WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Brett Fillmore
Another edition of the Winnipeg Folk Festival has come and gone, which brought 75 bands and artists from 11 different countries to Manitoba’s Bird’s Hill Provincial Park. The WFF has a few notable things that make it unique amongst its folk fest brethren in Canada: 1) it’s outside the city and most attendees stay on the (totally rad) festival campground there, which lends a much different vibe than most urban folk fests and leads to 2) an attendee group that contains decidedly more of the dance tent and poi ball demographic than the usual blanket squatters and young families you see at many folk fests, which may be because it’s one of the only major festivals in the area or because 3) the main stage evening schedule has very little devotion to the traditional definition of folk as a genre, leading to a straight-up party atmosphere for the evening shows.
Combing through the sets, there were several marquee names with highpoint performances: Ryan Adams (whose energetic and enigmatic performance deserves its own article altogether), Sam Roberts Band (who rocked the main stage the hardest of anyone), and Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies (whose Great Big Sea jams received perhaps the most rousing response all weekend). But the greatest thing about going to festivals is discovering unfamiliar music and seeing artists perform that you never would otherwise. Here are six sleeper picks who played the role of eyebrow raiser and scene stealer.
Colin Hay is a veteran performer (his first folk fest? 1971), and it showed. He was immaculately comfortable on stage, chatting and joking in a thick and gravelly Scottish accent. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, he would occasionally look back on the stage as if expecting to see the ghosts of a long-departed backing band. He is a formidable storyteller, regaling the audience with stories about family, getting older, and his younger days, including a couple doozy punchlines—one about a confused fan and his former pet goat, and one about how he’s glad they don’t do Lance Armstrong style drug testing for the Grammys.
The Head and The Heart
Seattle’s The Head and The Heart took absolute command of the main stage. Their gigantic dynamic shifts and jam band interludes took hold of the crowd in a tight grip and never let go, especially the twice-elongated rendition of “Let’s Be Still”. The surprise, though, was on the side stage with their uber-collaborative workshops—one accompanied by Lucius and Basia Bulat, and another with San Fermin and Wild Child. The latter was most impressive, as, forming a massive jam band consisting of 20+ musicians on stage at once, the sonic assault culminated in an incredible impromptu cover of the Cardigans’ “Love Fool.”
If you don’t know Lucius, here’s a quick recap. They’re a Brooklyn indie band led by a duo of demagogue babes who perform everything in sync—facing each other for the entire performance, they mirror each other perpetually, from the tightest of tight harmonies to the smashing of tom drums that flank their keyboards. They donned separate but identical outfits for their WFF performances that consisted of tight mini skirts, hilariously patterned capes, impossibly large sunglasses, ankle boots, and bleached bobs. The iconoclast visuals are a bit of a red herring, though, as the band is immensely talented. When they take the stage you can’t help but sit up and take notice, but when they purr “my heart got caught on your sleeve, please give it back to me” over droning church organs, it’s goose bump inducing.
Troubadour Rayland Baxter played a formidable main stage set, complete with backing band. However, he shone brightest on the side stages accompanied only by his serene wide body guitar. Here, his stripped down versions of “Yellow Eyes” and “Oh My Captain” might have sounded better than his full band studio versions. Baxter’s most crowd-pleasing moment was his unannounced appearance during a late night set by the Bluegrass Situation where he drunkenly performed a spot-on cover of The Eagles’ “Wasted Time.”
English trio The Staves were an indie wolf in folk sheep clothing. When the three sisters shared the mic to croon harmonies over a ukulele strum it was appeared to be typical folk fest fare, but the set developed to include cuts from their more recent catalogue where, stunningly, another sound emerged—reverb drenched guitar tones and stinging lyrics accompany the wistful, piercing harmonies. Need further proof of their street cred? They’ve toured with Florence and The Machine and their latest EP was produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.
When Tom Power introduced Basia Bulat to the main stage, he asserted that she was joined by some of the finest musicians in the country as her backing band. Seeming as she far outshone them during a dazzling, rollicking set, Bulat’s WFF appearance was likely a sign of further greatness to come. Darting between a keyboard, microphone, and autoharp in a glittery cowl, Bulat’s demeanor was vulnerable and giving. She won the crowd with earnestness and bright red lipstick. It felt like a star in the making.
Honourable mention: PopCart
The best food of the festival has to be the PopCart, a gourmet popsicle stand. The vanilla coconut was an epiphany.