If last year's 40th-anniversary edition of the Winnipeg Folk Festival could be summed up in a single word, it would doubtless be "nostalgia."
So when it came to putting together this year's festival, artistic director Chris Frayer had another word in mind: "fresh."
The lineup for the 41st annual Winnipeg Folk Festival, which runs July 9-13, features a mix of first-time performers as well as artists who haven't been to Birds Hill Park in decades.
One such artist representing the latter category is mainstage headliner Bonnie Raitt, who last played the festival in 1988. The blues legend's Grammy-winning 2012 album, Slipstream -- her first studio recording since 2005 -- was released (independently, by the way) to wide acclaim. She'll be the Wednesday-night marquee act, with local alt-country outfit the Bros. Landreth and Amy Helm -- daughter of Levon -- and her band, the Handsome Strangers, opening.
"We've been trying to get Bonnie Raitt to come back to the festival for a long time," Frayer says. "She's a class act. After a few years of doing Feist and City and Colour and looking back to Wednesdays where it's been a little bit more contemporary, we wanted to do something a little more roots-oriented."
On Thursday, July 10, another big score will headline the mainstage: blues/funk master Ben Harper and famed blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. The duo just won a Grammy for its first collaboration, 2013's Get Up!. "I've been trying to get (Harper) for years, too," Frayer says. The night will also include Tennessee's Grammy-nominated female bluegrass group Della Mae, New York roots outfit the Wood Brothers and local vocal act Chic Gamine.
On Friday, July 11, the main stage will host a couple of familiar faces -- Canadian folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie and Alberta country singer-songwriter Corb Lund -- as well as some new ones: Tennessee husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope, Colorado string band Elephant Revival (a festival circuit favourite) and Swedish indie-folk/rock trio Baskery, who could be one the festival's biggest discoveries. (Apparently, the Bondesson sisters put on a hell of a live show.)
On Saturday, July 12, the festival will welcome back folk-punk icon and 2013 Winnipeg Folk Festival Artistic Achievement Award winner Ani DiFranco. Headlining the main stage that night is the Both, a new collaboration fronted by singer/songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. "This will be a once-in-a-lifetime event because they'll go back to their regular projects," Frayer says. The rest of the night is stacked with similarly buzzed-about acts: alt-country act Langhorne Slim & the Law, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and "Queen of Calypso" Calypso Rose.
Making her Winnipeg Folk Festival debut is folk legend Joan Baez, who will close the festival on Sunday, July 13. New York City's gospel-funk veterans the Relatives and breakout New Orleans folk-noir outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff, fronted by the estimable Alynda Lee Segarra, are also on the bill.
Programming details for the daytime workshops, family area and Big Blue @ Night, the festival's alternative mainstage, will be revealed in the weeks to come.
Frayer, who has held his post as artistic director for a decade, says he strives for balance in his programming. "Balance means looking at all the different things that fall under the folk tent and trying to have them be expressed in the lineup -- and looking at the brand that we've built based around discovering your next favourite group," he says.
Frayer was interested in putting an added emphasis on that last part, especially after last year's anniversary.
"It was really about starting with a clean slate. I wanted to get as many new bands onto the stages as possible this year." There are 75 acts new to the festival this year.
The lineup was, quite literally, pulled from all over the globe. "We really do have a unique opportunity to bring in some really cool world stuff," he says, pointing to Mauritanian singer/instrumentalist Noura Mint Seymali -- who hails from a long line of griots, or traditional West African storytellers -- as an example. Frayer caught her set at Global Fest in New York City in January and was blown away. Other international acts that Frayer says are sure to leave an impression include Namgar (Siberia), Geomungo Factory (South Korea), Mexican Institute of Sound (Mexico), Palenke Soultribe (Colombia) and Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson (United Kingdom).
Frayer pays close attention to trends, too. "We've kind of exploited this unexplained craze around the ukulele," he says, "so we got Jake Shimabukuro, who is a ukulele master from Hawaii and James Hill, from Nova Scotia."
This year's lineup also features a strong contingent of young, cool artists who make music under the wide-reaching umbrella of indie folk -- a genre that's enjoying a moment as of late thanks to the rise of megawatt acts such as Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers over the past few years. In addition to Baskery and Hurray for the Riff Raff, other big-draw modern folk acts at the festival include Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten -- who is releasing Are We There?, her much anticipated followup to 2012's breakout record Tramp, in May -- Australia's Boy & Bear, North Carolina's Hiss Golden Messenger and Texas's Shakey Graves.
Frayer is encouraged that so many young artists are embracing the folk label.
"These bands are self-identifying as folk. They aren't calling themselves anything else. The argument about what is or isn't folk music doesn't interest me -- and it didn't interest Pete Seeger, either." (A special tribute is planned to honour the folk icon, who died in January. Seeger performed at the 1980 and 1985 editions of the festival.)
Besides, Frayer would argue, when it comes to planning a folk festival, the designation of "folk" goes well beyond a genre of music. "I want to focus on how music creates community. Folk is about more than what's onstage. It's about being with friends and family, treating each other well, appreciating the environment, eating together -- that's what the folk community is. It's not just beards and banjos."
That said, maintaining the festival's vibe -- and, in turn, its integrity -- does have a lot to do with what's onstage, which is why Frayer wouldn't book, say, Mumford and Sons. "There's stuff that's too big for us, and we just don't go there. If Coachella's your thing, go for it. We're not that, and we're not going to be that. Arcade Fire isn't going to play the folk fest because then it's an Arcade Fire concert at the folk fest."
Putting together a festival lineup is also a lesson in logistics; Frayer has to consider many factors when booking acts, including tour schedules and routes, competing festivals, production requirements and the setting itself. "We'd probably do Mumford and Sons -- but we'd probably try to do it at Investors Group Field or MTS Centre," he says. (The Winnipeg Folk Festival presents programming year-round; concerts from the Head and the Heart and Neko Case are just two upcoming examples.)
For his part, Frayer feels good about this year's slate of performers -- and he hopes his audience will, too.
"It's a departure from last year, when we were spending a lot of time celebrating our past accomplishments and had a stronger focus on nostalgia -- which I liked, too. Last year was a lot of work and I was proud I was here for that milestone," he says. "But I think people will feel like the festival feels different from last year -- in a good way."
Early bird tickets for the Winnipeg Folk Festival went on sale Nov. 30 and will remain on sale until April 30.
Early bird five-day adult passes are $225, including GST and service fees, at Ticketmaster and the Folk Festival Music Store. Youth and senior passes are $135.
Early bird five-day festival passes with camping are $300 for adults and $210 for youths and seniors. "Quiet" camping passes are $40 cheaper than festival camping passes. Festival camping tickets move quickly; last year's sold out by April 30.
Early bird adult day tickets are $58 (for Wednesday and Thursday) and $78 (Friday through Sunday), while youths and seniors tickets are $43 and $58.
Children 12 and under will be admitted to the festival free, even if they are camping. Also new this year is a $1 Eco Fee that will be applied to each ticket to help support the festival's sustainability initiatives. (If you buy a five-day pass, your contribution will be $5.)
The festival has made room for 150 more RVs in the Festival Campground. RV tickets are $20 and are subject to availability.
Visit www.winnipegfolkfestival.ca for advance and gate ticket prices.