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This article was published 9/7/2018 (1239 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The 45th edition of the Winnipeg Folk Festival has come to a close, and though it will be remembered as one of the hottest on record (Saturday in Birds Hill Provincial Park peaked at 33 degrees, which felt like 42 with the humidex) it will likely also go down as one of the best.
"I'm so pleased, I'm just so pleased it went so well," said folk fest executive director Lynne Skromeda Sunday evening, as the mainstage area was filling to the brim to see headliners Sheryl Crow, U.K. singer-songwriter Passenger and American six-piece St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
The 2017 folk fest was a very successful event, with huge numbers coming to site on the final day to see Barenaked Ladies perform. This year, early numbers indicated that ticket sales were -- and still are -- expected to meet, or even surpass, last year's high numbers, with Skromeda saying though individual day tickets are down, weekend pass sales are up.
"The exciting thing is we've seen our weekend passes go up... but it means people are committing to the whole weekend, which is exciting for us," she noted.
The heat was at top of mind all weekend, of course, but there was only a small spike in visits to the first-aid tent, and largely, things went off without a hitch.
"I think we have a very well-educated, responsible audience to begin with and I think they paid attention to the messaging we put out there. People stayed hydrated... people looked after themselves" she said.
For organizers, it was a smooth weekend, but really, it's the experience of the attendees that matters most, so the Free Press's Erin Lebar, Rob Williams, Jill Wilson and Jen Zoratti met up on Sunday afternoon to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of folk fest 2018.
JW: My absolute highlight was Saturday at Shady Grove; it was the Irish workshop with Mick Flannery, We Banjo 3 and Wallis Bird, none of whom I had heard of before. I just love Irish stuff and traditional British Isles folk music and this was a combination of that and Wallis Bird is just… during one song I was visibly weeping and so was my friend. I’ve very rarely been so moved by a song at a folk festival workshop; it was great. Every year I look for that combination of people I don’t know and a combination of that traditional and modern that I really enjoy, and this was the perfect combination of that. People were laughing and dancing and crying — it was my perfect folk festival moment, except that’s when I think I got a mild case of heat stroke.
JZ: I usually have a similar approach to workshops as you, Jill, but today I did it a little differently and decided to do concerts, so I saw Julien Baker back to back with her ex-tourmate Pheobe Bridgers. Phoebe Bridgers is definitely my discovery of this folk fest… she was phenomenal and this is her only Canadian date on her entire tour.
EL: I caught the very end of her set before my daytime pick which I just saw, the If It Makes You Happy workshop at Shady Grove with Darlingside, Kacy and Clayton, the Lonesome Ace Stringband and Mandolin Orange. Darlingside I’ve loved for a long time and I saw them on mainstage on Friday night, but they sounded so much more amazing in the smaller workshop setting. Their music is meant to be a bit more intimate and I loved it so much.
My other favourite was I saw the Old Songs, New Songs at Green Ash on Saturday with Bahamas, Gabrielle Shonk – who I love – Mappe Of and Matt Holubowski. All of them were so, so great that, even though it was incredibly hot, everyone was just, like, ‘No, I’m going to roast out here and stick this one out.’ And I want to throw a special shout out to six-year-old Reece Meisner who went around with a spray bottle and did his best to keep everyone cool. It was the best.
JZ: Just to jump back to Julien Baker, she was incredible. I can’t believe the voice that comes out of that body. She did a cover of Big Stars 13, that’s what she opened with and I was just, like, ‘Oh my God.’
RW: I really like seeing Waxahatchee solo, because I heard the album and it’s really fuzzy and great, but just hearing her pure voice and her songwriting, I was really impressed.
EL: I feel like it was a very woman-power kind of festival.
JW: It’s funny, that was done intentionally, the 50/50 lineup of men and women, and I didn’t think much of it, but it is noticeable.
JZ: Noticeable and appreciated.
Note: Sheryl Crow had yet to perform at the time of this conversation.
EL: Two words: Courtney Barnett
RW: That was one of the best sets I’ve seen on the mainstage ever.
JW: I agree, though I will say that it drove people from here like lemmings. It was crazy. It’s very noisy and if people are expecting a nice folky lady who plays the guitar, they would be disappointed. But yeah, I like her but seeing her live totally transformed my opinion of her.
JZ: I love her on album and now live because I hadn’t seen her before, and what a guitarist! She was the only guitarist on stage other than the bass guitar and it sounded like there were many more guitars.
EL: And usually I feel very disconnected from artists who don’t do a lot of banter between songs, but for her, I felt right in it.
JW: I think because her songs are so conversational and you can hear every word, it feels like she’s talking to you.
JZ: Yeah, mainstage was sounding good.
EL: I said that on Friday, that I thought this was the best mainstage has ever sounded. I’m not sure if anything was done differently, but it was so clear and loud.
RW: Yeah it was loud; when she brought the grunge, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s loud.’
JZ: Even on crappy iPhone videos I saw after, it still sounded really good. Also I was very charmed by Darlingside. They were a new-to-me act and I really enjoyed them.
JW: They had the kind of Simon-and-Garfunkel-y harmonies that I really enjoyed. And you know what? Natalie MacMaster.
EL: She charmed the pants of me.
JW: When I saw her on the line up I kind of rolled my eyes, but I forgot what a totally charming person she is just as a performer. I went and actually saw her workshop two days later because it reminded me how good she is; I had relegated her to the old-timey bin.
JZ: I also relegated her to that bin, but she shreds on a fiddle.
RW: I saw a bunch of stuff at Big Blue @ Night; I caught the end of Five Alarm Funk and Too Many Zooz and it was packed. Too Many Zooz was just this crazy party racket music, a saxophone, a trumpet, a bas saxophone and percussion and people were losing their minds. We came over to mainstage and it seemed like there might have been more people at Big Blue than for a Tribe Called Red which was very loud and in your face. It’s like they’re putting the louder acts on later.
JW: This is my 30th year coming in a row, and it used to be that the last act was someone you would not necessarily have heard of at all, it was just some enormous folk Celtic ensemble from Scotland, and now it’s definitely the name act is last. I don’t mind it, it’s an interesting shift, but before you didn’t have to know who they were because you knew you could just stay and dance.
EL: I was salty about having to wait until 11 p.m. to see Courtney Barnett.
JZ: I also felt it did her a bit of a disservice, because Winnipeg is such a ‘gotta beat the traffic’ crowd and I thought that, and this would be a bold move, to put her on before Sheryl tonight would have been great. If her routing would have allowed it, which I assume it did not. Also, other programming note, the War and Treaty should not have been on at 6 p.m. – they were so, so good, and I think it would have been better to have them on later.
GRIPES AND GREAT THINGS
JZ: Things that are great… the artists’ commitment to an esthetic was definitely impressive. Like Natalie MacMaster’s leather pants in 30-degree weather.
EL: And all the dudes in full suits, or denim on denim, and I’m like, ‘How are you not on fire?’
JZ: I used to be that way when I started at folk fest, and now I’m like, ‘Here’s my sports bra, I’m here to sweat.’
JW: At the Irish workshop, Wallis Bird had to have one of the band members pour water on her because she was so hot in jeans and a polyester shirt.
EL: That is really my only real gripe, and it is totally uncontrollable, but it was just so friggin’ hot.
JW: And every year I do wish there were more man-made shade opportunities, and I don’t know how they would do that.
EL: Right, I don’t know how they could do it but I agree. Maybe hire a brilliant designer or engineer and get something up that can be shade and also shelter from rain if need be.
RW: I also think they need more picnic tables by the food area, because you get your food and there’s nowhere to sit, really.
EL: And I think every uncovered table in the tavern should have an umbrella. I feel like it would be a pretty minimal expense in the grand scheme but would be so helpful.
JW: And for greats, this isn’t new but the site updates are really quite something if you compare to 30 years ago. They improvements they’ve made, such as the multiple water stations, the showers, the bathrooms are always immaculate and full of toilet paper and that is an amazing thing. I used to have to miss entire workshops to go to the bathroom!
JZ: The other thing I think that has improved – this is kind of a gripe and a great – but the noise-bleeding between daytime stages used to be a lot worse and I think they’ve done a lot to improve that. But there’s always room for improvement.
JW: Like today, Martin Simpson, who’s a very low-key singer-songwriter guy, but I could hear another stage the whole time.
EL: Rob, give us the campground report. You're the only one of us who camps!
RW: The campground was super fun. The people who camp are some of the most creative, talented people around. I was watching Andrew Neville and his crew jamming and I left that tent and walked down and these three guys were playing guitars just jamming and they were like, they might have been the best musicians at this festival. I also saw a clown burlesque.
EL: That’s pretty much my worst nightmare.
RW: It was funny! And my friend Andrew and I were walking around last night and a couple came up to us and said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to find a treasure?’ and gave us a canvas painting of a map so we went and found the treasure.
EL and JZ: What was it?
RW: It was happiness.
EL: That’s kind of sweet, although I would have been annoyed that there wasn’t any chocolate in there.
JW: Or water, or beer or something… My last gripe, and I will always keep saying this, is the beer is too expensive.
RW: I had a great time this festival. The music was good, I discovered a lot of new things I’ve never seen before, and that’s the point.
EL: I totally agree; I saw a lot of new things, all of which I loved.
JW: This is probably the festival I was least excited about musically, and I have to remind myself never to judge by what I see in the program because until you actually see it and hear it you have no idea. And every year I have a transcendent moment and I have to just remember that always happens and not to roll my eyes like a jaded old person.
JZ: A thrill for me is seeing musicians who have never been here before have that moment. Like genuinely think it is a wonderful festival, want to come back and want to experience it.
Manager of audience engagement for news
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.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.