December 10, 2019

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One last tribute

Winnipeg Crankie Festival becomes a community wake for Mitch Podolak

When the news came near the end of August that Mitch Podolak, one of the city’s — and country’s — most important members of the music community, had died, tributes poured in hard and fast.

And while they were all heartfelt, thoughtful, emotional and wonderful, they didn’t quite seem like enough. After all, how does one properly honour a man such as Podolak?

Mitch Podolak was the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, co-founder of the West End Cultural Centre and other folk festivals across Canada. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Mitch Podolak was the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, co-founder of the West End Cultural Centre and other folk festivals across Canada. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Shortly after his funeral, the answer to that question made itself clear.

Despite his non-religious lifestyle ("I don’t want any holy Joes at my funeral," he often told his son Leonard), Mitch — the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, co-founder of the West End Cultural Centre, as well as numerous folk festivals across Canada — was proud to be a member of the Jewish community and expressed a desire to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. After the rites and rituals had been followed and the dirt had been thrown into his grave, the funeral attendees, which included of some of Winnipeg’s best and brightest musical talent, weren’t ready to say goodbye quite yet.

"It dawned on me that his funeral was going to be his funeral, whereas I thought we’d have a funeral party, you know, a Mitch funeral," explains Leonard.

"And it was amazing because it did turn out to be a Mitch funeral, at the burial we were all singing songs and nobody wanted to walk away... and at the end Al Simmons goes, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Mitch Podolak!’ and we all gave my dad a standing O, it was great."

At the reception and online through social media, more and more friends and musicians began to offer their time and talent to organize a bigger celebration of life. Leonard, the executive producer of Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous and the Winnipeg Crankie Festival, saw an opportunity.

Festival preview

Click to Expand

Second annual Winnipeg Crankie Festival, in honour of Mitch Podolak
● Nov. 8-10
● Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (525 Wardlaw Ave.)
● A full festival pass is $90; tickets for evening concerts only are $30 each; youth festival passes available for $10. All tickets and passes available online at Crankiefestival.com until Friday, Nov. 8 or at the door throughout the weekend.

He has built the second edition of the Crankie festival — which is rooted in the connection between music and visual arts by way of crankies, a centuries-old style of presenting moving panoramas in boxes on a roll of paper or fabric that, as you crank, unrolls to tell a story — around the idea of honouring his late father.

"I started thinking about, like, what would we do to honour Mitch? Would we rent out some big room and hire a bunch of famous bands most of whom wouldn’t have really known my dad that well? Sure, we’d be happy to do it because of what he created that a lot of these bands grew on, but it seemed to me more like a community folk music and arts festival with 90 per cent local artists and music lessons and dance lessons and vocal lessons and arts and crafts and all this whole thing coming together. I think that’s what he’d want," says Leonard.

"So we made the Crankie festival in honour of my dad; once that got announced, bam, holy moley, so many people came forward," he says with a laugh.

Before too long, the bill had creeped up to nearly 60 artists willing to play, teach classes and participate in workshops, Mitch-related merch had been designed and more than 100 volunteers had signed up to help keep things running smoothly at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, where the festival takes place this weekend.

Once Crankie festival was determined to be a celebration of the life and works of Mitch Podolak, a flood of people came forward wanting to be involved, says Leonard Podolak. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Once Crankie festival was determined to be a celebration of the life and works of Mitch Podolak, a flood of people came forward wanting to be involved, says Leonard Podolak. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

One such volunteer and musician is Emma Cloney, of the duo the New Customs. She has organized the popular fall music event the Prairie Kitchen Party for nine years and was looking for some help to keep it going. Before Mitch died, Cloney approached Home Routes to collaborate with her on the kitchen party and Leonard agreed, suggesting the concert meld with the Crankie Festival and act as the Sunday night closing event.

After Mitch died, it made even more sense to follow through with their plans; Cloney credits Mitch as being the catalyst to the formation of her current band and was inspired by the reach Mitch’s influence had both locally and nationally.

Emma Cloney, with New Customs partner Dale Brown, credits Mitch Podolak as being the catalyst to the formation of her band. (Joey Senft photo / Facebook)

Emma Cloney, with New Customs partner Dale Brown, credits Mitch Podolak as being the catalyst to the formation of her band. (Joey Senft photo / Facebook)

"You think you know what the importance of a person is to you, right?" says Cloney. "But then when you start to see the outpouring coming from every corner of the nation, you start to realize the impact Mitch had on individual musicians and people was so profound that it was only not unique in the sense there were so many of us, and I really had no concept of how many people had been impacted, had had their bands started or their ideas lifted or their festivals moved simply because Mitch was an ideas man and would just get behind any idea that seemed great.

So Cloney jumped on board to design the festival’s posters, run its social media, build a website and online purchasing portal, logging about 400 extra volunteer hours in addition to her performance schedule this weekend.

"It was wild to me to see the outpouring of support, which took what was very sad at the time and put a lot of incredibly positive energy into it and built it into something revolutionary," she says.

"As much work as it is, it’s a passionate work, and I’m really excited to be a part of what really truly feels like a revolution."

In terms of the actual programming, the Winnipeg Crankie Festival is a mix of music and crankie-making classes, concerts and workshops that often combine music and visual art. A new addition to this year’s lineup is the Silent Movie Battle of the Bands (Saturday, 2 p.m.) which features three acts each creating a soundtrack for five-minute chunks of a 20-minute silent film, with the last five minutes being an improvised free-for-all with all three acts playing together.

Festival notes

Bring instruments; there will be lots of opportunities to play and collaborate. This is a festival where you can watch a show, take workshops and perform.

Mitch Podolak shirts and posters and pins will be for sale on site and on the festival’s website.

The festival program is on the website and is downloadable; no paper programs will be available.

Bring instruments; there will be lots of opportunities to play and collaborate. This is a festival where you can watch a show, take workshops and perform.

Mitch Podolak shirts and posters and pins will be for sale on site and on the festival’s website.

The festival program is on the website and is downloadable; no paper programs will be available.

Festival organizers are asking attendees to bring photos to add to the “Mitch wall.” If you have pictures of Mitch or of yourself at the folk festival, you can bring them to add to the wall.

Childcare will be available.

Bring food with you; there’s no food on site for dinner, but there will be a break between daytime and evening programming to go and get food if you need to. Osborne Village is nearby.

And on Sunday afternoon, there’s the "open crank," which allows anyone, attendees and billed artists alike, to take stage and show off their homemade crankies, locking in the desired vibe of community, support and creativity.

"It’s like a real festival this year, in terms of operation... It’s gotten much bigger and I feel like I’m the vessel but it’s not me, it’s everybody. We’re the hub here (at Home Routes), but it’s for and by the community," says Leonard.

"In a way the fact that it became in honour of my dad, it brought together what the festival is actually supposed to be about, which is the community. It’s not about who’s the headliner... It’s about the community lifting itself and each other and having fun doing it. And making music and fostering collaboration with visual art and music.

"I told the artists please don’t come to the festival looking at it as a gig and an opportunity to hawk your latest ideas and new stuff. What it is is a celebration of my dad and us all being together and being on stage at one time in November together in this funky space."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

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.

Read full biography

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