Back at Birds Hill
Winnipeg Folk Fest traditions, music return with no signs of rust from long pandemic pause
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BIRDS HILL PROVINCIAL PARK — Some habits are impossible to break.
For a quartet of women their Winnipeg Folk Fest rituals have outlasted the COVID-19 pandemic and 1,089 days of silence from Birds Hill.
The main one for Eileen Mayor-Masse, Linda Gould, Alexis Masse and Linda McLaren was to find their favourite spot late Thursday afternoon during another folk-fest tradition, the tarp run.
While there is no running, the four sashayed to the front and tacked their tarp down to the left of the folk fest mainstage, as they have done for years.
It was a march and a weekend experience Mayor-Masse dreamed about for two years.
“The first year of cancellation I stayed in the (festival) campground anyway,” she said. “I stayed for 10 days and I thought there would be a super party but it didn’t happen.”
For Masse, who is Mayor-Masse’s daughter, she wouldn’t dare miss the folk fest, even if it meant the former Winnipegger having to take three flights from Kansas to get here.
“I’m a folk fest baby, tattooed and everything,” says Masse, who has been to 25 folk fests and has a dragonfly inked on her leg to attract the mosquito predators to their part of the festival site.
“I have so totally missed it,” says McLaren. “Yes, the music, you see all these bands you wouldn’t have heard before, but then you get to see people you never thought you’d get to see or you haven’t seen in years.”
They got an excellent view of the the evening’s artists, including Winnipeg trio Sweet Alibi, backed by members of the Dirty Catfish Brass Band, who had the privilege of bringing music back to Birds Hill.
They also got to see Allison Russell, the roots singer-songwriter from Nashville, via Montreal, whose dramatic hour-long set of tunes offered proof of why audiences around the world have been captivated by her stage presence, vocals, as well as clarinet playing, in the past couple of years.
She mentioned early on how grateful she was to be in Winnipeg with her all-woman band, mentioning her difficult teenage years in Montreal, where at one point she said she was without a home and slept on a park bench.
Bettye LaVette, the blues singer and classic-rock song interpreter, followed and kicked off her bluesy set with Things Have Changed, an Oscar-winning song that has even more brass than Bob Dylan’s original.
“From the Rolling Stones to little old me, we’re so glad to see you,” she said, adding she’s “kissed a lot of frogs,” before relating a brush with bad pandemic timing in March 2020.
She had a new album, Blackbirds, that was overshadowed by COVID and a commercial deal with — get this — Corona beer that aired only once.
Guitarist Leo Nocentelli, famous for his funky solos with the Meters, followed on Thursday’s mainstage after press time.
While a large part of the crowd were making long-awaited returns to the folk festival site, for some Thursday was their first visit.
That included Anne Martin of Winnipeg, who was first in line for wristbands Thursday afternoon. Blues artists such as LaVette brought her out to Birds Hill.
“It was on my bucket list, we wanted to come and I’ve never been before and I’m quite excited to be here,” she said of the folk festival. “We’re already talking about camping next year and coming for the whole weekend.”
Not far behind Martin in the queue was Doug Ross of Chicago, who was lured north and his first visit to the folk fest by two performances by neo-psychedelic artist Kurt Vile.
His show on Thursday and a set today with the Sadies will be the 68th time Ross has seen Vile perform.
“The show (with the Sadies) is the reason that got me down here,” he said. “It’s just a bonus that he had his own show.”
Vile and his band the Violators wound up the Big Blue@Night stage Thursday and today at 1 p.m., he joins the Sadies, longtime collaborators, at 1 p.m. at the Green Ash stage.
There was no sign of rust on the mainstage after three years away. Volunteers, more valuable than ever, tried to keep up with long lines of thirsty folkies seeking drink tickets.
The festival, which runs until Sunday night, continues at workshop stages beginning today at 11 a.m., which might be bright and early for party-starved campers, but a long time coming for folks who prefer the folk fest’s more intimate venues.
The mainstage returns at 6 p.m. with LADAMA, Andy Shauf, a rendition of the Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light by Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew, and a set by the Strumbellas,
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.