Roy Rogers and Luke Blu Guthrie perform on the Grierson Stage for the “Blues Ain’t Nothing but a Feeling” session

Tales from MusicFest: The intricate art of programming a festival

Programming is at the heart of what makes MusicFest successful

Robert Moyes

Special to The Record

People choose a music festival based on the lineup: enough big-name acts make for a happy customer.

Popular Island festivals like Rock the Shores and Sunfest use that “cavalcade of stars” approach, and it sure gets the audiences screaming for encores. But there is a whole other approach to programming, one that evolved out of great folk festivals such as Edmonton and Mariposa.

It, too, includes lots of headliners, but also offers something more: unique musical experiences and an intimacy between artist and audience. And Vancouver Island MusicFest regulars know that their festival has always done a brilliant job at this type of programming.

Often called “sessions,” the term refers to the numerous performances running simultaneously at several smaller stages throughout the day. Although these are sometimes just “in concert” presentations, many have been carefully curated to bring together several musicians or groups that will, collectively, reveal unexpected depths and interrelationships. For example, a session called “Blues in the Morning” might combine an elder-statesman bluesman from Alabama, the hottest young guitar star on the scene, an exemplar of the blues-based music from Mali, and a horn-driven street band from New Orleans. The bands take turns talking about their music before performing it, and before long a jam-like groove often develops as these artists find joyful commonalities in the songs being performed.

Some sessions soar higher than others, but more often than not something special occurs as the musicians interact, improvise, and get excited about the collaborative musical experience they are all creating together. Everyone loves a mainstage performance by Bonnie Raitt or John Hiatt, but it’s the unexpected – and never to be heard again – music from the daytime stages that many people remember the best after the festival is over.

“These sessions are definitely what the festival is all about, and where a lot of the magic happens,” says MusicFest’s artistic director and executive producer, Doug Cox. “It’s more rewarding for the audience and the performer. “If people are reading the program and say, ‘I can’t get to everything I want to see’ then I’ve done my job,” adds Cox with a chuckle.

My Folk Music

He’s definitely done a good job this year, judging by the daytime programming.

Here are just four highlights.

My Folk Music, which nominally attempts to answer the old question about what folk music really is, features an eclectic array of performers. With British folk-rock legends Steeleye Span, old-school acoustic blues master Fruteland Jackson, the brewed-in-Texas conjunto border music of Los TexManiacs, and Quebec’s funkily revved-up traditionalists Les Poules a Colin, this session will, if nothing else, redefine the boundaries of folk.

From Memphis to Monk

Also on Saturday is From Memphis to Monk, an all-star assemblage paying tribute to iconic jazz master Thelonious Monk. The diverse artists putting a fresh spin on ‘Round Midnight and other Monk classics include boogie-woogie piano king David Vest, bluegrass superstars J2B2 (with John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen), versatile guitar ace Amos Garrett, the Jason Wilson Band featuring Pee Wee Ellis, and beloved B.C. fiddler Daniel Lapp (who is also a great trumpet player, justly famed for his Tribute to Chet Baker show).

Spirit Celebration

No matter how hard you party on Saturday night, it is always imperative to show up for Sunday’s 10 a.m. gospel set (now more inclusively referred to as Spirit Celebration). This session includes beloved bluegrass veterans Hot Rize, the ethereal Bulgarian Voices Trio, rootsy sister duo Scenic Roots, and the Jewish-Turkish music of Shtreiml & Ismail Fencioglu.

Country & Croonin’

Less spiritual terrain will be covered in the late afternoon with Country & Croonin’, where hurtin’ songs and bad-boy narratives get told by such experts as Cousin Harley (a.k.a. rockabilly guitar slinger Paul Pigat), Amos Garrett reunited with jug band maestro Geoff Muldaur, and the hillbilly-swing-meets-ragtime-goodtime of the incomparable Petunia & the Vipers. Let the party begin!

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

 

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