The 46th edition of the Winnipeg Folk Festival came to a close under a sparsely clouded sky — a miracle given, only hours earlier, projected thunderstorms threatened to bring a very damp end to things.
In fact, save for a brief pause during Death Cab for Cutie’s mainstage set Thursday night due to lightning, all of the expected wet weather stayed at bay during music-playing hours (sorry, campers who lived through Saturday night’s downpour).
"It’s been an absolutely amazing weekend, can’t have any complaints at all," folk fest executive director Lynne Skromeda said on Sunday afternoon.
The 2019 festival is on track to be another record year for folk fest; the campground sold out three weeks before it usually does and the quiet campground sold out for the first time ever. Both campgrounds combined hold 8,200 people. Official attendance numbers will be released at a later date.
In addition, the festival’s 2019 logo — which features the image of an illustrated stag designed by Brian Steely — has proven to be extremely popular, with almost all of the folk fest T-shirts and tank tops selling out from the music store on-site.
The potential increase in the use of cannabis due to its legalization was a huge topic of conversation before the festival began, but Skromeda says this folk fest hasn’t been any different than previous years.
"It’s really much ado about nothing, enforcement wasn’t increased at all this year," she said. "The RCMP is using their discretion and they don’t really see people misbehaving here, so there’s really no need to hand out tickets to people."
Weather and weed aside, most of the buzz around the site was, of course, about the music.
Some of Skromeda’s weekend highlights include the Intracontinental workshop Sunday at the Snowberry stage, which featured Icelandic bands FM Belfast and Mammút alongside British singer-songwriter This is the Kit.
"It was so much fun because they really jammed in true workshop style and they were doing cover songs of famous pop songs and they wrote a song about Winnipeg; it was really fun and I loved it."
"And this morning we had our standard gospel hour at Big Blue, and it was really wonderful; Andrina Turenne was a fabulous host and got everyone going and Devon Gilfillian he has a beautiful voice, he’s something else. Anybody who performs in the morning after being out last night, I have huge, huge kudos for," Skromeda adds.
A few members of the Free Press arts staff — Eva Wasney, Rob Williams and Erin Lebar — wandered about the folk fest grounds all weekend and met up Sunday afternoon, before mainstage music kicked off, to discuss some highs, some lows and everything in between.
EW: Friday was a full day, I was trying to get in as much as possible. I really enjoy the Niger, New Orleans & Netherlands (with Steve Gunn, Mdou Moctar, Rebirth Brass Band and Altın Gün), that one was really high energy. And it was interesting because they are bands from all over the place, but they melded together really well and there was a ton of dancing.
RW: I was at that one, too, and it was really fantastic… it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, you’ll never see that again.
EW: I also caught a bit of Heartache From Hell at Green Ash, with Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, the Devil Makes Three and the Cactus Blossoms, and that one was really good. I’m such a fan of Sarah Shook; she’s such a petite person with such a powerful voice.
RW: Saturday, one of the surprises, a new discovery for me was Rayland Baxter.
EL: He was here a couple years ago and he’s one of my favourites now. I saw that show as well and loved it, and I thought it was funny and weird that his drummer had his back to the crowd.
RW: He was so good! He’s very clever, witty, great songs and is a very commanding presence on stage. And I saw some locals today, like Christine Fellows, she was fantastic and she’s also a very clever songwriter. And Begonia, I’ve never seen her live in this configuration and she was fantastic. She goes from arty pop to down-and-dirty soul.
EW: I just left her show at Green Ash and it was fantastic. Also, I wanted to add the Tri-Continental workshop Saturday at Spruce Hollow with Tim Baker, Lucy Rose, Johnathan Rice, William Crighton and Ziggy Alberts, who I tried to catch as many more times after that as possible. He’s from Australia and was really impressive.
RW: It’s hard because I want to see more stuff during the day, but I guess that’s a good problem to have.
EW: I felt like they did a good job scheduling things… there wasn’t as much conflict in my scheduling and I think it’s because certain genres were spread about in a better way.
EL: It’s been so hot that I haven’t seen a ton of daytime stuff, but I caught the Three-Minute Rule with Kathleen Edwards, Colter Wall and Courtney Marie Andrews, and Jim Bryson also played with Kathleen. I love Kathleen Edwards to the ends of the Earth, so I was super happy to see her, and she was wonderful as expected.
EW: I’m a huge fan of Larkin Poe; they came on and had such a commanding set, it was really powerful. And I saw a lot of really powerful female vocalists this year, which I was so happy to see. Tim Baker was great also.
EL: For me, I was really gravitating toward the tweeners this year, and Samantha Crain, who I hadn’t heard much of before — she totally blew my mind. It was one of those sets where you’re talking to someone and you just stop because of what’s happening on stage is so incredible.
EW: The Devil Makes Three had an awesome dance party going as well.
EL: And kudos to anyone dancing in this heat! I can barely lift my arm to pour water in my face.
EW: Absolutely, it’s just been jumping from shade to shade to shade; I’m not sure I’ve actually seen the stage at most places, I was just sitting in the shade taking it all in.
EL: Also, since we’re doing this prior to Sunday’s mainstage, I think it’s safe to say Kacey Musgraves will be a highlight for many; when I spoke to folk fest organizers earlier, they said she promised a great show is to come. Rob, you’re a Big Blue guy, how was Big Blue this year?
RW: Big Blue was the best, it was so fun. Car Seat Headrest and Alvvays on the Friday night, that one-two punch of indie-rock and pop… everyone was right into it. And Saturday night, Altın Gün, those guys were great. They are a Turkish psychedelic band, really exploratory, and they’d get into these serpentine melodies and then have these big freak-outs. It was really good.
EL: I have to add Eileen Ivers on Saturday night; I mean she’s a folk legend, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her live… holy crap, she was incredible. I’ve never seen anyone rip on a fiddle quite like that. They called her the Jimi Hendrix of fiddle and that is a totally apt comparison.
EW: I jumped over to Big Blue for FM Belfast Saturday night and it was just the most fun, weirdest dance party. It was Bjork sometimes and then it sounded like Robyn and they were really engaging with the audience.
EL: I’ve heard a lot of people say FM Belfast was a standout from the entire lineup.
RW: Yeah, people were crowd-surfing at the folk festival!
EL: Rob, care to do a festival campground update?
RW: Twenty-sixth year in a row camping out here, and I had so much fun. It’s such a unique experience and there’s so much creativity out there. And the Juke Joint is the music venue there and it’s the time I get to see a lot of great local talent I may not catch throughout the year. Andrina Turenne performed and Alexa Dirks sang with her; Woodshed Havoc, one of my favourite bands in the city, they played last night and it was just this rootsy, bluesy, dirty rock ’n’ roll party music and people were losing their minds.
EW: One thing I liked a lot was at workshops, I noticed a lot of artists being genuinely grateful for the workshop experience because I guess it’s something that’s not as common at other festivals. But on the flip side, there was one, Your Indie Heart with Mt. Joy, Car Seat Headrest and Snail Mail at Green Ash, and nobody knew how to do a workshop…
EL: My friend told me about that one; it ended up only being 30 minutes or something?
EW: Yeah, it was 30 minutes with a lot of talking.
EL: I did ask the festival organizers what happened there and it seems it was just a lot of confusion all around about what was supposed to be happening and when.
EW: That was one I was looking forward to because it was such a stacked lineup, but it really devolved into something that was barely any music, a lot of talking and then it was over.
EL: My one gripe, as per every year, is I wish there was something folk fest could do to provide more shade at the daytime stages, like building some kind of canopy or something similar. When it’s so hot, and every inch of shade is already occupied, it makes for a difficult and very uncomfortable — and potentially dangerous — listening experience.
RW: Even a mist tent, some festivals have that.
EL: My other gripe was the soundcheck issues during many of the tweener sets. Like, during Christine Fellows’s set on Friday night, you could hear Mt. Joy mic checking and hitting the drums and noodling on their guitars while she was performing! I found it really off-putting and it hasn’t been like that in years past. (Note: this had greatly improved by Sunday night.)
RW: I don’t really have any gripes, I had a great festival… I enjoyed all the music and I enjoyed all the people.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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.