Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg Folk Festival: All the folk that fits

Marathon version of festival draws some complaints, but fans flock despite extra day

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Do you think they are all folked out yet?

If you are reading this Saturday morning, the Winnipeg Folk Festival still has the whole weekend to go.

Two full days of workshops and two long evening concerts.

That should be enough folk music for anyone. But if there is one thing we've learned over 37 years, it's that true folkies can never seem to get enough of a good thing.

This year, folk festival organizers made it official and upped the event from four days to five. This was after last year's successful experiment with a Wednesday night Elvis Costello concert.


Now the fest is the longest of its kind in the western hemisphere, or something like that. It's nice to have these bragging rights, but what really makes the Winnipeg Folk Festival a singular event is the spaciousness of its Birds Hill Park site, the excellence of its planning and organization, and its readiness to embrace change over the decades.

No mention of the music here? In truth, all folk festivals, ours included, present many of the same acts as part of a continent-wide tour.

And all them have large enough rosters that if you can't find a few acts to like, you really don't like this kind of music.

The Winnipeg festival's ongoing decision to keep the big-name stars to a minimum might disappoint a few of us in the headline-writing business.

But the strategy can't really be faulted. It keeps talent costs in line. It pays homage to the festival's egalitarian ethos. And it certainly has not resulted in a decline in attendance or loyalty.

There have been some legitimate beefs with the festival's decision to add a day. Some have complained that it's a cash grab, and it may well be.

Organizers added $25 to the price of admission -- $165 for this year's early bird pass -- and even though there were no workshop offerings on Thursday to occupy those who chose to come for the first night, fans were not given the option to stay at four days.

The extra gate revenue, estimated to be as much as $250,000, will probably go toward the festival's ongoing $6-million site redevelopment project.

A bigger beef came from some of the out-of-province fans, who account for about 30 per cent the festival audience.

As much as they love coming up to sunny Manitoba for their annual folk-music fix, some cannot get away a day earlier.

Thus they lose the chance to nab good camping spots, which are available first come, first served on the festival's opening morning.

There has also been some perceived heavy-handedness, too, in the festival's announcement that it would cancel a scalped camping pass.

The Internet has completely changed the rules for the reselling of scarce goods, and folk festivals are no more immune than rock concerts.

But how do you determine if a camping pass in the possession of one festival-goer was given to him by a friend called away on an emergency, purchased at face value, or scalped at double the price?

In the '80s, people often joked that the festival's audience was largely "old hippies." This wasn't true then, and it's less true today.

Anyone who has attended recently knows that the organization has done a spectacular job at renewing its audience, and for every 60-year-old who complains about hearing too much rock music, there's an 18-year-old joking about too much old-fogey music.

True, the audience remains largely white and middle-class, and thus not really indicative of today's Canada or the event's utopian ideal. But these are the people who have money to spend on concerts.

The ticket price does seem steep at first blush, but it's really excellent value compared to, say, your average arena show.

The real issue at the folk festival is the commitment it demands. But there are 10,000 to 15,000 people each year who gather on the same tarp with the same friends, and it's among their most meaningful rituals, more important even than a parade for Jonathan Toews or a World Cup soccer final.

Who can blame them if they can't get enough of it?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2010 C1

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