The first time I attended The Winnipeg Folk Festival was in 1980. It was the 7th annual, and the event made quite an impression on me; so much so, that I’ve been going out to Bird’s Hill Park every second weekend in July for the past 34 years, and more recently participating as one of the many volunteers.
It’s not so much a tradition or even a lack of anything better to do. It has to do (as it is for many returning Folk Festival visitors) with the great music, the community of wonderful people, and an event that continues to evolve (and impress) as the decades roll by.
This past weekend was no exception – same terrific festival featuring a huge amount of entertainment and excitement for people of all ages and of all musical tastes, providing even more memories to add to my long-time experience as a Folk Festival patron.
However, this 40th anniversary edition was different. It was, in my opinion, one of the best (if not the best) Winnipeg Folk Festival of them all.
What made this year’s instalment so unique and extraordinary was the way the organization embraced and honoured its 40th anniversary; not just in how it paid tribute to that history, but in the way it showed itself on all levels to be North America’s premiere music festival.
There was a certain atmosphere that permeated this year’s event; an air that exhibited maturity, respect and measured growth, making it stand out for me and for other attendees I spoke to.
A major factor was the $5.4 million-dollar site redevelopment to meet health and safety standards and improve audience experience – including two new stages in the forest and a centralized Festival Village – created the space and room that this event has so desperately needed for several years.
Dealing with the event’s enormous growth in recent decades was the biggest issue for most attendees. That’s why it was so refreshing to see it addressed in such creative and unique ways.
The intimacy of those two new forest stages – reminiscent of the smaller and more quaint festivals of the past – as well as their sheer beauty and natural amphitheatre qualities, surprised and delighted me.
The sensible and practical layout and design of the new Festival Village was just as interesting and pleasing. It’s apparent there was much thought and expertise that went into creating this bigger and more improved Winnipeg Folk Festival.
“We couldn’t be happier with the way things went,” said executive director Lynne Skromeda. “These changes have been years in the making and reflect the work and input of so many incredible people including our amazing volunteers who took on this tremendous change with great spirit and enthusiasm.”
Of course, the army of volunteers who make this event what it is, were as outstanding and helpful as ever.
“Well done, folks,” was how volunteer co-ordinator Cheryl Sluis put it in a post-Festival email to volunteers. “Not only did we do it – we did it very well! We are so proud to have pulled off a successful Festival with you, 3,000 of the best volunteers anywhere.Thank you for making it happen!”
The other element that didn’t go unnoticed by many long time Festival goers was how the event honoured its anniversary. Admittedly, the organizers faced a certain amount of criticism in recent years for not including some of the event’s long-time fan favourites. That’s why there was considerable excitement this year to welcome back hosts / storytellers like Brian Richardson and Peter Paul Van Camp (Randy Woods), and performers like Ken Whitely, David Lindley and Leon Redbone. This revealed a level of caring and respect on the part the Festival’s programmers that was refreshing, to say the least.
“We were also especially excited to bring together so many people who were part of the Festival’s roots,” added Skromeda. “We would not have been here for forty years without their dedication and commitment.”
Along with paying tribute to turning 40, the Festival did what it always does – introduce fans to the greatest music – local, national and international – that the world has to offer. From catching a set from a musician you’ve been following for years, to stumbling upon a bright, young talent that gives a sizzling performance.
After the festival is done, I usually don’t save my volunteer badge as a keepsake. This year, however, I think I’ll hang onto it because turning 40 has never looked this good.