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Theory of evolution

Winnipeg Folk Festival embraces old-school sounds and new-school innovation

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/7/2009 (4100 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Listen closely enough at this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival and you'll hear the sound of an evolving genre.

Folk was once considered a musical style only for the acoustic guitar-slinging singer-songwriter -- who still remains, and continues to be relevant -- but these days, that singer-songwriter is often putting a different spin on folk, whether it's classified as alt-folk, anti-folk, new-millennial folk or even electronic folk.

Winnipeg Folk Festival embraces old-school sounds and new-school innovation.

Winnipeg Folk Festival embraces old-school sounds and new-school innovation.

Patrons who attend this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival will get to witness the genre's entire evolution in the span of a few days.

"I think my responsibility is to push the genre forward in collaboration with the artists and give them a forum to strut their stuff," says artistic director Chris Frayer.

"I think anybody that programs non-mainstream music and wants to engage a younger audience and open ears of older audiences has to find entry points for people, so if (neo-folk innovator) Danny Barnes takes a song by (bluegrass iconoclast) John Hartford, mixes it through a loop and plays with it, I think that application of technology appeals to young people. It's one way to get them interested and maybe they buy a John Hartford record.

"There's no secret to it. Jazz and hip-hop have been doing it for years."

The "new school" of contemporary folk acts is a big part of the 36th annual event at Birds Hill Park, with artists like Martha Wainwright (who performed Wednesday night) Josh Ritter, Iron and Wine, Great Lake Swimmers and Joe Pug booked for this year's festival, alongside forefathers like Arlo Guthrie and Enoch Kent, who got their start in the 1960s.

Traditional and contemporary folk artists make up the heart of the festival, but diversity is the key, with roots, bluegrass, gospel, pop, indie-rock, blues, hip-hop, reggae, world, Celtic and children's acts from across the globe set to play the sprawling field over the next four days, ensuring there is a little something for the 8,000 to 16,000 people a day who will make the site their home away from home.

Celtic-New Age star Loreena McKennitt, a native Manitoban, will be the final act of the festival Sunday evening, but before she takes the stage, festival goers will have the opportunity to see King Sunny Ade & His African Beats (the name sums up his style), Australian one-man band Xavier Rudd, bluegrass heroes the Del McCoury Band, acclaimed roots songstress Neko Case, Jamaican reggae hitmaker Burning Spear, alt-folkies Okkervil River and former Barenaked Ladies co-frontman Steven Page.

That's just a sprinkling of the nearly 80 artists scheduled to appear. The complete mainstage lineup is listed in today's Tab alongside some of Frayer's weekend picks. The complete daytime schedule can be found at or in the handy program.

This year the festival expanded to five days with a Wednesday show headlined by Elvis Costello. The extra day was an experiment and there's no guarantee it will happen every year, says executive director Tamara Kater, who took over the top post eight months ago.

"It's a one-off and we'll see how it goes, but it's been wonderful to see how the volunteers and staff and everybody involved have risen to the occasion to pull it off," she says.

Kater witnessed the problem-solving skills of the staff and volunteers last year when the Saturday evening mainstage programming had to be moved to the smaller daytime Green Ash stage because of heavy rain and strong winds.

"In terms of 'the show must go on,' we did really well last year and I have no doubt if faced with that situation we would be able to do it again," says Kater, the former head of the Ottawa Folk Festival who attended her first Winnipeg Folk Festival last year and toughed it out through some of the worst weather folkies had ever seen.

"I never thought that hanging out at a festival would be an asset to a job interview. I think they were impressed that I stuck it out," she says.

Despite the conditions, she was impressed with what keeps festival-goers coming back year after year: the great music, the one-time collaborations and the strong sense of community.

This year, some of the new initiatives include a participatory mural, to which everyone who enters the gates will be encouraged to contribute, more opportunities for artists to jam at nightly sessions at the Fairmont Hotel (open to the public) and improved food services for volunteers and performers.

The secondary stage that had its first trial run last year, Big Blue @ Night, is back with edgier hip-hop, electronic and indie-pop artists, giving people an option from the music on the mainstage from Friday to Sunday. The big draw is expected to be Bell Orchestre, the orchestral-pop side project of the Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld.

A second stage with such "non-folk" talent would have been inconceivable at one time, but since Frayer took over programming duties five years ago he has slowly incorporated different musical styles to the festival, increasing the amount of discovery that can occur.

"The core of the festival is the history and the genres people are used to seeing. I'm attending to those things but I'm creating my own orbit adding different genres, and reaction has been really good. I think people are open-minded and tolerant of other's people's tastes. I think if there's enough music there for people to enjoy they don't get hung up with why I did something," he says.

"One of the most encouraging things I've seen on an audience survey was someone who wrote their favourite past performer was Stan Rogers and their favourite new performer was Calexico, which means you can take someone who likes a folk singer-songwriter and have him or her enjoy this psychedelic-roots-Mexicali band.

"I feel good about the festival this year. I feel we hit all our marks and put together a program with something for everyone coming to the festival."



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