Arts & Life, Music

When it’s good, it’s so, so good

What allows a grown, slightly overweight man to use a hula hoop for the first time, in the middle of a crowd? 

This  article is for those who shrug at the question. And for those equally dismissive who have a quick answer.

Whatever allowed him to do it, it’s a great thing. It took me the full festival to come to this realization, though. And it probably won’t stick around for long.

The main stage at the 41st annual Winnipeg Folk Festival.

In religious circles, it’s called backsliding, when after a concentrated time spent away from the secular world, at, say, bible camp, the weight of the world we all live in causes you to forget about that evening you threw a twig representing a sin into the fire, told your cabin mates what it was, and promised to bring that zeal back home. Folk Fest is like this. Only, when you quit listening to folk music a few months after, crushing guilt doesn’t follow.

My name is Toban Dyck. I’m a chronic backslider, and I want to change your mind about Folk Fest.

The five-day festival at Birds Hill Park challenges me every year I attend. The unfamiliar can be such a chore. It’s something one has to get over, moving past quick, negative judgments to a place much more at ease with the sometimes in-your-face diversity that surrounds you at the festival. It’s good then that what’s required of me at an outdoor music festival is to sit, listen, and drink. I overcame. But not immediately. Not on Day One.

The callous was stronger than Day One, a day that began with a conversation less awesome than I had hoped the opening one would be:

“It’s been a while. How are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Good. What are you up to these days?”

“I’m a farmer.”

“That’s great. I’m planning to WOOF [work on an organic farm] this summer.”

“Neat. My farm is not organic, though.”

“Well, you could work on that.”

I won’t. Not yet.  But making it to the washroom was more important than walking her through my position on the issue.

But things got better.


Music is a great thing. It’s good to remember that. On Day Five of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Spirit Family Reunion reminded a small, cold, wet audience of just that. Myself included. But this happened on Day Five.  I’m jumping too far ahead.

And from the time it starts to grip me, usually on Day Three or Four, to the festival’s end, I’m bent on convincing those who don’t attend, to attend. It becomes something worth sharing.

Ben Harper and legendary blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite reminded me of music, specifically that I once listened to it, and valued it. And the duo did so on Day Two.

The callous started to weaken, if that’s what callouses do.

They played Thursday night, on the main stage. And it was fantastic. The sound was crisp. And, man, when the blues is good, it’s so, so good. Fight For Your Mind.

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Day Three was, for me, Strumbellas, Deep Dark Woods, Wilderness of Manitoba, and the Sheepdogs.

Strumbellas performing at Big Bluestem stage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Strumbellas were great. I didn’t know them before, and will probably buy their album now. They’re fun. Folky, too. The Toronto-based six-piece band’s melodies are easy to bop to, and their lyrics, well, I could only parse a few from the noise, so I can’t really say. But they’re worth a listen. Their live show was great, high energy. The lead singer was fittingly aloof after a hard night of partying, telling the early morning audience that he was going straight to bed after this show. The kids liked that. I could tell. They’re great. They’re kids. They’re from Toronto. CBC loves them. You should, too.

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The Deep Dark Woods were great, too. But I liked them before. You should like them now. “All the Money I Had is Gone” is a beautiful song:

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The Sheepdogs were the Sheepdogs. They’re a good, high-energy band that I have trouble forming strong opinions about.

This was Day Three. I was getting into it.

Wilderness of Manitoba and Boy and Bear played on Day Four, Saturday. I trust the reader is aware that the few bands mentioned here are only a small sampling of the many that played throughout the festival. Because that is the case.

Wilderness of Manitoba was a diamond in the rough. And such things, such finds, help keep Folk Fest a must-attend event. This group, not from its namesake province, but from Ontario, is worth your time. Their songs have a familiar, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, City and Dallas Green-like quality.

If you attended the festival, and at any point said, “I don’t know who that was, but they were great,” it was probably Wilderness of Manitoba.

Wilderness of Manitoba performing at Winnipeg Folk Festival.

By Day Four the festival had me.  And Day Five delivered the final blow with performances by Scarlett Jane, Spirit Family Reunion, and more.

The callous and tension that slowly builds throughout the year let go Sunday morning, at Shady Grove, in the rain, huddled as a group of thirty or so, listening to Spirit Family Reunion, a band for those who like banjos and washboards. And for those who like a band that can huddle and harmonize around one mic. They put on a tight show. It’s bluegrass, kind of. It’s folk, for sure.

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I didn’t know folk/noir was a genre. But it is, I guess. And Scarlett Jane is in that fold. They were great. I had a great time listening, and it looked as though they had a great time playing.

Canadian folk artist Cara Luft hosted a workshop at Shady Grove on Sunday. Anywhere from two to five bands are jammed onto a small stage for an hour or so. The hope is they will collaborate on each other’s songs. But often they each play their own, sit down, and perform again, in rotation.

Cara Luft, in purple, leading a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Luft’s workshop was far from that. It was Buffy Sainte-Marie, Old Man Canyon (who is great, by the way), Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, James Hill, and Scarlett Jane.  I was sitting in mud. Then a few minutes of strong wind and stronger rain made that spot even muddier. But that workshop, that optimistic workshop, when everyone sang together and played along to songs they had never heard before, was a highlight. Two days after the concert, it sounds silly and childish to say it was all about the music. But it was. This workshop was all about the music.

But, to fully explain the festival is to misunderstand it. It doesn’t package so well, anyway.