The first two nights of The 40th Winnipeg Folk Festival were limited to main-stage performances, so I didn’t really get to experience what makes this fest so different until the day performances on Saturday. More than half of the slots on all seven of the smaller stages (not counting the folk school, the kids’ tent or the music store) are “workshops,” which really means songwriters/bands in the round with the hope for some collaboration.
My first taste of this was a workshop called “What The New Breed Says,” though host Aidan Knight, a songwriter from British Columbia, joked that it should have been called “Where the New Breed Dies” after he and The Milk Carton Kids played somber ballads and Cold Specks described her music as “hideously morbid.” The fourth act on the bill, though, was Lake Street Dive from Massachusetts, who served as a nice counter to the all the beautiful sadness with a soulful blend of jazz and rockabilly. Lead singer Rachael Price has both the voice and charisma to make people take notice of her band, especially with Bridget Kearney behind her tearing up her stand-up bass.
Some of the workshops were more collaborative than others. Dr. Dog, Josh Ritter and Jason Collett took turns on their own songs during “Follow The Leader,” before joining together to cover The Rolling Stones. I only caught part of Tony Furtado, The Harpoonist and the Whaler and Bombino, but the blend of blues, jazz and African rhythms sounded like they’d written whatever jam they were playing together—language barriers be damned. Bombino was a new discovery for me on this trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing the guitar wizards again in a couple of weeks at Newport Folk.
The Winnipeg Folk Fest crew had completely overhauled the festival grounds since last year, and one of the coolest additions are two new stages along a forest trail, the Little Stage in the Woods and Spruce Hollow. After encountering old-time fiddler Frank Fairfield playing on a bench along the way, I found Dan Bern in the middle of a hilarious song “I Miss The Steroid Era” with shout outs to Brady Anderson and Barry Bonds. He also played a song he wrote the previous night called “Talking Canada Blues.” In it he suggests the U.S. adopt our neighbors to the north as our 51st state. “Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s can merge,” he sang. “It’ll be called…McDonald’s.” And “As a gesture of good will, we’ll give you a Major League Baseball team….No, a good one.”
Many of the performers at the festival called Canada home, but none has quite the Canadian folk legacy of Nathan Rogers, the first main stage act of the day, who played an entire set of his father Stan Rogers’ songs. It was a touching tribute and a great reminder of what a gifted songwriter Stan was. He was followed onstage by more Canadians: Lindi Ortega (Ontario by way of Nashville), Danny Michel (a Toronto singer/songwriter backed by the Garifuna Collective from Belize), and Patrick Watson of Montreal (but not of of Montreal). Australians Cat Empire closed the night out.
One of the best sets of the night, though, happened at the other end of the festival grounds where Dr. Dog were tossing every normal definition of folk out the window with a straight-up rock and roll revival on the Big Bluestem stage. It made me sad to miss what Rich Aucoin would be doing with his parachute and light show the following night.
The festival continued on through the weekend, but I only got to see a handful of bands (including Over the Rhine, Del Barber and Whitehorse) on Saturday before heading back to the States. Winnipeg is very proud of what they’ve built these last 40 years and rightfully so. It may be a long way from anywhere, but it’s worth the trip.