Sunday at the Winnipeg Folk Festival was as gorgeous a day as Saturday was ugly. Mid-seventies, blue skies, Canadian air—the sort of weather that no doubt convinced the founders thirty-five years ago that it was a good idea to camp and play music for four days in a row in the middle of July in Manitoba.
The crowd on Sunday was the largest ever—the official count was 12,462 people—and festival planners are saying that despite the inclement weather, this year’s folk-fest set a new attendance record of 45,325. On Sunday, it was clear that everyone who had chosen to wait Saturday’s storm out was trying to make up for lost time, which meant that virtually every stage was packed all day long.
At the Big Bluestem stage, the annual Sacred Sunday Morning show got things off to a reverent start with performances by Jim Byrnes and The Sojourners, the Warrior Gospel Band, and New Orleans jazz/gospel singer John Boutte. At the same time, in the Folk School tent, our own Spider John Koerner was preaching his own form of religion in a class on the history of folk music.
Throughout this perfect day, music and laughter drifted through the pines (yes, there are pine trees in Birds Hill Park). At the Blue Stem Stage, after the Sacred Sunday Morning show, a touching tribute to songwriter/singer Willie P. Bennett was held. He wasn’t well known in America, but Bennett was an icon in the Canadian folk scene, and the heartfelt reminiscences offered by those who loved him was all the more poignant because Bennett wasn’t particularly old when he died, in February, of a heart attack at the age of 56.
The last few hours of daytime music featured a flurry of concerts, particularly by guitar-and-voice specialists such as Canadian songwriter J.P. Hoe, Tennessee legend Charlie Louvin, Canadian songwriter Ann Walton, Georgia-based song-man Jim White, and Ontario-based indie-rocker Danny Michel, who wowed them at the secluded Shady Grove stage with songs off his latest album, Feather, Fur, and Fin.
As the sun went down and the wind subsided, the stage was set for a perfect closing evening of concerts on the mainstage. Jakob Dylan and the Golden Mountain Rebels were supposed to play, but they canceled a couple of weeks before the festival. That left a mainstage lineup of Canadian indie-rocker Kathleen Edwards, blues/rock icon Joan Armatrading, and a performance by rock legend Ray Davies, front-man for The Kinks, but without a band behind him.
Joan Armatrading and Ray Davies were both odd fits for the festival, and onstage both seemed to wonder a little why they were invited at all. Though if either of them had spent anytime wandering around at the festival, they would have seen that the range and eclecticism of the festival’s music is extraordinary, and the only sort of band that would be truly out of place might be something from the subterranean world of death metal. (Though judging from their t-shirts and hats, festivalgoers themselves have seen a concert or two by Korn, Marilyn Manson, Mushroomhead, Slayer, and Slipknot.)
Joan Armatrading approached her set with an “I’m here, so what the hell, I’ll give them a show” attitude—and that she did. Not many women play blues guitar, but when Armatrading is up there showing off her chops, spitting out wails and moans from her black-and-white Telecaster, it makes you wonder why. The woman is simply a force to be reckoned with, and she blew through a polished, consummately professional set drawing on songs from every aspect of her career. By the end she seemed to be having a good time, though, and she found the time to play two encore songs by simply dispensing with the formality of leaving the stage and coming back. “This is usually the point where I leave the stage, you all go crazy, and I come back and play an encore,” she said. “Why don’t we just skip that part and get on with it.” Not one for ceremony, that Joan. She's great, though:
The headliner of the evening, Ray Davies, of Kinks fame, killed the buzz a little by coming onstage, playing half a song, then disappearing while his roadies fixed some technical problems. When he came back, it took him a while to get in the groove and get the audience back, but by the end he had people singing to such old hits as “Sunny Day,” “The Tax Man,” and “Lola.” Still, after the scorching set by Armatrading, Davies’ set was a little anti-climactic.
One can’t say that for the traditional festival-ending sing-along. Every year, the crown sings three songs together to end the festival. This year’s selections were The Mary Ellen Carter, by Stan Rogers, the traditional tune Wild Mountain Thyme, and to end it all, Amazing Grace. As the half-moon shone over the mainstage and the stars were starting to show themselves, it’s hard not to get a few spine tingles when more than 10,000 people are singing their hearts out, grateful for at least one perfect evening to end a not-so-perfect festival—all of which seemed perfect after all.