The 41st annual Winnipeg Folk Festival opened on Wednesday evening with an entertaining main stage lineup that reminded everyone why this has become one of the premier entertainment events in North America.
It wasn’t too long ago when the Folk Fest brain trust decided to make this a 5-day festival by adding a Wednesday night concert. It would quickly prove to be an added bonus welcomed by most fans, and a sign of things to come.
One of the most common criticisms voiced in recent years by patrons is the massive growth of the Folk Festival over the past two decades. Challenged by this reality, festival organizers have introduced a number of upgrades to the event, so as to better accommodate the expected 50-thousand people that will visit Bird’s Hill Park over the next few days.
New stages spread over a larger site area complete with better drainage and increased audience services (the Folk Fest app is proving popular), has allowed the event to expand but still remain an accessible and enjoyable experience for people of all ages. Even the parking has been modified slightly to make traffic flow more quickly and efficiently, which is a welcome change that begs the question why that particular change wasn’t implemented years ago.
As usual, this year’s line up of performers offers some of the best entertainment in the world, and opening night was no exception.
The evening started appropriately with a sizzling set by The Bros. Landreth, a local band whose meteoric rise in popularity is no surprise to many, when you consider the fact that Manitoba churns out more professional musicians per capita (by a long shot) than any other province in Canada.
This was followed by a tweener performance by Texas blues and roots artist, Guy Forsyth, guitarist, songwriter and wicked harmonica master.
Forsyth was an appropriate warm up for Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers from New York, who offered a blistering medley of stormy roots-rock, gospel and folk music. Amy Helm is the daughter of Levon Helm, the legendary musician who passed away in April 2012.
Another tweener featured Sarah Lee Guthrie (daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody) & Johnny Irion, the folk/roots duo from Massachusetts whose perfect harmonies and graceful tunes serenaded concert goers enjoying the near perfect weather, albeit in the company of a few mosquitoes.
The evening’s headliner, the legendary rock n’ roll hall of famer, Bonnie Raitt and her band, delivered a high energy performance featuring a medley of hits from over three decades of work. The set was emotional, nostalgic, poignant and joyful all in the same show.
Raitt reminded the crowd that the last time she was at this Festival was back in 1988, when she met and played with the great African musician, Ali Farka Toure. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful musical relationship that Raitt credits the Winnipeg Folk Festival for the opportunity to make it happen.
“That’s what I love about this Festival,” Raitt said. “You have the largest collection of the most amazing roots musicians in the world gathered here in one place.”
It’s that kind of synergy that happens every second week in July at Bird’s Hill Park and what makes the Winnipeg Folk Festival one of the greatest events on the continent.