Island Musicfest 2005

by Steve Edge

Karan Casey (right) with Deanna Knight
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Bo Diddley
Paul Meehan (Karan Casey Band) with Hot Club Martians Charlie Knowles & Michael Dunn
Eliza Gilkyson
David Lindley
Keb' Mo'

This was our first visit to a festival that is rapidly earning a reputation as one of B.C.'s primary music events. Over the past few years - since Artistic Director Doug Cox too over - Island Musicfest has presented some of the biggest names in roots music, and this year the line-up was especially tempting, so off we went - with our tent.

We arrived on Saturday around 5pm, and heard Karan Casey and her band in fine form. Karan is one of Ireland's finest singers, and her new CD, Chasing The Sun (sadly, a very appropriate title for the weekend!) contains some truly stunning songs - most notably "The Brown & The Yellow Ale". This is one of many songs she learned from the Irish singer and collector Frank Harte. It is a sort of 18th century "Indecent Proposal", where a couple are met by a stranger who asks to borrow the woman for an hour and a day. Leaving the decision to his wife, the singer is alarmed that she chooses to go with the stranger, and when she returns and recounts her experience, the husband is so stricken with grief that he dies. It is a song that bears repeated listening, it has such stark imagery, yet is a short, simple tale. Frank Harte passed away last month, and his prolific collection is now a lasting treasury of Irish song. He had over 15,000 songs. Fortunately he not only memorized them all, he also recorded them - many on CD in the last few years of his life. Karan Casey was his chosen chanteuse in the mission to preserve this amazing legacy. Perfect choice, for her voice is crystal clear, highly expressive, and passionate. The band features her partner Niall Vallely on concertina and low whistle, Robbie Overson on guitar, Paul Meehan on mandolin, and Chico Huff on bass.

We managed to get the tent put up during the next set - Shari Ulrich & Roy Forbes - in one of the three camp sites. Ours was the Volunteers Camp Site, adjacent to main stage, and not plagued by late night invasions suffered in the main camp site - sadly. It seems that the festival has reached capacity - around 8,000 per day - and has in a sense become a victim of its own success. It is most unfortunate that we can't seem to enjoy events like this because of the behaviour of a mindless few hooligans.

Saturday's concert concluded with memorable sets by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and R&B veteran Bo Diddley. The South African legends demonstrated great showmanship and of course wonderful singing, and enthralled the audience with a long set - whose highlight was their original version of "Homeless". Bo Diddley is 76 years old, and he was backed up by Doyle Bramhall's Texas Blues Band. He was great fun! I wonder why he sang "Hey Bo Diddley" three times, rather than "Who Do You Love?" or "I'm A Man" or one of his other signature songs, though. His rap song was brilliant, and a reminder that he was very much a pioneer of the genre.

By this time it was getting really cold. I'm sure it must have been around 5°C at most. It was really cold in the tent, and the campfire debates went on till the wee hours. Sleep was a scarce commodity, and so was warmth!

There are seven stages at this festival, so there was lots to choose from on the Sunday. One of the highlights was a traditional song showcase, with Renbourn & McShee, Karan Casey, Maria Dunn, Ken Hamm, Deanna Knight, and Dave Somers. Karan and Jacqui sang some truly stunning unaccompanied songs, Ken Hamm and John Renbourn played some amazing guitar licks, and Maria Dunn added a touch of humour and Canadian history with her songs of Alberta's working women. Again it was Karan Casey who brought the house down, with another of Frank Harte's translations from the original Irish - "Donal Og".

Deanna Knight stayed on stage for the next set, leading her wonderful swing band, The Hot Club of Mars, in a memorable session alongside Steve Dawson, Paul Meehan, and two members of Bill Frisell's band - Greg Leisz on Weisenborn guitar and _______ on fiddle. There was some scorchingly hot playing, and lots of fun too, with the theme from "The Triplets of Belleville" a standout.

The daytime programming on the main stage concluded with TOFU, and their melodic, poetic sounds. Contrast this with k'naan, who also use spoken word and hip-hop beats, but whose message was a little too angst-ridden for me.

After dinner our first main stage highlight was Eliza Gilkyson, who has just released two new CDs, Paradise Hotel and a retrospective of her earlier albums. She is a marvellous story teller as well as singer and songwriter, and she was in fine form, weaving tales of love and obsession and political estrangement in and around her songs. I must get my hands on her new CD immediately! Like Karan Casey, Eliza Gilkyson is a woman with a lot to say, a compelling voice and presence, and I am a more than willing listener!

Next came the Prince of Polyester, David Lindley, playing solo on his customary array of exotic stringed instruments. New, extended versions of "The Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Building Blues" and the encore, "Cat Food Sandwiches" were the highlights. The latter contained some truly revolting references to back stage food. I won't spoil the surprise. Just go to see him at Rime on July 29th, but be careful what you eat before the show!

Keb' Mo' was next. I had only seen him once before - at the Winnipeg Folk Festival a long time ago. I had no idea that he was THAT good! He played a wonderful set of laid-back acoustic blues and originals, and I rushed off to the CD tent to grab a couple of his discs just before they closed for the weekend.

The closing act was Texas drummer Doyle Bramhall with his blues trio. They had backed Bo Diddley the previous night. This time Doyle was front and centre on vocals as well as drums, and the former band mate of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan delivered a powerful set of Texas blues and R&B.

Afterwards we had great fun - fuelled by Merridale's glorious Merri Berri Cider - chatting away with Karan Casey and Niall Vallely and co. about all sorts of music and tales of the road.

It was appreciably warmer when we retired to base camp, but just as the sun came up it started raining, and boy, did it rain! We eventually found a break in the downpour long enough to pack a wet tent and head south in search of warmer climes (and Merridale's Cider Farm and Bistro!)

Many thanks to Doug Cox and his extremely friendly and helpful staff and volunteers. Island Musicfest is assuredly one of BC's finest festivals. Comparisons with others are futile. Each festival has its own special aura. Each can be enjoyed with considerable relish. I don't know if I would camp there again (but with better weather I might be tempted) but I will certainly return in future years. (I also heartily recommend Merridale's Cider Farm, with its delightful Orchard Trail and its faeries - the cider and food are pretty darned good, too!)