Finally, the day thousands of Winnipeggers wait for all year has arrived.
On the first day of the 42nd annual Winnipeg Folk Fest — a picture-perfect prairie evening — folk enthusiasts from near and far made the trek out to Birds Hill Provincial Park, literally skipping as they strategically placed their tarps in front of the main stage for the opening night’s lineup Thursday.
Los Angeles ensemble Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros headlined the night and brought their chill California vibe to the stage. Singer Alex Ebert spent a lot of time wandering around the stage, bare-footed, rocking a top knot and what appeared to be burlap pants as he chatted to an adoring crowd of fans.
The Magnetic Zeros opened their set with upbeat Better Days before launching into the much more tame 40 Day Dream. Ebert seemed to have an almost hypnotic relationship with the audience, staring them down with an intense amount of eye contact as he crooned from the edge of the stage.
Things kept going in the mellow direction with the beginning of Man on Fire, but quickly picked up as the song progressed and Ebert now donning a white suit jacket, made his way to the ground, skipping through the audience, dancing with people in the crowd and offering up a slew of high fives. This is the Alex Ebert show, and everyone is invited.
Later on, he took the mic into the audience (one of several times) and called on some random fans to sing along. The first girl he approached not only knew most of the words, but just happened to be fantastic. The set was very collaborative in that way, calling on communication and participation from the audience to help form the experience of the performance.
The band launched into the cutesy, fun Janglin, a wholly danceable song that had fans pressed up against the barricades feverishly shimmying from side to side as best they could.
Of course, an Edward Sharpe set would not be complete without their biggest hit — the tender, upbeat love song Home. It began with a singalong, the words of the first few verses ringing loud and clear from the thousands on the ground wailing them out. Some fans were literally clutching at their hearts as each word poured from their mouths.
"I’m just gonna stay out until they kick me off," Ebert said as he squatted on the stage and polled the audience as to which song they wanted to hear next — Brother or All Wash Out. The latter was the clear winner, and also the last song of the night, ending things on a calmer note, allowing Ebert and his band a moment to emphasize the fact they are actually talented singers and musicians. Take away the stage antics and wacky personality, and Ebert’s vocal prowess can stand on its own. The other stuff is just a fun addition.
The first band to hit this year’s main stage was local group Mariachi Ghost, who have been on a festival tear all summer, hitting up jazz festival, country festival and now folk festival. Playing the main stage — even the festival at all — seemed to be on the bucket list for Mariachi Ghost, as singer Jorge Requena enthusiastically thanked the crowd and praised the festival every chance he got. Their set was as expected, full of Mexican rhythms, tight guitar solos and a dance performance that included hand fans and hula-hoops entwined with red-tulle swirling around on stage.
Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles came a bit later in the night and gave Folk Fest patrons a much needed kick in the butt, energy-wise. Right before they started their set, the crowd began a subtle but noticeable push toward the stage. The vibe went from sleepy to excited as fans packed the dance area, and those who hadn’t heard of them wondered what the commotion was all about.
They didn’t have to wonder for long, however, as Trampled by Turtles opened their set with the undeniably beautiful Repetition, a lush arrangement highlighting the mass of stringed instruments they had in tow (guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin, fiddle, banjo). It set the tone for a performance full of blitzes of bluegrass, broken up only occasionally by a mellow, heartfelt ballad. No matter the pace though, their music feels genuine and down to earth — a seemingly apt representation of the charming band themselves.
The members of Trampled by Turtles are skilled musicians, which was made very clear when watching the speed and accuracy with which they wail on their instruments of choice. Lead vocalist David Simonett’s voice, filled out by some gorgeous harmonies, has the perfect texture for this specific brand of folk — sweet with a hint of gruffness. It’s conducive to egging on a dance party, but also to conveying true heartbreak.
The powerful set earned them a standing ovation, the first of the night, and surely also won them a hoard of new fans.
Birds of Chicago offered up a stellar tweener set full of soulful harmonies and roots-inspired tunes. Singer Allison Russel’s voice effortlessly soared, simultaneously delicate and edgy, but full of emotion. Birds of Chicago’s music is the kind that fills you up and leaves you satisfied, even after only a short 20 minute performance.
Dustbowl Revival, Shakey Graves, Jason Isbell, Matt Anderson and the Mellotones and Bahamas headline the main stage Friday night. Daniel Champagne, Les soeurs Boulay, Mo Kenny and Luluc also perform. Music on the main stage starts at 6 p.m.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at 11:35 PM CDT: write-thru