Free hugs and sassy tunes

Folkies unite at 45th annual festival


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The opening day of the Winnipeg Folk Fest felt a little quieter than normal.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2018 (1505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The opening day of the Winnipeg Folk Fest felt a little quieter than normal.

Yes, there were musicians playing to those waiting in line to purchase tickets, and yes, there was a crew of volunteers greeting attendees, but on the whole, a blanket of calm fell over the Thursday night crowd at Birds Hill Provincial Park.

Perhaps it was due to the temperature, which sat at a broiling 24 C, or merely an effort to conserve their excitement in preparation for the scorching weekend ahead, expected to peak with a whopping 34 C Saturday. As it is often said, folk fest is a marathon, not a sprint.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Alex Mackinnon dances to the acoustic stylings of Skylar Bouchard.

That isn’t to say folkies weren’t dressed the part; flower crowns and hats were not in short supply, while body paint, bubbles, the “free hugs” sign and a lifetime’s worth of tie-dye also made their annual appearances.

And there were pockets of the expected elation, usually sparked by a familiar folk-fest face not seen since last year’s event. The protocol is always the same: mouths drop, arms fling open, speed of approach increases, and hollers of, “Hi! How are you!” jump three octaves higher than normal.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch, the rekindling of once-a-year friendships, and is a tangible example of what has kept this folk fest running for 45 years.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jadea Kelly rehearses before performing.

Basing things solely on her biggest and most well-known single, the pop-influenced track Ex’s and Oh’s, Grammy Award-nominated American singer-songwriter Elle King was not a name many expected to grace the folk fest’s lineup. But those familiar with the songstress’s full catalogue know she’s got an Americana streak in her a mile wide, and she wasted no time showing it Thursday night, setting the tone early with the uber-bluesy Chain Smoking, Hard Drinking Woman.

The first major headliner of the weekend to take the stage, the tattoo-clad King had the dancing area packed with fans as she (and her band, the Brethren) injected some energy with a set full of sass.

King, who either had a beer or a banjo in her hand for much of her performance, oozes confidence as a performer. She dances, she wails, she flashes her bra to the crowd. She laughs and tells stories about being drunk or writing songs about people who have mistreated her; she smokes on stage while wearing a “legalize it” T-shirt.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The crowd gathers at the main stage for the first performance of Folk Fest on Thursday evening.

Performance skills aside, King also has a magnificent voice that’s dripping with character and dimension; her upper register is full and powerful, her lower notes sweet and soft, but everything carries a beautiful rasp that really highlights the blues, roots and Americana aspects of her music.

Rounding out the night was a set from Australian alt-folk-rock group the John Butler Trio, lead by — you guessed it — John Butler.

The five-piece were just three songs into their set by press time, but had already showcased a few sides of their multifaceted sound to an attentive and eager audience.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Elle King performs on the Folk Fest mainstage at Birds Hill Provincial Park Thursday.

Earlier in the night, as always, the festival was ushered in with a blessing from an Indigenous elder. This year, a new elder, Sherry Copenace, took over from elder Mae Louise Campbell, who retired from the festival and will be getting the Glass Banjo Award later this weekend, which honours devoted volunteers, organizations and partners who have supported the festival.

Local brother-sister duo Roger Roger kicked off the night with a quick 30-minute set. They released their debut record in 2016 and have been popping up at festivals and local events consistently since.

Their mellow folk-pop vibes were the perfect fit for the earlier portion of the evening’s music — Roger Roger has a light, fresh and catchy catalogue, and the siblings are also quite thoughtful in their writing. They possess both style and substance.

Madeline Roger took a moment to congratulate the festival for its lineup, which features and equal number of male and female performers, including headlining acts.

She then launched into a song she wrote about her experience as a woman in the music industry. It was a stunning emotional piece and ended their set on a figurative high note.

Australian duo Mama Kin Spender changed things up a bit with a percussion-heavy set rooted in indie-rock with just a hint of B-52’s-style retro.

The Mama Kin portion of Mama Kin Spender, whose given name is Danielle Caruana, is a sparkling character on stage; her powerful, expressive voice guided the majority of the tracks, while her casual and personable banter between songs provided good balance. Her musical partner, Tommy Spender, held up his end of the duo, offering equally strong vocals and gritty guitar moments.

(Fun fact: Caruana is the wife of fellow Aussie and Thursday mainstage performer John Butler.)

Daytime stages and workshops begin today at 11 a.m. Today’s headlining mainstage acts include folk-rockers The Strumbellas and Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, as well as Boston-based five-piece Darlingside, award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Michigan trio the War and Treaty. Mainstage music starts at 6 p.m.

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar spends her time thinking of, and implementing, ways to improve the interaction and connection between the Free Press newsroom and its readership.

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