needing, RPC took to the stage in as casual a manner as they might before a rehearsal. They greeted the sparse yet relaxed crowd and fused their slow-burning set with jovial banter throughout. Beginning with “I Am An Excellent Steel Horse”, from the critically lauded Are We Not Horses lead singer Chris Eaton reminded the crowd of how far detached they are from their own myth and celebrity. “It’s an album that everybody likes but nobody buys” he quipped, much to the delight of the commercially detached crowd.  Following with “Oh I Can”, the opener from the latest record, RPC blended folk sensibilities with an uncanny knack to rise high and low, be it with potent use of a banjo or poignant reliance on trumpets. They’re a hell of a band on record, but Eaton’s voice is admittedly annoying at times. Yet, there was such an earnest quality to their set that it was redeemed.


As RPC hit their stride mid-set, relying mostly on songs from their new record, there was a cerebral approach to their brand of folk. You can’t expect much less from a band that write themed records, this time focusing on a character from a William Faulkner novel. With a dense sound that walks a fine line, RPC created songs rich with emotion while looking as if they’ve barely broken a sweat.


“Holy Rider” was a set highlight, drenched in manic sexuality. The swift chorus, featuring RPC showing a Zep-influenced side to them that most fans had never heard before had the growing crowd flipping through their programs to put a name to this tragically unknown band. But that might have been one of the themes of this festival.


The crowd at the side stage was now near capacity, and they didn’t have to wait long for Great Lake Swimmers, led by Tony Dekker’s haunting vocal work. Yet with Lost Channels, the band’s latest record, Dekker’s plaintive folk stylings have been augmented by a dedication to melodies, which pleased the crowd in spades. “Pulling on a Line”, one of the band’s many drenched-in-dusk tunes will likely go down as one of the best single three minutes the festival had to offer. Dekker resembled ol’ shakey himself, Neil Young, painting the crowd in beautiful and tragic colours, with a chorus that drops into your subconscious and an acoustically driven verse that brings you back to reality with a massive smile on your face.


Though Lost Channels has brought Dekker and Co. a wave of wide-scale popularity, they remained loyal to the twang inside their hearts, as evident on “The Chorus in the Underground”. The crowd bopped along in unison to a steady and upbeat violin. Were we riding alongside a wash of pioneers, exposing a new frontier, or were we simply being seduced by the sunset? When Dekker romanced the crowd with the emotionally drenched and acoustically sublime “Concrete Heart”, we were free to find our own headspace. It was almost dark now. Things were really coming together.


Which is why I felt my feet moving towards the main stage for Mavis Staples while my heart was still aching for the side stage. Mavis Staples and her unique brand of soulful protest songs already had my head, but as soon as I settled in to hear Staples’ intoxicating voice works its way through the rambling, bluesy “Eyes On the Prize”, she had captured my heart as well.


The 70-year old Staples showed little sign of slowing down as she worked the crowd into fierce devotion with the poise of a seasoned Southern preacher. She was endearing, telling stories of singing songs for the late, great Martin Luther King Jr. There were intoxicating elements to her set as well, using her body as a tool of showmanship, shuffling back and forth between her backing band and religious transcendence.


Staples is the kind of artist the world needs more of. She knew her crowd, pushing a sense of historical and patriotic fervour with The Band’s “The Weight” using her unparalleled pipes to breath new life into the storied classic. “The band. THE BAND” she screamed after the song’s climatic finish. The crowd responded in just fashion, yet Staples, as she did throughout her entire set, continued arching the lyrics above the nearby mountains long after her backing band died out.


I took a look around me at some point during Staples set, noticing the moon and its reflection on the mountains. I breathed in the beautiful fusion of natural life and art that was happening all around me. Soon enough, a crowd of long-hairs and docile grandmothers began pointing to the now dark sky. A white light flickered high above us. It looked too far from the Earth to be a plane freshly departed from nearby Vancouver International Airport. Soon enough, someone informed me that it was the freshly departed space shuttle, circling the Earth before heading into outer space. It was fitting; after all, it was heaven Staples continued to search for throughout her set and it was heaven that patrons of the Vancouver Folk Music Fest found on the closing night.

Joshua Kloke is a music writer and hopeless Toronto Maple Leafs fan who splits his time between Melbourne, Australia and Canada. He's contributed to The Vancouver Sun, Exclaim!, Beatroute, Beat Magazine, Time Out and veri.live.


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