BIRDS HILL PARK — The final day of the 41st Winnipeg Folk Festival was a wet, cold one. It rained all day — but the show went on.
Mainstage got going an hour later than scheduled and folk legend Joan Baez performed an hour earlier than scheduled because of the inclement weather. Official attendance figures for the five-day run weren’t available at press time, but Winnipeg Folk Festival executive director Lynne Skromeda says numbers are trending down from last year. Walk-up attendance on Sunday also took a hit because of the rain.
Baez — who dressed for the weather in her unassuming fleece and New Balance sneakers, looked less like an icon and more like "my aunt Celia going to the bank" to quote my friend Emily — wasted no time, launching into the gospel standard Down By the Riverside and Diamonds and Rust. The crowd was small — the patchwork of tarps barely extended past the sound booth — but it was rapt. Her voice is as indelible as ever.
Over at Big Blue @ Night, Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten passed out umbrellas to soggy festivalgoers before playing a knock-out of a set — my favourite of the weekend — to a decent sized crowd. Those who left early missed out. Van Etten’s got a stirring, ethereal voice — a force matched only by the tidal wave of sound generated by her band. From the visceral Your Love is Killing Me to the sunny set closer Every Time The Sun Comes Up — both off her masterful 2014 album Are We There — the impish singer/songwriter made us forget the rain. "You guys are (expletive) troopers."
Indeed, Van Etten had some fans in attendance — including a little girl named Tatum. Clad in her pink rubber boots, she put on a little side show with her dance moves. "Hello," she said to Sharon between songs. "Hello," Sharon replied. "You’re a cute little girl. Will you be our mascot?" Where else but Folk Fest would that happen?
At press time, Elephant Revival was still scheduled to close the mainstage while Australia’s Boy & Bear was set to cap-off Big Blue @ Night.
Earlier in the day, folkies braved the steadily declining weather to catch shows at the daytime stages. At Snowberry, an intimate indie-rock showcase featuring Saturday night’s headliners The Both — Aimee Mann and Ted Leo — Boy & Bear and The Wilderness of Manitoba was well-attended. It was a pleasure hearing Mann’s intoxicating, melancholic voice in such an intimate setting; her performance of Labrador was stunning. She also provided dulcet harmonies on Leo’s Bottle of Buckie. Boy & Bear’s lush, cinematic indie rock and The Wilderness of Manitoba’s AM radio harmonies rounded out a beautiful workshop.
In a decision I’ll regret forever, I opted not to check out Minneapolis comedy-pop duo Koo Koo Kanga Roo’s show for big kids at Big Blue @ Night on Saturday — but it was fun shouting and dancing along with face-painted pre-schoolers at the Chickadee Bigtop when I finally saw Bryan Atchison and Neil Olstad on Sunday afternoon. "This is our third show in 24 hours, so you’re getting a C-minus performance," Olstad cautioned.
Well, in Koo Koo Kanga Roo parlance, he was a liar liar pants on fire. The pair brought its A game, leading the audience in high-energy sing-a-longs about everything from friendship bracelets to fanny packs, complete with aerobic dance moves. Sadly, they didn’t play Cat Party, which was a hit at Big Blue @ Night — sample lyric: "We are gonna have a cat party/so bring your cat and something to share!" — but Awesome Rainbows and Unicorns R Real went over big. May we all learn to be as unselfconscious as Koo Koo Kanga Roo.
Of course, I can’t be everywhere and see everything, but judging from social media — and conversations in the beer tent, the original social media — The Strumbellas’ and Left Lane Cruiser’s Friday night sets at Big Blue @ Night were among the weekend’s highlights. James McMurty’s Saturday afternoon show at Snowberry and Saturday’s Up Where We Belong workshop featuring Buffy Sainte-Marie, Frank Yamma with David Bridie and the Martha Redbone Roots Project also had plenty of buzz around them.
There were few acts that sent festivalgoers to the Winnipeg Folk Festival Music Store in droves. Shovels & Rope, Left Lane Cruiser, Palenke Soultribe and Koo Koo Kanga Roo were among the weekend’s big sellers.
Undoubtedly, the most anticipated workshop of the weekend happened on Sunday afternoon. We Shall Overcome, a star-studded tribute to Pete Seeger featuring Baez, Ani DiFranco, Jake Shimabukuro, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Reuben & The Dark and Elephant Revival, brought out an estimated 1000 folkies to Big Bluestem. It was a surreal experience seeing so many folk greats — established and emerging — share the same stage, but the reverence the players had for Baez was palpable. "I’m shaking, and I don’t think it’s because of the cold," Guthrie commented after Baez performed an English/German hybrid of Where Have All The Flowers Gone? They reminisced about Seeger, sharing in story and song. Goodnight, Irene and a lullabye version of Turn, Turn, Turn — with Shimabukuro’s ukulele providing a delicate score — were among the workshop’s highlights.
Those artists did Seeger’s songs justice, to be sure — but it was also reminded us exactly why we come to the Winnipeg Folk Festival every year. Hearing all those voices raise up together for We Shall Overcome was breathtaking.