Winnipeg Folk Festival 2009

As the BC Scene festival becomes a distant memory, our attention has turned to the Prairies, which will be the theme of the next festival in 2011. I traveled to Winnipeg last week to start learning about the arts scene in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Winnipeg Folk Festival was also taking place, and it sounded like a good opportunity to start my research.

I was a little nervous about the trip. In the days leading up to the festival, CBC Manitoba had posted an alert that it had the potential to be the worst year for mosquitos ever. Given that the festival takes place in a provincial park 34 km north of the mosquito capital of the world, I had visions of being eaten alive by hordes of blood-thirsty little buggers. Thanks to the cool and windy conditions, I didn’t end up with a single bite.

The folk festival is an amazing thing to behold. They essentially build a small city in the middle of nowhere. There are six stages spread throughout the site, plus food concessions, a hand-made crafts village, music store, beer tent, and kids area. Even with 15,000 people on the site each day, it rarely felt crowded, and line ups were fairly short and moved quickly.

Folk Fest 1

The backstage area is equally impressive, with a huge outdoor kitchen and dining tent, beer tent, artist trailers, and storage. I was really impressed with the free food that was available for volunteers and artists. I was expecting hamburgers and hot dogs, not bison short ribs with maple and chipotle, lamb tagine with apricots, and green curry tofu. I guess that’s part of the reason nearly 2,400 people volunteer for the festival, doing everything from directing traffic to schlepping gear.

Of course, the festival is really about the music, and I liked the diversity of the offerings. The term folk is used pretty liberally, with bluegrass and Americana sharing the bill with world, blues, and indie music. Over the three days, I heard a lot of great artists, including:

Alex Cuba
Amelia Curran
The Deep Dark Woods
The Dust Poets
Gentleman Reg
Hayes Carll
Hey Rosetta! (my top pick of the festival)
Iron & Wine
Joel Fafard
Josh Ritter
The Lovell Sisters
Martha Wainwright
Neko Case

Elvis Costello and the Imposters opened the festival on Wednesday night. His opening set for The Police last year was brilliant but brief, so I was looking forward to hearing him as a headliner. Elvis really embraced the spirit of the festival, arriving a couple of days early and working with The Lovell Sisters on a number of songs from his set. After starting out with a few rockin’ songs, he exchanged his electric guitar for an acoustic and served up a solid set of roots / country-tinged music. As Patrick White wrote in last week’s Globe and Mail, “It made for a perfect folk fest moment that may not be topped anywhere in the country this summer.”


I know it was a week ago, but if anyone cares, here’s his set list.

Accidents Will Happen
Mystery Dance
(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea
You Belong to Me
I Hope You’re Happy Now
Man out of Time
Motel Matches
Suit of Lights
Complicated Shadows
Condemned Man
Blame it on Cain
Sleep of the Just
Brilliant Mistake
Radio Sweetheart / Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)
Femme Fatale
American Without Tears
The Crooked Line
Sulphur to Sugarcane
Mystery Train

The Scarlet Tide
Watching the Detectives
Alison / Tracks of My Tears / Tears of a Clown
(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes
Radio, Radio
Pump it Up
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understandin

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