Words by Gil Carroll 

Photos by Kelly Campbell, Julia Hardy, and Sam Sarty

The Winnipeg Folk Festival really brings out the sunshine in people.  For the 44th year in a row, the WFF brought together a community of free-spirited, peaceful and enthusiastic folks at the beautiful Birds Hill Provincial Park. Nearly every moment of the WFF, which took place from July 5-9 in sun-filled, beautiful and all-encompassing nature, made  you feel good inside.Throughout the four days, festival goers, volunteers, and performers alike continually sang the praises of the unique and artistically diverse nature of the festival.  The performances were full of heart and passionate storytelling and the acts came from all over the world, including Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ireland, Denmark, US and Canada.

While in reality, most folks who are fans of the festival would attend even if they hadn’t heard of any of the artists performing, just to experience the atmosphere of the fest, the lineup was certainly not an afterthought. The expertly curated lineup was diverse and unique, and had something for everyone at all the right moments. The fest didn’t pigeonhole itself into just “folk”, which this writer appreciated. The diversity in what sort of experience one could have at the WFF was extraordinary.

Whether it was singing along with Peter Yarrow and a chorus of children (50 years old or younger) to Puff the Magic Dragon (which, contrary to popular belief, was not written about pot), having an out-of-body experience with Marchfourth, crying over love lost during Big Thief, or nodding along to pleasant and quirky pop gems of The Shins, this was a festival with truly something for everyone. The food vendors and coffee vendors were also on point and overall delicious. A couple of hairs in a burrito never hurt anyone.

With an emphasis on music discovery, the lineup boasted many unique and world renown artists, and attendees were more than willing to lend  an open ear and allow themselves to be taken away by an artist they had never heard of before. The crowds trusted the festival was providing them what they wanted to hear and see. They were enthusiastic and appreciative of the performers, often giving standing ovations and encouraging shouts.

The festival is always run smoothly as a result of many hard working and committed volunteers. The staff and volunteers of the festival make everyone feel welcome. Even when they were pouring out the cans of PBR a young hippie was trying to sneak into the festival, they were smiling and not making him feel too badly about it.

And the artists, of course, benefit from the great organization. Here’s what local musician Ashley Au, who performed  at the festival with John K Sampson and The Winter Wheat as well as with Carly Dow, had to say about the experience of performing at the fest.

“This year’s festival was the first year I was a performer. For the past seven years I have been a volunteer stage hand on the Main Stage. So it felt a bit surreal to be on that big stage playing with John (K Sampson and The Winter Wheat), who has been an artist I’ve admired since I was a teenager. Looking out into the sea of audience members was a rush and, to be honest, a little nerve wracking. The nerves quickly dissipated once the first chord was struck and everything felt really good. It was definitely a milestone performance for me.”

Here are some standouts:

Choir! Choir! Choir! : Friday afternoon – Spruce Hollow

Giving every festival goer a chance to shine. A very special appearance by Bruce Cockburn as he sang  “Lovers in a dangerous time,” backed up by  hundreds of smiling and passionate audience members singing wonderful harmonies. The Barenaked Ladies also sang this song during their set Sunday evening but I wished they hadn’t.

DakhaBrakha : Friday night – Main Stage

An avant-garde Ukrainian folk group who transformed the prairie night into a tropical rainforest, outer space and heaven and hell, all with their voices and a few bangs of a drum. An all-encompassing and captivating performance that had everyone talking the next morning. “That was so cool. “How did they do that?” “Wow!”

Feist : Saturday night – Main stage

With a full moon above her and a sea of loving fans who continually howled for her, Leslie Feist unleashed her moving and impressive live set full of crowd sing-along, fearless guitar playing, and goosebump inducing vocal range. A wonderfully intimate encore featuring a new sultry and minimal take on her 2007 hit 1,2,3,4 left everyone wanting more.  

Big Thief : Sunday afternoon – Green Ash Stage

A brilliant performance from the New York (by way of Minnesota) band was exactly what Sunday at the WFF needed. Lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker belted with her charmingly emotional and fragile voice and displayed her creative and imaginative minimalist guitar flare. It was easily one of the best performances of the weekend, marked by an understated yet confident sound. The crowd was captivated and swept up in their dynamic vocal harmonies and guitar feedback art.