Winning the War Folk fest lands Grammy-winning War on Drugs to join Fleet Foxes, Emmylou Harris, Vance Joy as 2023 headliners

This winter has turned those who book performing artists for arenas and festivals into Ahab, the relentless captain in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

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This winter has turned those who book performing artists for arenas and festivals into Ahab, the relentless captain in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

In February, True North Sports and Entertainment made a whale of an announcement after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band set a Nov. 10 date for the Canada Life Centre for his first show in Winnipeg, a rock ‘n’ roll catch that had eluded Kevin Donnelly, the company’s senior vice-president in charge of entertainment and venues, since his earliest days as a concert promoter in the 1980s.

2023 lineup

Fleet Foxes

  • The War on Drugs
  • Vance Joy
  • Fleet Foxes
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Rufus Wainwright
  • Orville Peck
  • KT Tunstall

  • The War on Drugs
  • Vance Joy
  • Fleet Foxes
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Rufus Wainwright
  • Orville Peck
  • KT Tunstall
  • William Prince
  • Charley Crockett
  • Sierra Ferrell
  • Faye Webster
  • Fruit Bats
  • DJ Shub presents War Club
  • Adia Victoria
  • Etran de L’Air
  • Namgar
  • Field Guide
  • Aysanabee
  • Kelsey Waldon
  • Black Opry Revue
  • Moonlight Benjamin
  • S.G. Goodman
  • Andrina Turenne
  • Arny Margret
  • Balaklava Blues
  • Bella White
  • Black Belt Eagle Scout
  • Buffalo Nichols
  • BuenRostro
  • Cat Clyde
  • Cedric Watson and Dirk Powell
  • Charlotte Cornfield
  • Dongyang Gozupa
  • Finjan
  • Fire & Smoke
  • Fontine
  • Genitcorum
  • Georgia Harmer
  • Evan Redsky
  • Joe Rainey
  • Julian Taylor
  • Kacy & Clayton
  • Loudon Wainwright III
  • LowDown Brass Band
  • Mariel Buckley
  • Matt Foster
  • Myriam Gendron
  • Nicolette & the Nobodies
  • Nora Brown
  • Pierre Kwenders
  • Ginalina
  • Rich Aucoin
  • Ruploops
  • Susan O’Neill
  • SYML
  • Witch Prophet
  • Two Runner
  • Ko Shin Moon

The Winnipeg Folk Festival goes through a similar process, setting its net for artists close to home and around the world for its annual event, which this year runs July 6-9 at Birds Hill Provincial Park.

The fishing expedition includes dangling strong attendance figures, a rich history dating back to 1974 and potential dates that wished-for performers can fit into a tour.

After a seven-year hunt, the folk fest announced Friday evening it has landed the War on Drugs as one of the event’s headliners.

“You kind of got to lay some bread crumbs to get people to come to Winnipeg,” Chris Frayer, the festival’s artistic director, says from Los Angeles, where he’s already preparing the lineups for the next two events — the 2025 edition will be the 50th folk fest — at a conference with organizers of other festivals.

Meetings with officials from Summerfest in Milwaukee and the 80/35 Festival in Des Moines, Iowa, which also happen in early July, proved to be critical in helping build a Midwest tour for the War on Drugs.

“That was the trail I planted them on was to get them up the Midwest and then wind up in Winnipeg, because if the band’s not doing a western Canadian tour, we’re still quite isolated,” Frayer says.

“Some of the stuff we have to plan has to be done well in advance. Some of the groups I work on for years, and that was the case this year for a lot of our bigger acts.”

A Deeper Understanding earned the War on Drugs a Grammy Award for best rock album.
A Deeper Understanding earned the War on Drugs a Grammy Award for best rock album.

The War on Drugs began in Philadelphia in 2005, and even opened a show at the West End Cultural Centre in 2011, but rose to prominence in the rock world in 2014 with the album Lost in the Dream and the 2017 record A Deeper Understanding, which earned it a Grammy Award for best rock album.

Fleet Foxes, the Seattle-based indie-folk group, is another band new to the folk fest that has added Winnipeg to its Midwest touring schedule.

Other headliners include Australian folk-pop singer Vance Joy, Americana singer Emmylou Harris, avant-garde country artist Orville Peck, Canadian folk singer Rufus Wainwright and his father, Loudon Wainwright III, and Peguis First Nation’s William Prince, whose career keeps soaring after an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and a new album due out April 14.

<p>EmmyLou Harris</p>

EmmyLou Harris

“With William, it’s almost like this effortless songwriting craft that he has,” Frayer says. “We’ve just got to get behind the Manitoba acts that are doing great things at the international level.”

The inclusion of Joy on the festival bill is a surprise, because he played a sold-out show at the Centennial Concert Hall on Feb. 21, a show that was part of the folk fest’s concert series.

He was to be one of the headliners of the 2020 folk fest, which was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic; when Frayer learned Joy was in North America this summer, the festival couldn’t pass up the chance to bring him back to Winnipeg.

“It was definitely a consideration but in the end, I thought it was something we wanted to do and we’re going to be happy we did it,” he says of Joy’s returning to Winnipeg so soon. “We’re just happy to get him back, and I have to say, given the style of music and his repertoire, it’s like the perfect outdoor-style folk fest show.”

Manitoba movers

William Prince has a new album due out April 14.
William Prince has a new album due out April 14.

Prince heads a Manitoba contingent with a variety of musical styles. Those include Fontine, who appeared in 2022 as part of Boy Golden’s band but in ‘23 has a recording of her own, Yarrow Lover.

Field Guide, who as Dylan MacDonald once performed at the folk fest’s Young Performers Program, will offer those who can’t get a ticket for his March 24 show at the West End Cultural Centre to hear his re-imagined versions of tracks from his 2022 self-titled debut.

Two bilingual artists from Manitoba, singer-songwriter Andrina Turenne and Fire & Smoke, the folk-roots duo of Claire Morrison and Daniel Péloquin-Hopfner, will grace festival stages. So will Matt Foster, formerly of the Crooked Brothers, whose music is versatile enough to play the 2023 folk festival and last year’s Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

Finjan, the klezmer group co-founded by Myron Schultz that emerged from Winnipeg’s North End, made its folk fest debut in 1983, and will mark its 40th anniversary at this summer’s event.

”I’ve been friends with Myron for years and they’re still regarded in the klezmer-Jewish diaspora as one of the leading groups of that genre,” Frayer says. “They’ve been great ambassadors for our workshops and we’ll do some fun pairings with groups from all over the place.


Indigenous spotlight

                                <p>Winnipeg’s Fontine makes her fest debut.</p>


Winnipeg’s Fontine makes her fest debut.

Indigenous acts from across Turtle Island will join Manitoba-based artists such as Prince, Turenne and Fontine to create a celebration of music created by Aboriginal and Métis performers in July.

The most notable will be DJ Shub, the Mohawk artist formerly of A Tribe Called Red and the godfather of PowWowStep. He will present War Club, an album that blends electronic music with Indigenous culture that earned him a Juno Award for in 2022 and a television special on CBC and CBC Gem.

“We want to be really cognizant, as I book 60-plus artists, that we’re representing the community that we live in in Winnipeg. It’s important to bring all those sounds and flavours to the festival,” Frayer says.

Toronto-based folk singer Julian Taylor, whose song 100 Proof has been nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award, will be at Birds Hill along with Black Belt Eagle Scout, who derives her music from powwow traditions at the Swinomish nation in Washington state, and musical storyteller Evan Redsky of Mississaugi First Nation in Ontario.


Around the world in four days

Etran de L’Air is a group from Niger that plays “desert blues.”
Etran de L’Air is a group from Niger that plays “desert blues.”

Artists from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America are scattered throughout the folk fest bill in 2023 and will bring an assortment of musical styles with them. Bands such as Etran de L’Air, a group from Niger that plays the “desert blues,” will cross musical paths with Namgar, a four-piece group from Mongolia that performs folk music from the Asian country; South Korea’s Dongyang Gozupa will bring a rock-based spin on Korean traditions.

Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, Iceland’s Arny Margret, Ko Shin Moon of Paris and Ireland’s Susan O’Neill lead a European contingent of musicians.



Festival passes and tickets for individual days are on sale at A four-day pass is $248 for adults ($176 for seniors and youths) during the fest’s Tier 1 pricing period.

Passes that include camping at the festival campground ($330.50/$258.50) or the quiet campground ($290.50/218.50) are also on sale.

Adult day tickets are also on sale ranging from $85 for Thursday night adult passes to $110 for Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

In some ways, Frayer’s job is similar to a general manager of a hockey or football franchise. Folkies can be just as demanding and discerning as Jets fans at the NHL trade deadline.

“We only have those four specific days we have the Winnipeg Folk Festival,” he says. “You only see the artists that actually land. You don’t know about all the artists that I didn’t land, that aren’t on that poster. We’ll have to try again for next year.”

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

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.

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