Prior to this week, I knew two things about Winnipeg.
1. They stole Atlanta’s hockey team, making the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL’s Southeastern Conference the most geographically confused sports team since the Atlanta Braves were part of the NL West.
2. The Weakerthans apparently aren’t fans.
But I can forgive a city for anything hockey-related (especially if Atlanta can secure an MLS team). And The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson actually has a soft spot for his hometown if last year’s excellent album Provincial is any indication. And I learned something new about the city last night—it boasts an excellent folk festival.
Things actually kicked off on Wednesday night with City and Colour and The Avett Brothers, but I didn’t arrive until The Indigo Girls were most of the way through their set on the second night of The Winnipeg Folk Festival, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The fest began when a local hippie banjo player/filmmaker and an ascot-wearing architect convinced various government agencies to pony up $77,000 for the first event back in 1973. The site grounds just got a multi-million-dollar facelift, and it’s a beautiful place to listen to music.
While I missed most of my fellow Atlantans the Indigo Girls, I did catch a closing trio of hits, “Galileo,” “Chicken Man” and “Closer to Fine,” three songs I’ll never get tired of hearing live.
With the help of his Royal City Band, Josh Ritter distilled his seven full-length albums into a set stacked with great songs, drawing most heavily from The Animal Years and his latest break-up-and-heal record, The Beast in Its Tracks. With his baby daughter watching side-stage in a pair of pink ear-protecting headphones, his smile was as big as ever.
Serena Ryder is Canada’s answer to Adele. A star in her native country, she’s gifted with a rich and powerful voice that had the crowd finally on their feet and moving. It seems like only a matter of time until the rest of the world gets in on this northern secret.
Closing things out was Colin Meloy, who came out armed only with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a bottle of wine. “Kind of late for a folk festival,” he said, “but I’m going to play some folk music for you.”
With no Decemberists backing him up, it was a folky set indeed, that included a new song with a Nick Drake-like guitar line and the wonderfully Decemberists lyric, “Seventeen and terminally fey.” He was still singing when I caught the last shuttle at midnight. The party continued downstairs with musicians jamming in the lounge of the official festival hotel. From early morning throughout the day, the festival is more about collaboration than traditional performance, something I’m looking forward to seeing firsthand today.