2009 Winnipeg Folk Festival

Picnic Lunch in Folk Festival parking lot

Rarely do I get to go out to see live music.  I’m on the road so much that I miss most opportunities to catch the concerts that come through town.  The one event I rarely miss, and one we plan for is the Winnipeg Folk Festival which occurs annually on the first full weekend of July.

Nance and I figure we’ve been to the festival over a dozen times together. I’ve performed at the festival myself on several occasions but those are increasingly faint memories from the early eighties (with Elias, Schritt and Bell) and once or twice in the early nineties (with Unlikely Icon and solo.)  Last weekend we joined 73,000 other festive folks to take in the five day vast panorama of musical offerings from Elvis Costello to Arlo Guthrie.  At the end of each day, Nance and I returned home to our showers and sheets  while our son Micah opted to camp with his pals and some 3000 others who braved cold rainy nights, high winds and an unspoken, covenantal solidarity to avoid sleep and healthy food for the duration.  (After the festival, Micah slept from midnight on Sunday to 5pm Monday. His tales from the campground were fun, funny and, I suspect, mercifully edited.)

where's waldo

Where’s Nanci and Steve?  This photo appeared in Saturday’s paper and if you look closely you’ll find Nance and I in the crowd. (click on picture to enlarge)

The way the festival works is that during the day there are six smaller stages spread over the grounds with concerts going from 11am to 5:30 pm.  Sometimes the concerts feature one artist and other times, several artists are thrown together in a workshop with a loose theme and they either trade songs and stories or  attempt jams that sometimes work and sometimes… don’t.  I’m not a huge fan of the jam approach as I would rather hear what an artist has rehearsed and prepared than what they haven’t, but for the most part folks seem to love the vulnerability and happy surprises that can only happen when the “artists let go and let God” (so to speak.)

In the evening, all the smaller stages close down and the whole bunch of us (usually about 16,000 per night) gather at one large stage for a run of concerts from 6pm till about 11. It really is a wonderful event.

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Alana Levandoski

Unquestionably for me, one of the highlights was Alana Levandoski singing As the Crow Flies and Mercy from her new album Lions and Werewolves (out later this month.) I’ve heard these songs several times before but this time they really got me.  As the Crow Flies laments the the tragedy of contrived boundaries that restrict human freedom and dignity. Anticipating a future without such divisions she sings:

In the sweet by and by
I’ll no longer wonder why
in the meantime I want to rise
as the crow flies

And in Mercy, Alana narrates the agonizing scenarios of tragic lives in Winnipeg’s North End where she worked for some time:

I gave my baby up the day she turned one
They don’t make the kind of mercy
to cover what I’ve done.

Another highlight was the chance to see Chris Thile play. Chris is certainly one of the greatest ever mandolin players. He used to play in Nickel Creek and now plays with the Punch Brothers. Chris is a true master of his craft- and what a charming fellow on stage!  Gracious and humble – unusually so. That was nice to see from such a great talent.

Steven Page (formerly of the Bare Naked Ladies) was quite good.  He played main stage with a Kevin Fox, a cellist who played on my “My Dinner With Bruce” album. Page played a combination of favourite BNL tunes and several new songs I assume will appear on his upcoming solo recording.  I wished he would have talked to us a bit more. The elephant in the room was his recent drug bust, and his leaving the BNL.  That he only obscurely referenced these things created a bit of weird tension.  By letting us in a bit would have endeared him to a crowd who clearly love what he does and want to support. Page seemed genuinely pleased and moved to have the enthusiastic response he did get. I imagine he is feeling rather vulnerable these days.

Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie was wonderful to see. Son of Woody Guthrie (who penned This Land is Your Land), Arlo is a folk legend and anti-war activist who has the distinction of having played Woodstock in 69. He is a great story-teller  (very funny) and nice guitar player. At one point he asked us to imagine a world where everyone was fed, where there were enough hospital beds for all the sick, where education was available for all and where justice was maintained.  “In a world like that, it would be so very difficult to make a difference.  It’s better to be in our world and our time when so little effort means so much!!”  🙂

Seeing Guthrie was, for me, like seeing Pete Seeger about ten years ago on the same stage. Seeger then was much older than Guthrie is now. He was visibly frail, his voice shaky and his fingers were not as nimble as they once had been. But his commanding presence and authority were won by “a long obedience in the same direction” and I remember thinking that that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.

The list goes on and on: Don Amero, Pacific Curl, Vance Gilbert, Oka, Amelia Curran, Joel Fafard, Loudon Wainwright III, Xavier Rudd – all great songwriters and performers. Very inspiring. Now I have to somehow capture that energy in some new songs.

The most emotional moment for me was in a workshop where Serena Ryder stood up and sang “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.”  Immediately, Arlo Guthrie and Steven Page (who were sharing the workshop stage) joined in on the harmonies. It was very moving to me that such a young performer would even know that song. And it was a powerful moment to witness three generations of artists sing a classic like that.

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream words and music by Ed MCurdy (1950)

Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
to put an end to war

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
filled with women and men
and the paper they were signing said
they’d never fight again

And when the paper was all signed
and a million copies made
they all joined hands and bowed their heads
and grateful pray’rs were prayed

And the people in the streets below
were dancing ’round and ’round
while swords and guns and uniforms
were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
to put an end to war

Our daughter Sarah couldn't attend the festival so she sent us a picture of Luca (our grandson) dressed in standard-issue folkfest garb.

Our daughter Sarah couldn't attend the festival so she sent us a picture of Luca (our grandson) dressed in standard-issue folkfest garb.

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