BIRDS HILL PARK — On Saturday night’s mainstage, Luke Doucet thanked the Winnipeg Folk Festival for having a broad definition of folk music. It was kind of a throw-away moment — he was politely thanking the festival for including him — but he nicely summed up the festival’s evolution over the past 40 years.
If folk music is music by the people for the people, then it can take on many forms — a point underscored by Saturday’s incredibly diverse lineup on the mainstage and off. Purist folk to avant-garde electro, legends and newcomers, we saw it all.
Let’s start with the legends. Before New Orleans funk collective Galactic took the stage for its headlining slot at press time, another N’awlins band, Dr. John & The Nite Trippers, laid down a slab of full-title boogie woogie. Clad in a red pinstripe suit and trademark fedora, six-time Grammy winner Dr. John — aka Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr. — ran down the hits, including his biggest, Right Place, Wrong Time, to an adoring crowd. He sure knows how to tickle the ivories.
Martin Sexton was another big mainstage draw on Saturday night. Armed with just his guitar — the self-taught musician did get his start as a busker on Boston street-corners, after all — Sexton wowed with his heart-on-sleeve brand of blue-eyed soul. In addition to being a killer guitar player, he’s got a powerhouse set of pipes. His vocal acrobatics were effortless and his grooves were easygoing.
It was a completely different vibe over at Big Bluestem, where Halifax experimentalist Rich Aucoin was throwing an explosive dance party — complete with confetti cannons —with his sample-heavy, live-band electropop. Impossibly energetic, Aucoin was the consummate party host, leading the audience in singalongs to his fists-in-the-air anthems. He even got the crowd to converge under a giant parachute. Yes, like the one from gym class.
Earlier at the mainstage, Whitehorse, the husband-and-wife duo of Doucet and Melissa McClelland, managed to turn up the heat on an already-blistering evening. Their Americana-flavoured folk rock is slinky and sexy — and it’s also incredibly intricate. The duo crafts their soundscapes from layers of percussion, keyboard and even telephone receiver amplification run through a maze of looping pedals, all bolstered by guitar-slinger Doucet’s lightning fret work and his intoxicating vocal interplay with McClelland. From the roadhouse romp No Glamour in the Hammer to the propulsive Radiator Blues, these two were on fire.
The mainstage show started with a bang courtesy of Habadekuk, a boisterous Danish folk ensemble whose lively jigs got the dinner crowd on its feet.
Saturday was a scorcher, the sun high in a cloudless blue sky with the temperature kissing 30 C. Patches of shade became precious real estate. So far, paid folk fest attendance has been an average of 10,711 a day, based on unofficial totals from Wednesday through Friday. The packed beer garden provided a much-needed oasis.
Saturday and Sunday are traditionally the festival’s busiest days, putting the grounds’ new configuration to the real test. The addition of the Festival Village and a permanent home for food vendors has proved positive in terms of traffic flow; festival-goers no longer have to navigate their way through mammoth food lines at supper time to get to the mainstage.
Highlights from the daytime stages included 1974, the much-anticipated, very well-attended workshop featuring a host of folk luminaries who played the first festival, including Sylvia Tyson (of Ian & Sylvia), Leon Redbone, Stringband, Ken Whiteley, Bob King and folk fest fixture Peter Paul Van Camp, who came out of retirement to host.
The Winnipeg poet was as hilarious and generous an MC as usual, leading a late afternoon set filled with reminisces and folk classics.
Cult icon Leon Redbone, a man many came to see, showed up late, which isn’t exactly off-brand — "He’s an elusive guy, so why would he be on this stage?" Van Camp quipped — but the wait was worth it. "I’ve spent four hours tuning my guitar," the cult icon said when he finally arrived. "Close enough!" Wearing his signature fedora, he delighted with his vaudevillian ragtime ditties despite the odd sound hiccup.
Tyson, who was one of the biggest names on the inaugural folk fest lineup, was a treat to see. Her performance of her 1975 hit Sleep on My Shoulder transported the audience back in time.
The workshop’s biggest crowd-pleaser, however, was Stringband’s hilarious (and lyrically explicit) feminist anthem Show Us The Length.
Modern folk greats had their moment in the sun, too. Toronto singer/songwriter and Broken Social Scenester Jason Collett put on an excellent afternoon concert, his languid, Dylanesque drawl perfectly hanging in the humidity. A pair of Winnipeggers helped him out on a few tracks; violinist Julie Penner added resplendent strings to the beautiful We All Lose One Another while her husband, Weakerthans drummer Jason Tait, added ethereal singing saw to the haunting Winnipeg Winds.
It’s criminal that more people didn’t catch an early afternoon concert by Cold Specks, a breakout band led by Al Spx, a woman with a great big gravelly rumble of a voice. The group’s fusion of deep South gospel and fuzzed-out indie rock has made it a critical darling in the U.K., but it’s Spx’s voice that’s worth hearing live. Her a capella rendition of the traditional Stepstone was chilling.