Filed under: Festivals
It's once again the best time of year, when thousands of people slap on sunscreen and set up low-sitting chairs to take in four days of music and community in Manitoba's Birds Hill Provincial Park, just outside of Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Folk Festival is back July 6-9 for its 2023 run with a brand-new main stage, the return of towering structures and art to the festival campground, and all the classic long-time highlights like food vendors and music workshops.
Showbiz Monkeys has been covering this beloved prairie music festival since 2009, capturing it in photo, video, interviews, and writing every year. (This would have been our 15-year milestone if it weren't for the two-year covid-induced hiatus!) But this is my first time reporting for duty to the media tent and I'm thrilled to be bringing you the sights and sounds of the weekend!
Below are 10 picks you shouldn't miss if you're heading out to the music. There are so many others I'm also excited for, and if you're like me, your fest favourite will probably end up being an act that wasn't even circled in your program. But here they are -- some big names, hidden gems, and party starters -- all of them the best folk, Americana, indie, R&B, and world music around.
Then enjoy a look back at last year's 2022 Winnipeg Folk Festival, featuring a stellar performance by Manitoba artist JayWood. Happy Folk Fest!
Sunday, July 9 – 12:30 PM (Little Stage in the Forest)
If you didn't read to the bottom of the lineup, you might not have noticed Nora Brown's name, but she's at the top of my list of must-see acts. The 17-year-old started playing banjo at the age of 6, learning from masters like the late John Cohen and Lee Sexton. She plays traditional music with a focus on Southern Appalachian banjo and guitar playing. I discovered her during the pandemic, holed away in my room and watching NPR Tiny Desk Concerts to fill the void left by all the cancelled live music. She performed for NPR in a cave under the New York City subway, explaining her different banjos and giving an impression of being wise beyond her years. She'll be joined at WFF by award-winning fiddler Stephanie Coleman.
Sunday, July 9 – 6:00 PM (Main Stage)
When Folk Fest announced this year's lineup on Instagram, the comments were packed with exclamations of excitement about Faye Webster. Having no idea who this was, I immediately flagged the artist as one to research. What I found was a dreamy sound kaleidoscope of strings and saxophone backing Webster's soulful vocals. I assumed she, a songwriter from Atlanta, Georgia, might be one of those artists who writes lyrical gold but creates music that doesn't engage nearly as well. But I clearly judged the book by its cover (or rather the artist by their short bio). Really looking forward to soaking in Webster's set -- perfectly matched with golden hour and a Folk Fest Lager.
Friday, July 7 – 8:45 PM (Main Stage)
My seven-year-old self is PSYCHED to finally see live an artist who performed the most famous track on arguably the most iconic soundtrack of all time: Shrek (2001). (Shoutout to all my young millennials!) Yes, I'm talking about Rufus Wainwright. It turns out, he has other music too -- seven studio albums, including his latest, Folkocracy (2023) -- and it's outstanding! He's collaborated with the likes of Elton John and David Byrne and a personal pop hero of mine, Carly Rae Jepsen, on her latest album, The Loneliest Time (2022).
Saturday, July 8 – 2:30 PM (Spruce Hollow)
I was blown away when I first listened to the track, "b.e. son", by Joe Rainey, a passionate Pow Wow singer from Red Lake Ojibwe in Minneapolis. The soaring orchestral lines interweaving with Rainey's powerful voice creates a sound that feels cinematic, simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful. On his latest critically-acclaimed album, Niineta (2022), made in collaboration with producer Andrew Broder, Rainey mixes traditional Indigenous chanting with electronic, orchestral, and experimental soundscapes to create a unique gift to the world.
Saturday, July 8 – 7:00 PM (Big Blue @ Night)
Pierre Kwenders is a musician and DJ from Congo, by way of Montréal, and the winner of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize. He joins the long list of Polaris-decorated artists who have shared the Folk Fest stage -- I'm looking at last year's performances from Lido Pimienta (2017 winner), Jeremy Dutcher (2018 winner), and Cadence Weapon (2021 winner). Kwenders paints vivid stories about love and his hometown through his music, with his latest album blending Afro-infused electronic sounds and instruments from a variety of cultures. Get ready for a funky Franglais time.
Sunday, July 9 – 9:15 PM (Main Stage)
Sitting at the top of the 2023 lineup, American rock band The War on Drugs is THE reason several folkies I've heard from are buying a ticket this year. Despite knowing the band's name, I was unfamiliar with their music. (I know, I know!) After listening to a few tracks, I think the hype is warranted. I can already picture their big sound echoing across the fields of Birds Hill Park and people of all generations dancing on the side. Plus, this is a rare chance you likely won't get again in Winnipeg.
Sunday, July 9 – 1:00 PM (Shady Grove)
Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter and vocalist FONTINE is no stranger to the Folk Fest stages, having performed last year. Since then, the queer Cree artist has released a fabulous EP, Yarrow Lover (2023) and performed with Boy Golden at Osheaga, Montréal's star-studded music and arts festival (dare I say Canada's Coachella?). Her new record "draws inspiration from her Nehiyaw Iskwew roots, the natural surroundings of her prairie home, and the vibrant musical environment of Winnipeg." FONTINE is one of the best in the local scene, and if you somehow haven't seen her perform yet, this is your chance.
Friday, July 7 – 7:00 PM (Big Blue @ Night)
Let Witch Prophet draw you in with her velvety vocals and undeniably cool aura. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Toronto-based musician has released three albums that seamlessly blend genres like soul, R&B, jazz, and hip hop. Her music, produced by her wife, SUN SUN, mixes rap and harmony with beats to create a sound that has been compared to Erykah Badu. On Gateway Experience (2023), Witch Prophet's most recent record just released in May, she collaborated on the track "Memory" with Winnipeg darling and past WFF performer, Begonia. Like Pitchfork wrote: "Get to her before Drake does."
Saturday, July 8 – 9:35 PM (Big Blue @ Night)
If you were at Folk Fest in 2017, you might remember DakhaBrakha's performance. A more obscure name for many, the Ukrainian folk outfit didn't generate quite the same anticipation in the air as a famous name would. But when they took to Main Stage to close out the evening, the crowd went wild for their mesmerizing and high-energy tunes -- it was a truly electric moment. Needless to say, I'm eager to hear Balaklava Blues, who is described as a fusion between DakhaBrakha and Indigenous DJ group A Tribe Called Red (also a past WFF performer). This Ukrainian folk-noir band that blends traditional polyphonic music with personal stories and sounds of revolution is sure to touch on heavy topics, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, but will also get the dancing going.
Friday, July 7 – 10:15 PM (Main Stage)
A folk legend. Does more really need to be said? EmmyLou Harris's career spans 40 years and includes winning countless awards (but we can count the Grammys: 14!) and being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The American singer-songwriter's music can be categorized with genres like country, folk, and Americana. Audiences last year were delighted by the performance of another folk mainstay, Judy Collins, at Snowberry Field stage, where she shared stories equally hilarious and inspiring and name-dropped icons like "Leonard" (Cohen) and "Joni" (Mitchell) faster than you could count them. Despite Harris's only performance being on the Main Stage, a less-intimate setting, I hope she shares some of her own stories from a lifetime on the scene.
Featuring "What You Do to Me" by JayWood