Monday, July 10, 2006

2006 Winnipeg Folk Festival

In 1974, the very first Winnipeg Folk Festival was launched as a one-time celebration for Winnipeg's 100th birthday. Since then, it's grown to become one of North America's top music festivals, famous for the awesome sense of discovery attendees experience from seeing lesser-known artists, among the bigger names. Most of the big names at this year's event were Steve Earle, Ricki Lee Jones, Richard Thompson, Bruce Cockburn, Son Volt, Solomon Burke, Neko Case and Ferron. Some of the most talked about performers, though, were Hawksley Workman, Grammy winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Salil Bhatt, bluegrass sensations Crooked Still, Texan rocker Alejandro Escovedo, Celtic Flook from Ireland, The Grande Mothers (former members of the Mothers of Invention), South Austin Jug Band and current Garrison Keilor faves the Wailin' Jennys.

Day 1, Thursday, July 9

It normally takes me 30 minutes to get to Birds Hill Park, but with rush hour traffic, it took twice as long. Then, there were about 50 cars lined up to buy a weekend pass.

I arrived a few minutes before they had the mad dash to the front of the main stage for people to put down their tarps. I opted to just sit in a chair instead, near the left side of the stage, about 50 feet back.

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The Wailin' Jennys opened the show in support of their new album, Firecracker. During the second song, new Jenny Annabelle Chvostek's mike failed. She ended up sharing Nicky Mehta's mike. Ruth Moody's vocals were stunning over the speaker system. The Jennys like to give some insight on what their songs are about, which is something I wish more artists would do. I can't recall all the stories, but the songs were sensational and distinctive, including Nicky Mehta's Begin, Annabelle's Swallow and Devil's Paintbrush Road, Ruth Moody' poignant Prairie Town, Jane Siberry's Calling All Angels. What's interesting about the Jennys at the moment is that they caught the attention of Garrison Keilor and have appeared on his legendary radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, several times. After they appear, the two Jenny albums end up in the top 5 on That's quite an accomplishment considering how unknown they are, relative to the big arena acts like the Dixie Chicks, etc. In June, they played with touring Prairie Home Companion show three times in Massachusetts. In July, for Independence Day, the Keilor's show was recorded in front of a live television audience at Tangle wood, 2 hours west of Boston, in Lenox, MA. Broadcast as part of PBS' Great Performance series, the show was called Garrison Keilor's Independence Day Special: A Prairie Home Companion at Tanglewood, and featured Meryl Streep, who is also in the recent Roger Altman film of the radio show. I've been an instant fan since their very first gig back in January 2002, in front of jam-packed audience of 30 people or so in an acoustic instrument store. I'm also sitting in the front row for their next Winnipeg performance, in September at the Pantages Theatre.

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Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jennys

Reggae trio Bedouin Soundclash were fun and had loads of people up and dancing. The Alejandro Escovedo group were excellent. They had an interesting atmosphere to their melting pot rock'n'roll sound. The Jerry Douglas group was a disappointment. Sure, he's a great instrumentalist who has won 12 Grammy awards, but his group's stab at improvising music and jazz, was really dull. So many lesser known, but authentic jazz musicians, have done it so much better. I opted not to stick around for the closing act, Steve Earle. I like some of his music, but not enough to brave the mosquitoes and the chilly air.

There was some guy in a powered glider, buzzing over the mainstage grounds. I saw a couple of co-workers there but they were behind the fence that separated the volunteers from the paid attendees, so I didn't get a chance to speak with them. Big line-ups for the Thai restaurant kiosk.

As I left during the second last band of the evening, I could not believe the ocean of people still out there. This must have been one of the best Thursdays for the event.

Day 2 - Friday, July 7

I woke up Friday morning with a bad headache and decided to take some pills and sleep it off. I missed all the day shows but ended up being there for evening shows.

By the time I arrived after 5, there were slim pickens for places to sit on the left side of the stage, but I found a spot. I left my chair and bag full of water and snacks to buy some music. I walked back to the car to put the discs in the trunk and by the time I arrived at my chair, there were people tucked in tightly around me. They were uncomfortably close. I sat there for a few minutes and decided to leave for the back, far away from the stage. I found a spot with some shade and decided to hang out there while keeping an eye on the Firefly Palace tent that housed the "alternative" folk festival. At 10:45 that night, the celebrated slo-core group Low were scheduled to play and I wanted to get a good spot to see them. Although that was more than two hours away, I kept on seeing people walking towards the Firefly Palace tent and sitting out, waiting. I decided to head to the tent to see what was up.

They had a dj playing with some people up and dancing. After he left, This 1 Guy took the stage. He's a performer from San Francisco who created his own instrument called the Magic Pipe, which looks like this:

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That I Guy (Mike Silverman) at Firefly Palace

"All down the length of the pipe are sensors that release drum-and-bass samples when Silverman plucks out everything from rock solos to jazz basslines. While beat-boxing. By strumming, plucking, slapping and looping his pipe, Silverman creates a multilayered soundscape, complemented by his electrified cowboy boots and drum machines."

He was mesmerizing. He created interesting beats and soundscapes and received the most applause when the music suddenly turned on a dime and became techno. There was also a ton of applause when he managed to play Black Sabbath's Iron Man. At one point he plugged a cable into one of his cowboy boots and began to play it like a mini-washboard. I have never seen anything quite like this performer. I decided not to buy the CD, though, because the real magic is in watching him make the music, rather than the music itself. People were definitely bopping away to his tunes. The video playing on the screen was a highly creative and funny assembly of clips from films and television shows, especially the Hilarious House of Frightenstein. The crowd loved it, especially when the music synched up accidentally but appropriately with the video.

Two Hours of Traffic followed, playing with a screen showing video footage shot by local artist Danishka Esterhazy. They were a fun power-pop band from PEI. Their new material, which comes out in the fall, was especially good. These guys could be as big as...The Barenaked Ladies, or any number of Canadian bands, if only they had enough exposure through the radio and TV. Just like for That 1 Guy, it was interesting to watch crowds of people wade their way in as the music drew louder and louder applause.

The band's lead singer thanked the audience for seeing them rather than taking in the mainstage act at the time, the alt-country crooner Neko Case, she with the astonishing voice...yes, she also sings for The New Pornographers but wasn't singing with them when they were here earlier this year. Neko is a cut above most of the multitude of singer-songwriters that I have seen.

I initially thought there were about 600 people under and around the tent for Minnesota's Low, but that was just a wild guess. This trio clearly walks to their own beat and they are very much an acquired taste. Several of their songs were slow burning with deceptively unsophisticated songwriting. A few were difficult
tell apart. The ones that gained the most applause, though, were the ones with Alan Sparhawk coaxing out psychedelic spacey ambient distortion from his guitar. Probably the most upbeat song they played was California from their recent cd, The Great Destroyer. The first time I heard it, I had no idea it was Low. Sparhawk has had to cancel shows in the past due to some undiagnosed debilitating mental health issues, but he seemed just fine that evening. I can imagine that many in the audience were curiosity seekers, some of whom weren't into the show, but the band received a lot of applause as some serious fans were there. I bought three of their cds this past weekend and hope to tap into the magic that longtime fans experience when listening to their music. Some people have said to listen to Low's music as you are falling asleep, in a state of lucidity, and you will be taken on a cosmic journey... Again, they played with an artsy video montage playing behind them. For me, Low were slow, but intense and subtle and at times, brilliant. There's is the ultimate in late night chill out music, and refreshingly non-electronic. At times, though, I also craved more variety and life from their music.

There were some funny moments when Alan Sparhawk would comment on whether or not mainstage act Solomon Burke and Low were playing in the same key. Although the tent was hundreds of yards away from the mainstage, you could quite clearly hear the mainstage bands during the many quiet moments during Low's set. Sparhawk also joked about what were people doing watching Low when they should really be seeing the rock'n' R&B legend Burke.

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Low at the Firefly Palace

Low's set list, thanks to DD from Low's web forum.
Silver Rider
In The Drugs
Like A Forest
Violent Past
Down By The River
(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace
When I Go Deaf
Encore - Sunflower

To see a Low concert online, go here for a show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam from February, 2005.

So, I missed seeing on the mainstage V.M. Bhatt (Grammy winner), Hawksley Workman, Neko Case, Terrence Simien (zydeco) and Solomon Burke (who finished around 2 am, I'm told.) But what I did see at the "alternative" stage was so worth it.

Day 3 - Saturday, July 8

I drove up Saturday with a co-worker who is heading back to the US in a couple of weeks, but since this was his first time, I knew we wouldn't end up staying late. We were supposed to meet another co-worker at 12 noon at Shady Grove, so we headed there for our first show, Rubinchik's Yiddish Ensemble. There were only two of them in the group, since one of them didn't make it. Imagine a real authentic Texan, accent and all, who happens to be a Jewish klezmer musician. Mark Rubin was really funny with his stories. He played an acoustic bass while his partner played on clarinet. Later they were joined by a pianist from another band who volunteered to stay up the night before, learning their tunes, just to help them out. Some of the music they played was actually from a book that was smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. Back in the days of Stalin, there were guys who would round up the folk musicians, get them to play into a wax recording, get someone else at HQ to transcribe the music into notes and write it all down in books. The books were then burned on purpose, to help destroy the state's unregulated, freedom loving, musical culture.

We made our way over to the Tear in My Beer workshop featuring Neko Case, some members of the Sadies, Vic Chestnutt, Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) and Winnipegger Righteous Ike. Unless you sat close enough to see the stage, you couldn't really tell who was singing at any given moment, save for when Neko sang. We mostly chatted ("talk amongst yourselves. I'm getting a little verklempt") until two of us decided now was an opportune time to get some lunch. I went for Tai food, which, despite the large lineups, was just all right and certainly nothing to write home about.

We caught the Mothers and Sisters workshop, which featured former members of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention band, the Grande Mothers, and the Sisters Euclid, an all-guy band featuring the brilliant blues rock guitar virtuoso Kevin Breit. I loved this show, but my co-worker was quite not prepared for it. He figured that since this was a folk festival, the music would be all, well, folky and acoustic. This show was about jamming with jazzy and funky moments. The Grande Mothers had a cd for sale at the big music store tent but I passed on it due to its $35 price tag. I did buy a couple of Sisters Euclid cds, including the latest one which is a tribute to Neil Young.

We caught a bit of the African Global Summit workshop by mistake, actually, thinking it was the stage for the upcoming Oh Susana show. I bought an Afrodizz cd since I happen to like world music. We moved over to see one of the buzz bands of the festival, Crooked Still, a young bluegrass band from the US. They quickly sold out of their cds. Finally, we caught some amazing Celtic music at the It Is Easy Being Green workshop. When we arrived, there was truly sublime flute playing going on, and this turned out to be the Irish band Flook. They took turns playing songs with this duo from Denmark, Haugaard & Hoirup (one of three Danish groups at the festival) and the teenagers from Nova Scotia, The Cottars. I was quite taken by Flook and it was no fluke that I bought one of their cds. I totally missed the Son Volt show that was taking place at the same time, but I ended up buying one of the concert DVDs with footage from '05 and '06.

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Solomon Burke

We bought some chicken roti and chowed down before sitting down for the mainstage shows. We were mostly talking then, so Zar from Denmark came and went without me noticing them much. Canadian rapper K'Naan was up next and was quite loud. So much so that we moved way to the back. The Holmes Brothers with their gospel blues music were all right but nothing that made me want to buy their cds. Around 9 pm, we decided to head to the campgroup to meet up with one of our co-workers and to call it a night.

I totally skipped Sunday, due to needing a break from early mornings and late nights. I had my heart set on seeing the workshops with Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn, to legends, but that wasn't to be. I blew my annual cd budget on about 30 cds and dvds, so I have a lot of music to listen to between now and next year.

The 33rd annual Winnipeg Folk Festival was the biggest ever, with attendence at 45,190, up 325 from 2005. Sunny weather with no rain made a difference. If this year''s event was characterized by the sun, heat and dust, last year's was known for the huge patches of mud and dirty barefeet.

Attendance 2000-2006

2000 33, 604
2001 39, 169
2002 37,832
2003 40,899
2004 42,111
2005 44,865
2006 45,190

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