The Winnipeg Folk Festival is in full swing, as the 37th annual folk music festival held just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba began with two evenings (Wednesday and Thursday) of music before the full day schedules kick in from Friday to Sunday. With names as iconic as Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Jimmy Cliff, John Hiatt, and Arrested Development joining more contemporary folk and roots acts such as Andrew Bird, The Weakerthans, The Cat Empire, The Swell Season, and Sarah Harmer, the 2010 festival is shaping up to be a remarkable 5 days of music and community.
As I mentioned last year, the Folk Festival -- which began in 1974 and last year saw attendance reach 53,000 people (many from across Canada and the United States) -- is more than just the music, even though the music is pretty great. The festival prides itself on being a sustainable, green, community event, with more than 2500 volunteers annually and workshop performances that allow the various artists to work together in front of a crowd.
Wednesday night, a new addition to the festival last year with Elvis Costello, this year featured a trio of high-profile acts: Winnipeg's The Wailin' Jennys, folk country legend Emmylou Harris (& Her Red Dirt Boys), and iconic reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Emmylou, in particular, was a delight to hear, her voice still as smooth and beautiful as it always has been. Jimmy Cliff, on the other hand, ended off the opening night with a more high-energy set of classics (including his cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" and a version of his song "Viet Nam" re-written as "Afghanistan").
On Thursday night, while I missed the first few performers on the Main Stage (Romi Mayes, Del Barber, and Tao Seeger), I made it over to the festival grounds in time to see John Hiatt & The Combo. The multi-Grammy-nominated singer/guitarist has been around for decades writing memorable songs that both he and countless others have performed, and his set included a mix of roots and blues that was extremely fun to see live.
The next main act up was the Avett Brothers, who mixed rootsy folk with a lot of soul. Choosing to enjoy the set wandering around the festival grounds (grabbing some dinner, chatting with random friends, who one always runs into at Folk Fest) turned out to be a great move, because their music carried really well across the distance, and it was phenomenal. I do wish I had seen at least a couple songs up close, though, because it seemed that the crowd was immensely into them.
Closing off Thursday was the Levon Helm Band (who are still playing as I type this, actually). Helm, the drummer and guitarist most known for his time in The Band, sang some songs from behind the drum kit and the guitar, while passing the vocals off to other band members for other tunes. A prolific live act backed by a 9-piece band, Helm was a great end to Night #2 at the festival, and putting the pressure on the weekend at the Winnipeg Folk Festival to live up to its opening nights.
As I said, the Winnipeg Folk Festival isn't just about music, however. The food, the friends, the crafts, the workshops, and even the crazy campground (something I've only personally heard stories about, never spending time in myself) all help shape the experience for one of the most well-regarded festivals of its kind around the world. It's an artists' festival, treating them well and giving them opportunities to do things not always possible at other festivals, and that good will always ends up getting passed off to the festival-goers in spades with the performances that end up coming through.
For anyone venturing out to Bird's Hill Park this weekend, suggestions for perhaps lesser-known acts include Gregory Alan Isakov, Pieta Brown, The Dodos, The Rural Alberta Advantage, and Oka. And if none of those interest you, you'll likely be more than pleased with the more established sounds of Sarah Harmer, Arrested Development, The Cat Empire, The Weakerthans, and The Duhks.
Keep checking in with ShowbizMonkeys.com, as we'll be posting more articles from the festival, conducting interviews with some of the great performers, and tweeting all festival long at twitter.com/showbizmonkeys (including posting real-time photos!). And if you've checked out any of the performances yourself, be sure to leave a comment and tell us what you think!
Photos by: Travis Tait and Paul Little
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)