BIRDS HILL PARK — The intermingling odours of sunblock, sweat and fresh-cut grass form the official scent of summer in southern Manitoba, adulterated either with DEET in cottage country or diesel on city streets.
At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, there’s always another perfume in the air. This is of course the sweet smell of patchouli, which adorns the welltanned and impressively toned torsos of thousands of festival-goers during a five-day period when the otherwise ordinary-looking people reach deep into their closets to exhume the floral sundresses and tattered army shorts that spend the remaining 360 days of the year well-hidden from public view.
All joking aside, there’s more to the Winnipeg Folk Festival than the visual-auditory spectacle.
The real reason more than 10,000 paying customers flock to Birds Hill Park from across southern Manitoba — as well as Minnesota, Ontario, North Dakota, Wisconsin and B.C., in that order — to bear witness to one of the most musically diverse festival lineups on the continent.
Saturday’s mainstage headliner was DeVotchKa, a Denver outfit with a Slavic name, a burlesqueband pedigree and a sweeping, cinematic sound that veers from cerebral art-pop to more visceral rhythms inspired by Eastern European folk music. DeVotchKa was preceded by the Head and the Heart, an excellent Seattle indie-rock band with a sound that has some of the same orchestral ambitions as Arcade Fire, albeit with a more boppy, ’60s pop sensibility, thanks in no small part to the vocal harmonies.
And there was more from the U.S. Northwest.
Todd Snider, who — unlike almost every other male from Portland, Ore. — doesn’t wear suspenders or sport an obnoxious, Amish-length hipster beard, fronted a trio that delivered likable if un-extraordinary roots rock. Call me jaded, but life is too short for another rendition of Louie Louie.
Snider did at least provide some contrast following an hour of classic funk and R&B served up by Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, which is led by a chef-turned-James Brown tribute artist who finally recorded his first album in his 60s.
The real jaw-dropping moments of Saturday’s mainstage set occurred well before sunset. The show kicked off with 55 amazing minutes by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Durham, N.C., string band led by astounding singer-fiddler Rhiannon Giddens, who can vocalize in Gaelic as powerfully as anyone from Cape Breton Island.
The Chocolate Drops play again today at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Today marks the final day of the fiveday Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Earlier on Saturday, the Selinger government supported the event — and catered to a key component of the New Democratic Party’s urban voter base — by announcing a $650,000 contribution to the festival’s capital campaign.
The Folk Fest is trying to raise $6 million in cash or future commitments by the end of this year, to help pay for improvements that include new forested stage areas and a bus loop at the Birds Hill Park site.
As a result of the province’s contribution, the festival has now raised $4.3 million. It’s now looking for individual and corporate donations in an effort to meet the $6-million target, said festival spokeswoman Margaret Koshinsky.
While the five-day festival caps its paid attendance at 14,000 people per day, the site can be crowded on the busiest days and short on shaded areas.
So far this weekend, paid Folk Fest attendance has been an average of 10,215 a day, based on figures from Wednesday through Friday. That’s off considerably from 2011’s daily average attendance of 11,911, but the festival remains in fantastic financial shape.
In 2011, the five-day festival generated a $645,000 surplus, while the Winnipeg Festival organization — which also runs a record store and performance venue — posted a $38,000 surplus. Its year-end financial statements reveal net assets of $2.1 million, including deferred payments for the infrastructure improvements.
As a result of its extremely healthy financial picture, the festival is cognizant of complaints about rising ticket prices. But it has no plans to freeze the cost of admissions, as ticket revenue makes up the bulk of its operating revenue, said resource development manager Carolyn Basha.
"One year with really bad weather could have a serious impact on the attendance," she said.
Conditions at the festival were perfect on Saturday, which boasted a mix of sun and cloud and a late-afternoon high of 28 C.
Highlights from the daytime stages included an inspiring Big Bluestem stage global jam session that melded the talents of Edmonton aboriginal trio Asani, Sudanese-born former child soldier Emmanuel Jal and singer-songwriter Sidi Toure, who hails from Mali, which is currently engulfed in a complex civil war involving al-Qaida-affiliated Islamists, Tuareg separatists and a military regime that sparked a coup in the spring.
Orchestre Poly Rythmo, from the much more placid West African nation of Benin, drew a massive crowd to the Green Ash Stage to dance to a bouncy set of Afrobeat suites.
On the traditional side, the Fretless, a string quartet from B.C., proved there’s always room for Celtic fiddles at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, although it was disappointing they chose not to jam with Scottish electro-Celt act Sketch. Happily, Winnipegger Ruth Moody, of the Wailin’ Jennys, took a turn at vocals with the Fretless.
Sketch did share the Bluestem stage minutes later with the astounding Besh O DroM, a Hungarian ethno-punk ensemble that blends klezmer and Roma sounds with electronic beats and lounge jazz. Their secret weapon is the EWI, or "electronic wind instrument," a seven-octave synthesizer that’s fingered like a saxophone but looks like a boxy clarinet and is triggered by the power of human lungs.
Besh O DroM created a brilliant rave-like scene late Friday at the Big Blue evening stage. Folk Fest artistic director Chris Frayer said he’s been trying to bring the band to Manitoba for seven years. The wait was worth it.
— with files from Rob Williams