I've been going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Bird's Hill Provincial Park since 2005 with Erin and have always had a good time despite any difficulties, but this year's event was the best one I've been to yet. As usual, we got off to a late start and again were delayed at the Canadian border by Customs who decided they had to check us out (again) for some reason. We finally made it to Winnipeg and the Bhigg House around 11:30pm, where we went to bed as soon as we could and got up at 5:30am to jump back in the car and head out to the park and get in the festival camping lineup, which was long as usual. Erin noticed that people who were getting dropped off and walking in were being let in as well, so she decided to load our garden cart and get in the walk-in line while I stuck with our car. That turned out to be a good thing as she managed to get in early enough to claim one of the last good spots for the Baggiecon group in camping Zone 1A. As I waited I visited with friends who were also in the lineup and played a little guitar, and then drove in and found our campsite and grabbed a cart to bring our tent and gear in and then set up our tent and helped set up the kitchen tent before heading down to hear the Wednesday evening show at the main stage. By then there were around ten of us and we all walked down and spread our tarp back by the festival store and relaxed after a hectic day.
The first act was a local one, Oh My Darling, and they were very lively and musically sharp quartet. The first tweener (a short set between the longer acts) was Tony Furtado, a great guitarist, and while he was playing I made my way up closer to the main stage for the next act, The Avett Brothers, who I'd missed hearing a couple of years ago and wanted to hear this year. The Avett's did a very uptempo set which was well-received by the crowd, and while I also enjoyed it I would have also liked a few gentler songs in the mix. Maybe another time. After the Avett's were done I headed back to the back baggie and decided to call it an evening and go back to camp and get some sleep.
Thursday there aren't any festival daytime stages going, so we were able to relax and finish setting up camp, including our 10x20 shade structure (a car port, actually) and a smaller 10x10 shade canopy from Lana Klassen next to the kitchen tent which was a great idea. There was the usual discussion about where things should go and the usual differences, but things worked out in the end, mostly. Karen Cooper brought a huge 10x20 shade screen that we hung along the south wall of the shade structure and it blocked sunlight while allowing some breeze to come through. With all our creature comforts in place we then could chill for a few more hours and then we headed down to hear more music at the main stage.
Sara Watkins was up first, and while she was o.k. it wasn't a memorable set (more about her later). The first tweeners were The Magnificent 7s from Winnipeg and I really liked them from the first and made a mental note to hear them again later. Then it was the Indigo Girls who got an enthusiastic welcome and in turn gave a wonderful performance - I'm still surprised at how much sound they can generate live as just a duo. We again didn't have a tarp down up front but the next act, Josh Ritter and his band, was one I wanted to see as well as hear, so I walked up and went into the dance area to the right of the main stage to get a closer view. Ritter and his band were spot on and were clearly having as good a time as the crowd was, and there was one bit during a song where Ritter paused, got down on his knees, and then gave a very good version of a wolf howl that had the crowd joining in as well. A nice moment to be sure. Then after Ritter was done I headed back to the group and heard a little more music by Serena Ryder before deciding to go back to camp early once again, where we sat around the camp fire and played some songs ourselves before turning in.
Friday morning I got up late and was greeted by Polly Peterson who gave me a #1 tarp ticket for the day's tarp run, er, stroll. (There's a lineup in the morning for folks to lay a tarp down at the main stage, and having a #1 ticket means being in the first group to snag a spot.) So I showered fast and ate some yogurt and a muffin, and then walked down as fast as I could and made it with thirty seconds to spare. I got a good spot that had a nice view of the tweener side of the stage, which had moved to the left side after years of being on the right end of the main stage. Then I had some time to catch my breath and cool down before going off to the first set at the Green Ash stage, where all the performers from last night's Main Stage show were playing together. It was interesting but not fabulous. Then I went to look for Erin and Dave Clement, as Dave wanted to hear David Francey at the Bur Oak stage as did I, so we set our chairs down there while Erin went off to the Big Bluestem stage to hear a collective of Winnipeg acts that included Oh My Darling, The Magnificent 7s and Nathan Rogers. Just as Dave and I settled in and David Francey and his group (a guitarist and a very good mandolin player) started in with a song titled "Rain", it started to gently shower which was just one of those perfect little moments. Francey apologized for not having a song that would stop the rain and then performed a wonderful set. After that, Dave and I found Erin after some confusion about where to meet and caught some of a workshop that included Josh Ritter and a band from Philadelphia, Dr. Dog, that I'd never heard of but liked what I heard. Then we all went off to hear Sylvia Tyson perform a show at Bur Oak, which was wonderful.
After that, I went off to get something to eat before the main stage shows started. The festival site this year was very different thanks to some major upgrades that included a new food booth area that was an improvement. I found a place that served very tasty tacos and got a plate of them and ate them before joining folks at the tarp up front this time to hear the first main stage set by Nathan Rogers, who did a set songs by his father, Stan Rogers. I was blown away, and the acapella version of Flowers of Bermuda Nathan sang was absolutely breathtaking. Erin said even at the back baggie everyone was transfixed too. The first tweener was a singer/songwriter, Jordie Lane, and his wife who because of travel woes had to drum on a bass case. He was very good and I also made a note to catch more of him later. Then I went back to rejoin Erin on the back baggie for the rest of the evening. I liked Danny Michel and the Garifuna Collective, who reminded me of Paul Simon both with his singing and with his playing with musicians from Belize that he'd become friends with after a visit there. I didn't stick around after than and headed back to camp for the evening, where we again played around the campfire until at around 12:30am there was a downpour that lasted fifteen minutes which forced us to move under the shade structure. In the process I lost not only my reading glasses but also a capo. Thankfully I found them both later. We stayed up a little longer and then I went back to our tent to sleep.
Saturday morning we woke up to a clearing sky and after having to take a shower using the backup battery-powered pump I headed down with the tarp and a #1 ticket again and this time made it with a few minutes to spare and put the tarp down in practically the same spot as the day before. Then I just went off by myself to hear a workshop at what's become my favorite stage, Shady Grove, featuring The Magnificent 7s, Sara Watkins and an dance band from Denmark, Habadekuk. It was a great workshop where, as intended, the musicians have some fun jamming together. Sara Watkins was much more engaging jamming than she'd been as a solo act, The Magnificent 7s were rocking out and the musicians from Habadekuk showed some fantastic musical chops joining in. Definitely my favorite workshop of the fest. I also had a nice time talking with my neighbor sitting next to me, who was from Winnipeg but had lived in Madison, Wisconsin too. Then I headed for the Snowberry stage to hear a workshop of singer-songwriters, which wasn't as much of a jam but did feature some great songs from Jordie Lane, Sean Rowe and Hayes Carll. (I liked the realignment of the Snowberry stage which used to have the main foot path running right through the middle of the stage audience, but there was a problem that cropped up later...)
The next stop was a workshop I was really looking forward too, a group of great guitarists, including Tony Furtardo, Martin Sexton and David Lindley. Unfortunately, it was at Bur Oak which isn't one of the bigger stages to begin with, and it was hot out so many people had previously claimed a shady spot under the oak trees, so there was very little room and I had to settle on a spot so far back I could hardly see the stage through the trees. Then on top of that there was a terrible amount of sound bleeding from the Snowberry stage (which now points directly at the Bur Oak area) which made it also hard to hear the performers at Bur Oak. This was the only time during the fest I was truly disappointed. Oh well. After the end of the workshop I spotted Dave and Erin walking towards me and I joined them, and they told me they'd been even further back and could hardly hear a thing themselves. The next workshop at Bur Oak was one we'd all wanted to see, a reunion of performers who had played at the very first Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974, forty years ago. (FYI, Dave Clement has been to all forty of them!) We quickly scouted around while people were getting up and getting down and found a better spot and settled in. I hadn't seen Leon Redbone for over twenty years, and while he was showing his age as a singer, his guitar playing was great and he had a fine pianist accompanying him. Sylvia Tyson was also there and was fine, and Peter Paul van Camp, who had been an emcee for decades was a hoot reading his poetry. The founder of the festival, Mitch Podolak, also appeared and got a standing ovation from the audience.
Then we all made our way over to the main stage and set our chairs up on the back baggie and had a meal while listening to Habedekuk, who were up first. They were playing well, but being Danish they weren't much for stage patter between songs. After they'd finished, I walked up to the front baggie to join a very crowed group, but thankfully the tarps next to us had some extra room and folks on them were nice enough to allow me to take up some of their space. A duo called Whitehorse was up next and while they were very good (and VERY loud), they liked doing the looping and layering of instrument and voices, which they did very well but it just didn't engage me. (Dave Clement later told me he liked them and didn't like Josh Ritter, so go figure.) Next up was Martin Sexton, who I was glad to get to finally hear and was a great player, but again it wasn't that engaging. Then it was Dr. John and his band, The Nite Trippers, and they were tight as a drum and fun. Dr. John is pretty slow on his feet these days, but his playing is a good as ever and while there wasn't much patter it didn't really matter. Definitely the best set of the night. Then I headed back before the last band, Galactic, came up and picked up my chair to go back to camp. (The past few years I haven't been staying for the last acts on Friday and Saturday, as the fest has dance-type bands that are very good but I'm just not into that kind of thing lately.) Erin and I, and Lana Klassen took Marnie, one of the new members of our camp, and we walked around the festival camping site to have fun, and visited a games area (where I played Twister for the first time in decades), a temporary tattoo parlor, the latest Castle Boys project, which was a Space Barn, and then whatever else looked like fun to visit. We didn't make it to Pope's Hill though. Marnie really enjoyed it all and hopefully she will come back next year for more.
The last morning of the fest I again headed down to the tarp run to put our front tarp down, again in practically the same spot, got a bit of breakfast at one of the food booths, and waited to meet Erin at one of the new forest stages, Little Stage in the Forest, to hear Peter Paul van Camp read his poetry. I found one of our Baggiecon crew there encamped in the front row already and we talked while I waited for Erin, and just as the show was beginning Erin walked up and we sat together and enjoyed a hilarious show. I can see why he was popular at the festival for all those years and the performance was over with all too quickly. Then Erin and I made our way over to the Big Bluestem stage to catch the last part of a workshop there that featured the Blind Boys of Alabama doing their gospel thing, and then decided to catch a workshop at Green Ash of some "new" folk acts. For once, we found a great spot near the stage to sit together and had a great time listening to The Milk Carton Kids, who were fine singers and musicians and had a wicked wit, and the Lake Street Dive from Boston and The Dunwells from England. After that we had a hard time deciding, but we ended up going to the Snowberry stage to hear a group of Texans that included Hayes Carll and the Flatlanders, and a guy who called himself Matt the Electrician that we'd never heard of and really, really liked. Erin then found Dave Clement, who had been with Karen Cooper until then, and we went to the other new forest stage, Spruce Hollow, to hear a workshop of Winnipeger bands that Dave wanted to catch. Spruce Hollow was the only stage that was an actual ampitheater that had been set on a natural hillside, but it was still pretty rough ground. Hopefully by next year it will be a bit smoother, and there was also a problem here with sound bleeding over from the nearby (really nearby) Little Stage in the Forest. Right at the end I went right over to the Little Stage and claimed a spot for the three of us to sit and hear a set by The Milk Carton Kids, which Dave enjoyed and included some sarcastic banter with of all things a sign-language interpreter who gamely went along and had the audience laughing. The Milk Carton Kids definitely have their stage patter down. Then when they were done I decided to head back to camp to take a shower and just hang out for a while with Karen and Juan and have a couple of beers before heading back to main stage to hear the Flatlanders do a twangy set and then for the last act hear Xavier Rudd get his groove on. (A little too much, as he went over and they actually had to turn him down during his last song due to time constraints.) Then all of us from the Baggiecon camp joined together to hear the finale, with another turn by Nathan Rogers singing "The Mary Ellen Carter" (Nathan sang it last year, and I had no problem hearing him sing it again) and a nice version of Wild Mountain Thyme and a great version of Amazing Grace by The Blind Boys of Alabama. Then we Baggieconers all formed a circle and sang Ripple and then walked slowly out singing sea shanties. I tried to stay up for a while to play some music back at camp, but I was kind of tired and wasn't quite up for it. I did stay up long enough to get to see some fantastic northern lights though, and Dave Clement was up to four in the morning playing songs. It was pretty much a perfect fest this year, and when I asked Dave about some of his favorite years he said that the years had rounded off for him a long time ago. Yep.
The next morning we all got up groggy and didn't start tearing down our camp until after 10am, and while we were doing that there was one officious person who came around to tell us we had to be out by noon. We took a look over to where the big games encampment was and saw they weren't even close to being out and kind of shrugged our shoulders. Thankfully it was nice and dry and we were able to get all our tents and such packed up nicely and we got out by 1pm and headed back to the Bhigg House in Winnipeg, where Erin took first dibs on a shower and I took a nap for a few hours. Ruth had been thoughtful enough to put out some sandwich makings for us in the kitchen for all of us country mice to eat, which was much appreciated. (The original idea was Peggy O'Neill's, so thanks to her too.) Later that evening some friends of Dave's came by, including Kylea and we had a fun Dead Mouse Party. Tuesday morning we all got up to have brunch at a deli nearby that was very good and then Erin and I said our goodbyes and took off for home. We were both happy to NOT be held up and searched at the U.S. border this year and we made it back safe and sound at a decent hour to be greeted by some very happy dogs and cats.
All in all, this year's folk fest was the most fun one I've been to yet (with 2007's coming in second and 2012's a close third) and I'm looking forward to next year's.