[originally published in The Georgia Straight, 1997]
We have a tendency in Vancouver to believe that, with respect to arts and cultural scenes anyway, the grass elsewhere is distinctly greener and brighter. In most cases this may well be true, despite all our liquid sunshine. So it's appropriate for an internationally renowned musician from the emerald isle itself to point out what we have that can't be found in Montreal or Toronto, or even in New York:
"The Rogue Folk Club is unique - there's nothing like it in North America, or anywhere else," asserts all Ireland fiddle champion Martin Hayes. "I've never been to a club as well-organised and none capable of supporting the same variety of music and of touring musicians, and the incredible amount of concerts. This would be my number one club."
Ironically the Rogue Folk Club, which celebrates its tenth anniversary on May 10th , got started by accident. Its founder Steve Edge had only been to two folk clubs in his life when he moved from Staffordshire, England to the West Coast back in 1981. "And that was to see a couple of musical comedy acts,' he remembers. "I was into the alternative rock scene back home. Soon after coming here I discovered CITR [UBC campus] radio, and wanted to have my own program. But the only opening was for a folk show. I didn't know anything about folk music at the time, but I decided to take it on."
Edge was assisted by a number of friends - including Geoff Kelly of the folk-rock band Spirit of the West, which was also just getting going at the time. "He started reeling off the names of bands I'd never heard of, making tapes for me and lending me albums. Geoff was a guest on the radio show a few times, and was really great in helping me figure out what could be played, what was happening, what was exciting on the current folk scene." Within a few months Edge was firmly in the saddle as a folk music disc jockey (his show, "The Edge On Folk", is still broadcast on CITR 101.9 FM every Saturday morning).
Then came the Expo 86 World's Fair in Vancouver. Amid all the hype and hoopla, live folk music was heard at a variety of locations throughout the site, and many home-based musicians got five months of regular, well-paid work. When the fair was over, Edge and his partner Margaret Whale decided to organise a series of showcase concerts for some of the wealth of local talent they had discovered. And Expo had made another significant contribution to the music scene - pubs were for the first time allowed to stay open on Sundays. "Janet Forsyth, who ran the Savoy down in Gastown, told me she wanted to try some new programming ideas on Sundays," recalls Edge. "So she asked us if we'd like to try putting on some folk music."
The Rogue Folk Club was born in May 1987. The first official concert featured Stephen Fearing - at that time a virtually unknown guitarist recommended by Geoffrey Kelly - as the headliner, with local Bluegrass act Little Mountain Band to open. By the end of the year the Rogue Folk had presented more than two dozen folk musicians and groups including two shows by another Canadian singer songwriter bound for glory, James Keelaghan.
Then near-disaster struck. The Savoy, which had proved the perfect venue, was sold the following March and the R.F.C. had to move. "We tried the Railway Club for a concert by Loreena McKennitt, and packed the place to well over its legal capacity," Edge confesses. "But it was obviously too small a venue. We also tried Isadora's Restaurant, the Anza Club, and the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, but for one reason or another they didn't work out either and we were losing money." At last Edge and Whale discovered the little-used W.I.S.E Hall, behind the Cultch. "We realized at once that, if we painted the place and smartened it up a bit, it would be good. We started off in the fall of '88, and it felt like home at once."
The Rogue was still carrying a deficit when it put on a concert by Martin Carthy, the single most important and influential artist on the British folk scene. "Vast numbers of people came out. The show was our first W.I.S.E. Hall sell-out. It put us on the map, paid off the deficit, and gave us a surplus to help promote the next shows. We were right back on our feet. I'm sure we're not the first and won't be the last folk club to be rescued by Martin Carthy."
However, the R.F.C. could not possibly have carried on, or continue to operate now, without the help of teams of volunteers. "I still do the booking and the publicity, and put out the monthly Review, which provides detailed info on our upcoming concerts, But they're the ones who handle all the organizational activities that happen at the shows," explains Edge.
The sell-out audience at Martin Carthy's concert also provided a clear indication of the artistic direction in which the club was developing. While remaining musically eclectic, the Rogue has come to be associated primarily with traditional and tradition-based music . "We bring in a lot of Celtic and English performers. But we don't restrict ourselves. If there are any booking criteria at all they're for exceptional singers and players - usually, though by no means exclusively, from the British Isles and Ireland. For the most part it's acoustic music, but that doesn't rule out bringing in the occasional electric guitar or drum kit, either."
Given the Rogue's origins and eclecticism it's fitting that the club's 10th anniversary concert should feature The House Band - a group of four multi-instrumental Englishmen, two of whom now live in the U.S.A. Though usually labelled as Celtic musicians, they range much further afield for their material, playing anything from South African township jive tunes, to Bulgarian horos, Breton marches, and more. "It's great that we've got the House Band to play, because we've always loved their music and their approach. We took a chance when we first presented them back in 1989 and have been pushing them all along. Now they have a really strong following here."
The Rogue itself has built up a strong base of support over the years, with over 700 active members, and it"s still expanding. Many concerts, especially those by up-and-coming Celtic bands, sell out on the artists' first appearance in Vancouver. It hasn't all been plain sailing, though. The club has met a mixed response with its occasional ventures into World Music. "We've done reasonably well with some of the European bands, but the first time we tried an African band - Kenya's Abana Ba Nas - it was a disaster. We had about 20 people." It's sad to think that, for all the best efforts of the Rogue, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and other organizations, so many Lotuslanders remain apathetic and unadventurous with respect to music.
But bureaucracy and officialdom have presented far greater obstacles to the club's continued progress. "One of our biggest problems is being recruited as involuntary tax collectors, charging G.S.T. and then having to report everything - with all the time and the paperwork involved. Then there's the customs and immigration people at the border who often subject musicians to long delays and aggressive treatment," complains Edge. "And just recently the fee for foreign bands to come into Canada and perform was increased from $250 to $450. In many cases that's like half the fee a band obtains.
"It's really misguided - and a savage blow for bands on their way up," he continues. "If they're having to fork out all that money just to get into the country they're not going to bother. They'll just stay in the States. That's especially sad for our audience, because they're going to get less exposure to new things. And it's undoing a lot of our work in helping to build up a Celtic music scene here, with people starting to play the tunes themselves. If the free flow of artists dries up it only diminishes the quality of the musical mosaic in Vancouver."
The Rogue has come to be an integral part of that mosaic, and its concert series offers the best value for money in town. "Most of our concerts are around $10-$12 for members," states Edge. "Our season ticket of $100 for any twelve concerts is ridiculously low - but it works for us too, by giving us an influx of cash at the beginning of the year so we can advertise. And we've now got a family membership deal. We're really cautious to keep the shows affordable and accessible in every way. There's also our monthly magazine - The Rogue Folk Review - to keep folks infomed. But we do need more people to spread the word about what we're doing, and to get involved, because we receive so little media attention compared to rock and other mainstream musical events. We're always open to new fares and new ideas."
Some of the musicians are open to experiment as well. When anarchistic ranter Attila the Stockbroker performed at the Rogue some years ago he brought his mum with him. "Attila told me she played the piano, and I said 'Why not get her on stage with you?'" Edge relates. "So he did - and there he is in all his gear, using lots of swear words, belting out these songs, with his mum sitting behind him in a nice blue frock and rhinestone glasses, playing the piano, and smiling benignly as he hurls vitriol at the Tory party. It was a great contrast in styles."
Edge is also delighted to see the influence of artists brought to Vancouver by the Rogue permeating people's lives, sometimes in unusual ways. "Bronwyn McIvar is a young fiddle player, who's still in elementary school. She's really inspired by the likes of Martin Hayes and other great fiddlers, and she's been taking lessons from one of our Volunteers who also plays. Bronwyn's got to the point where she's learning so fast that she's inspired her mother - who's been coming to the shows with her - to take fiddle lessons as well. If we can encourage more of that it's a lovely bonus for what we've been doing over the past 10 years."