As many Minnesotans may already know, the 450-mile drive to Winnipeg does not feature many signs with the word “scenic” on them. It’s a flat, straight haul across the prairie, and the best thing about it is that 85 m.p.h. on cruise control seems just about right.
At the Canadian border, the guard didn’t flinch when I told her we were headed to the Winnipeg Folk Festival; she just gave me a sad, bored look that said, “Yeah, you and 10,000 other idiots.” I suspect she knew that this weekend’s forecast calls for rain, and lots of it. The apples and bananas in our possession seemed to concern her more than our choice of Canadian amusement, though. But in the end she elected to wave us through rather than deal with us any longer than she had to.
A lot of people wonder where, exactly, the Winnipeg Folk Festival takes place. This is understandable, because the festival site is ten miles north of Winnipeg, a geographical area that most Americans imagine as a big slab of nothing, just north of nowhere, half-way to oblivion. In reality, Birds Hill Park, where the festival is held, is a lovely, bucolic plot of land with plenty of trees and rolling hills, and enough camping space to accommodate more than 5,000 campers. In other words, it’s a perfect setting for thousands of neo-hippies, ex-hippies, proto-hippies, and people who just happen to have large hips to gather and enjoy some of the best outdoor music the northern hemisphere has to offer. The site has seven separate stages, and each of them is scheduled to the hilt all day long. Even if the festival lasted a month you still wouldn’t be able to see all the acts, so you have to plan carefully and accept the fact that you’re going to miss 90 percent of the music no matter what. Also, there are a lot of “no” signs around reminding you of all the things you’re not supposed to bring inside, but there seems to be sort of a communal agreement that the ban on certain illegal substances is more of a suggestion than a rule.
There was no music during the day on Thursday (July 10); the festival kicked off with an evening concert on the mainstage featuring Texas singer/violinist Carrie Rodriguez, a bluegrass band called the Infamous Stringdusters, African pop sensation Dobet Gnahore, Winnipeg’s own indie-rock wonder The Weakerthans, and San Francisco funk/reggae/hip hop band, Michael Franti and Spearhead. Things were fairly mellow until the Weakerthans took the stage, after which anything remotely “folky” went out the door and it turned into a rock concert under the stars. The Weakerthans closed with one of their best-known songs, an ode to their beloved home town called “I Hate Winnipeg.” After that, Michael Franti and Spearhead, one of the few bands ever to be invited back to the festival two years in a row, had most of the crowd up out of their chairs and dancing until midnight.
Time will tell, but it may already have been the best evening of the festival. Today’s forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms all day long, and tomorrow the forecast calls for nothing but rain and the sort of high winds that blow stages down and ruin summer festivals. The show supposedly goes on rain or shine, and it looks like the concert gods are going to put that pledge to the test.
Gotta go find my rain poncho—I’ll let you know what happens.