A certain Winnipeg radio station may have been discussing the Winnipeg Folk Festival at seven o’clock on Wednesday morning, saying things like, “I don’t think many people really go on Wednesday!” But anyone who knows anything about the first day of WFF knows that by that hour, there is a line down the highway, all the way through to the heart of Birds Hill Provincial Park, where thousands of avid folk festers wait to begin the best five days of their entire year. The first morning may have started with a thunderstorm, but this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival was anything but a disappointment.
Scorching were both the weather and this year’s performers, a slew of talent that Winnipeg Folk Festers won’t be forgetting anytime soon. One duo that came out shining was the new (but not so new at the same time) Sarah & Christian Dugas. Having previously been members of the Manitoba-based band The Duhks, the siblings showed up stronger than ever, bringing the soul to WFF. The duo collaborated with fellow Manitoba musicians such as Chic Gamine, Dry Bones, Fish & Bird, and many others during daytime workshops, played their own solo concert, as well as a tweener on the main stage on Friday night. Sarah Dugas’ voice was a big, pleasant surprise for anyone who hadn’t heard her before, not to mention her brother complimenting perfectly with both drums and vocals. All I have to say is, this chick’s voice is insane. So far the duo has only released an EP entitled Another Day, but an LP is apparently in the making and I can bet many can’t wait to get their hands on it.
K’naan however took home my award for most enlightening performance — on Thursday night his humble attitude, compelling stage presence, and not to mention catchy and uplifting hip hop/world infused songs brought anyone out of a 30°C-day-in-the-sun daze. For the amount of fame K’naan has accumulated with mega hits such as Wavin’ Flag and Is Anybody Out There?, the down-to-earth performance he delivered was right in tune with the folk fest attitude. K’naan struck a chord with the audience with his heartfelt lyrics in Fatima, and even played a segment of the Bruno Mars hit The Lazy Song, which he co-wrote, saying, “we couldn’t believe that people actually wanted to play this on the radio!” But the Somalian/Canadian rapper really brought the house down during his encore with – of course – “Wavin’ Flag.” His modest approach to performance was mirrored in this delivery — even after all of the many different remixes made across the globe with this song, his favorite version is still the very first one made in the studio. Needless to say, K’naan left folk festers in an optimistic mood for the workshops to begin the next day.
Saturday night however took a big turn when The Head and the Heart took the main stage — opening their set with Cats and Dogs made folk festers turn heads, head over to the dancing section, only to find it already populated by The Head and the Heart super-fans. But not the kind of super-fans that you’d like to be far away from, these ones were just loving the music and knew every lyric. and the band just fed off all this great energy. If the vocals from Josiah Johnson and Charity Rose Thielen were enough to make everyone swoon, so was the vivacity pouring out of fellow band members Jonathan Russell, Chris Zasche, Kenny Hensley, and Tyler Williams. The sextet was seriously praised during Down In the Valley and Winter Song, but it was their closer, Rivers and Roads, that really brought the house (or in this case field) down. The passion was just exuding off the stage, and the serious love of performance was evident in every single one of these musicians — maybe bands should be formed at open mic nights more often. It was simply overwhelming, but in a good way. The Head and the Heart may have not closed the main stage on Saturday night, but they many left fans and many new listeners satisfied after a scorching day in Birds Hill Provincial Park.
Not to say that Sunday fell short in any way! A unique trio I was able to catch a glimpse of during a tweener on the main stage was Belle Starr. Consisting of singer-fiddlers Stephanie Cadman, Kendal Carson, and Miranda Mulholland (from Great Lake Swimmers), these ladies can fiddle you under the table and stun you with their gentle, soothing vocals. More than that, for some of their songs the drums are actually Cadman’s feet — she does some sort of step/tap dance, and carries it throughout. These ladies brought something that many may have never seen before, and did I mention that they are all total babes?
The workshop that really left a mark on Sunday afternoon however was “Take A Load Off Me…”, a tribute to Levon Helm featuring The Beauties, Sarah & Christian Dugas, Bahamas, and Jimmy LaFave. The stage was packed with these talented musicians celebrating in memory of the great Levon Helm, former drummer and vocalist for The Band and many other associated acts. I was fortunate enough to see Levon Helm with The Levon Helm Band at the very same festival in 2010, and these musicians this year really did him justice. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was a great reminiscence for the audience, but not surprisingly it was “The Weight” that really took the cake. The audience may have been melting under the hot sun at the Green Ash stage, but this closer made everything else disappear, including the stage power during the last chorus. Nonetheless, the audience filled this void, making the end of the song that much powerful. Hearing the band on stage in the distance while surrounded by singing fans for a great Canadian classic was probably one of the most chilling concert moments for me, ever.
So once again, this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival was a winner. It was hot as hell, but who cares about shade when you can witness all of this greatness? You may just be my true love, WFF!
Photography by Bram Sawatzky & Adrienne Toye