When I tell people that I regularly attend a folk festival in Canada, a look comes across their face that I can’t quite describe. It reminds me, maybe, of them trying to work out one of those train problems from algebra, or trying to figure out what spice is in a sauce.
The word “folk” might be throwing them off. I think they get the idea that it’s just Arlo Guthrie sitting around singing “Alice’s Restaurant” for four days. Complicating things on this matter is the fact that I actually saw Arlo Guthrie this year and “Alice’s Restaurant” did indeed run a tish long.
But really, the Winnipeg Folk Festival is really something that needs to be experienced to be really known and appreciated. On top of the folkies and well-worn protest songs there are young, vibrant performers from a huge spectrum of musical styles and cultures, some of them with furiously contemporary protest elements.
This year, we saw an electrified mariachi band (The Mariachi Ghost), a jazz/Greek folk duo (Xylouris White), a top-notch electronic/dance party (courtesy of COMPASS: Mexican Institute of Sound + Toy Selectah) and the very best in contemporary Americana (Jason Isbell, Dawes). That spread of musical genres is tough to imagine even for the most seasoned of music festival-goers.
But what brings us back each and every year is the people of Folk Fest. To illustrate: as my father-in-law and I drove into the campground at 10 a.m. on the first day of the festival, I was a bit confused by a new festival traffic arrangement. As I was trying to figure that out, I began to hear a small brass band off in the distance. Sure enough, as we made our way forward, the band was stationed by the entrance providing a musical welcome to newly arriving campers. As they faded into our rear view mirror, a dancing campground volunteer waved us forward and gave us a hearty traditional greeting: “Happy Folk Fest!”
At a water fountain a few days later, a skinny youngster wearing a straight-billed black 59Fifty hat came up to an adjoining fountain. Judging the book by its cover, I naturally assumed he was some sort of dirtball. My mistake.
“Are you having a good Folk Fest?” he said with absolute earnestness.
“I am, thank you,” I answered back. “And you?”
He smiled broadly–very un-dirtball–and said “yeah, I am. This place is great.”
That’s about it in a nutshell. It’s nothing like you expect. The people are fun, gracious, curious and interesting. The music has a little something for everyone. It all comes together in a series of serendipitous meetings and moments and, once you step back and take it for what it is, it’s absolutely wonderful.
Sure, the heat was oppressive this year. Sure, Wilco got rained out after three songs. But those are just more moments, more memories for future years and more things we shared with more people.
Thanks, Winnipeg Folk Festival. Thanks, Manitoba, Winnipeg and Canada. Thanks to everyone who came and made it what it was. We’ll see you all again next year.