Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the previous day -- especially with our Thursday choice for "Artist of the Day", Good Old War, leading off the night -- we arrived to Bird's Hill Park for Day 2 of the Winnipeg Folk Festival before the first notes chimed off the main stage. The three-piece indie folk band from Philadelphia, who made their late night debut on Conan back in April, got the crowd on their side early on and never looked back. After a raucous applause to end their set, host Kevin McDonald came out to see if the audience wanted to hear one more, which they naturally did. When he returned to the stage following Good Old War's encore, he quipped, "It feels like they maybe played one song too many." Thus is the experience when a comedy legend hosts a folk music festival.
After a pleasant tweener set from Martyn Joseph, Bill Frisell and All We Are Saying made the familiar music of John Lennon a near stranger. Imagine if every Beatles song was psychedelic. There are some who say they'll never tire of the Liverpool band's repertoire. One can only imagine how exhausted Frisell and company were after a seamless fab four jam session. Host Kevin McDonald joked, "We couldn't get the real John Lennon. He'd be too expensive." But Frisell's reinterpretations were both unusual and appealing, so it's hard to put a price on that.
Transitioning between Frisell and the soon-to-arrive Billy Bragg was one of our personal favourites at this or any festival, Royal Wood. The Peterborough singer/songwriter serenaded the colourful, dusty crowd with four acoustic compositions. His story about being asked to play the festival the weekend of his wedding was downright adorable. "I thought of moving my wedding," he joked. The set hit a climax at his final number, "I'm So Glad", which received quite an ovation for its big a capella finish.
Armed with only his electric guitar, Billy Bragg lead a one-man war on cynicism. The folk-punk pioneer paid tribute to Woody Guthrie with renditions of "This Machine Kills Fascists" and "I Ain't Got No Home". However, it was Bragg's own "There is Power in a Union" that brought the loudest ovation. Finales and crowd favorites "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" and "New England" inspired a spirited sing-along. Between tracks, Bragg's sharp wit and poignant political humor rippled across the sea of spectators. He introduced "The Milkman of Human Kindness" anecdotally, stating his son plays it like The Ramones. He also confessed to forgetting the words to "This Land is Your Land" performing with Pete Seeger.
Willy Porter wasted no time in his limited tweener set to put his fingers to work. The Wisconsin songwriter, who had the unenviable task of directly following unleashed his nimble digits through a four-song performance. Combining quick-picked folk and slow-burning blues, all eyes were transfixed on Porter's hands for his stint on the main stage.
Los Angeles seven-piece Ozomatli were a nexus of funk, hip-hop, and salsa. They brought a high-energy dance party to the packed festival grounds. With band members alternating between brass, percussion, and vocals, their dynamic was a sight to be seen. Vocalist Justin 'El Niño' Porée even went down the path separating the main stage seating area in two to push the energy level up from inside the crowd.
After a short set from Winnipeg's own Chic Gamine, the night's final act took the stage. One of the biggest hip-hop artists in the country (and getting there worldwide, due in no small part to his song "Wavin' Flag" being chosen as the theme for the 2012 World Cup), K'Naan started things off fairly low-key before soon bringing things up to the tempo the audience was expecting. (Too bad it took the audience a few more songs after that to really return the favour by matching the hip-hop star in the energy department -- though they did eventually.)
K'Naan explained midway through his performance that he was being very laissez faire with the setlist. This was most apparent during a passionate rendition of "Be Free", as the Juno-winner basked in the audience's guest vocals before giving the crowd a rare live treat. Other surprises included a performance of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song", the latter actually co-written by K'Naan. The Somali-born artist passionately bounced through singles "Bang Bang", "Hurt Me Tomorrow", and "If Rap Gets Jealous", but the most captivating performance was initial set-closer "Fatima". It was a reminder that, while his pop songwriting is uplifting, K'Naan has still seen great suffering. The sinking feeling was shaken off and followed by a rendition of one the most globally-popular songs of the last several years, "Wavin' Flag", for his encore. It's hard to imagine the night ending any other way.
ShowbizMonkeys.com staff (well, Paul and Ian, anyway) are camping from Friday to Sunday, so tomorrow not only brings the start of the weekend of full-day performances, but also three days of us being on-site 24/7. With the Winnipeg Folk Festival known as much for its crazy, drum-heavy parties all night as it is for its remarkable line-up of acts year after year, our coherence may end up a bit lacking due to general exhaustion. Which could end up pretty funny for you, dear readers.
Enjoy our massive Thursday gallery of shots below:
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