Leaf Rapids’ Keri Latimer smiled at the Brandon audience: “How could it be better than this? Dragonflies ate all the mosquitoes.”
Latimer wasn’t the only one in a good mood. This year’s Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival began with tornado warnings but ended under sunny skies with a performance by legendary British songwriter Richard Thompson.
The three-day Brandon Festival has you rubbing shoulders with hundreds, not thousands of people. Its programming is heavy on local and Canadian talent, with the addition of a few larger name headliners.
Brandon operates as a single-stage festival, tucked in the trees near the Keystone Centre. The laidback audience has fewer decisions to make, in contrast to the Winnipeg Folk Festival where weekend passes have hit $200.
This year, Brandon punched above its weight, surprising us with two musical heavyweights. Beloved American singer songwriter Greg Brown was the headliner opening night. Legendary British guitarist Richard Thompson was the closing act Sunday.
Friday night, the natural grass amphitheatre had an extra light show due to the approaching storm.
Half a dozen acts made it through their sets, but half an hour into headliner Greg Brown’s performance the threatening weather caused organizers to pull the plug.
Among his numbers was an early gem, “Canned Goods”, about his grandmother putting up preserves for the winter (“Taste a little of the summer, Grandma put it all in jars”).
Iowa native Brown has had his songs covered by Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter and even Jeff Bridges for his Oscar-winning role in Crazy Heart.
Saturday night was closed out by local favourite Richard Inman and the rest of the folk/country Madtrappers. Inman’s big, warm voice serves them well and he has two solo albums out. Earlier this month, Inman and guitarist Micah Erenberg appeared at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, including a tweener on Main Stage.
Popular workshops included the first on Saturday, The Saddest Songs in the World, although the audience was helped into the mood by the drizzle coming down.
By 2 p.m., when Richard Thompson hosted Stories with Kayla Luky, Carly Dow and Bobby Dove, the rain was finished for the weekend. Thompson pulled out “Gethsemane” for his first number, from his 2003 album, The Old Kit Bag.
The noon Sunday combination of Leaf Rapids and Nation of Two was wonderfully mellow, suitable for the morning after Saturday night.
Leaf Rapids’ Keri Latimer surprised us with Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U”. They had played it in Minneapolis for a show on the anniversary of his death.
Nation of Two (former Duhk Jessee Havey and life partner Nathaniel Good from West Virginia) responded with “Simple & Sober”.
Later that afternoon, Manitoban Rob Waddell played “If I Had Known”, one of Greg Brown’s deceptively simple stunners, reminding us of what we had missed.
BC’s Joey Only was a kind of twisted Stompin’ Tom Connors, telling tales of butting heads with Big Oil or warning children about “Chompy the Head-Biter-Off-er”.
Sunday night, Richard Thompson hit the stage slightly early and launched right into “Bathsheba Smiles” and “Walking on a Wire”.
Thompson is an intense player who can take his guitar from a thunder to a whisper.
The crowd made plenty of demands and he mostly obliged, ranging through his half century career with “Valerie”, “Vincent Black Lightning” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”.
Not always serious, he referred to himself as a “dinosaur” and encouraged the audience to sing along with “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”.
Eying the clear and calm twilight sky, he said he had an appropriate number, and launched into “Dimming of the Day”.
His encore of the inescapable (and much requested) “Beeswing” brought the festival to a close for 2017.
Thompson has recorded dozens of albums and earned countless honours, including an OBE (Order of the British Empire) and being called one of the Top 20 guitarists of all time. Unlike many performers, the new songs keep coming. Thompson is not one to rest on his laurels and his most recent album, Still, was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
The Brandon festival enjoys most of the amenities of its big brother in Birds Hill. There is a kids arts and crafts tent on site, as well as a vendor tent, food trucks and even raffle ticket sellers (for meat!). But no beer garden.
Its location in the woods on the grounds of the Keystone Centre means plenty of shade under mature trees.
The large site has ample space for camping, despite its location within Brandon. Although you have the feeling you’re out in the woods, you can actually walk to the Canad Inn.
After 33 years in operation, it is a much-loved festival, and at $69 for a weekend pass, pretty affordable.
One attendee couldn’t resist saying that it might be a good thing the festival wasn’t “too popular”.
All photos by Greg Petzold