Our Correspondent Encourages Rotation


Winnipeg Folk Festival, July 6-10, 2011, Birds Hill Park

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham  

Blue Rodeo in front of a mosquito-free swamp

From babies to buses and everything in between, the Winnipeg Folk Festival kicked off for another year on Wednesday, July 5 to the jubilation of fans who sat in reverence before the Festival’s main stage to listen to Blue Rodeo play the entirety of their epic, career-launching 1993 recording Five Days in July. Strangely enough, the title song is ‘Five Days in May’— but who’s counting.

Wednesday was cloudy in Winnipeg. Some rain came down but not enough to create fear in the hearts of the 6,000 plus that attended opening night. Perhaps it was the rainbow that arced over the northeast when the Festival Express bus I was on reached the perimeter and turned in that direction. I imagined it was arcing over where the main stage would be. That rainbow certainly lived up to its reputation as the pot of gold spewed forth warm—actually freakin’ hot—sunny weather all weekend.

And there were leprechauns aplenty dancing in that 30C sun. And, yes, Darryl Sterdan of the Winnipeg Sun, this was hippy heaven as the tie die and bikinis and manskirts emerged amidst the glittering hair – and if you don’t like it, I’ve some suggestions for you that can’t be printed in a polite paper. Fortunately, this isn’t one of them, so rotate.

All of the papers since Thursday have mentioned the music– and there was some great music– but there was little mention of the people and the other activities taking place. Now, the Winnipeg Folk Festival is definitely about music. Why else would they have it? And there was some fabulous music both on the Main Stage and on the various workshop stages throughout the day starting on Friday. But those papers missed some of the great surprises that took place during the weekend.

Matt Anderson between songs

While it was great to hear Jim Cuddy and Blue Rodeo play the entirety of their super hit CD Five Days in July, one of the hits that went without mention was when Matt Anderson, the sleeper of the Fest, played a filler role while the stage crew set up the main stage for Little Feat. This gospel-infused New Brunswick blues artist performed three or four songs. Well, ‘performed’ is a poor word for what he did. He belted out those suckers with an unparalleled emotion that had the 25,000 or so sitting in front of the stage jumping to their feet and roaring out en masse for an encore as Matt left the stage. Poor Shelagh Rogers, MCing this event, turned to look behind her to beg for assistance and advice. “What do I do now?” she asked. Precedent was that the scheduled performers take the stage after what should have been a middling warm up act. Matt wasn’t that but precedent prevailed much to the disappointment of those 25,000. Fortunately, Little Feat is an exceptionally great band and was able to rise above the occasion.

That wasn’t the only musical surprise. A short list would include the following:

1) Vancouver’s The Be Good Tanyas, having reunited after three years of dormancy, complained during their Bur Oak stage concert Sunday afternoon that they were still recovering from their trip across the road the night before to the overflow campground which must have been quite a trip for those who had pitched their tents there;

2) The worst name for a workshop – Shiny Happy People – was hosted by Fred Penner and included Connie Kaldor and Trout Fishing in America, the latter of which decried the lack of Christmas songs at the Folk Fest but made up for it by singing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ in a new and improved version to the tune of Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’;

Sand members avoid unpleasant experiences

3) Winnipeg’s own Sand, reunited for just this occasion, performing a concert at the Chikadee Bigtop to an enthusiastic horde of toddlers and other assorted kids. Talking to taiko drummer Phoebe Man on Sunday, she said that there may be the possibility of another concert next year;

4) One of the great bluegrass groups, the Del McCoury Band, teaming up with New Orleans greats, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in a seemingly unlikely merging of these two styles during a Thursday night Main Stage concert that had everyone tapping their feet.

I had asked a mixed group of twenty-somethings early Wednesday evening how many times they had attended the festival. They said this was their first and that they were attending it because they loved Blue Rodeo. My first scheduled interview happened to be with Jim Cuddy whom I met backstage prior to Blue Rodeo’s performance. The veteran of numerous interviews, he was relaxed and friendly. Blue Rodeo had performed on two prior occasions at the Festival, 1990 and 2001. Cuddy recalled the first time when they had been greeted by a huge thunderstorm contrasting it with this time, when a blazing sun was present. He said that he was thankful for the Winnipeg Folk Festival as most such festivals turned Blue Rodeo down, saying they were not folk music. Perhaps music director Chris Frayer is doing it right after all as those twenty-somethings wouldn’t have been there without Blue Rodeo to ensure their attendance.

This should have been in the surprise list but needed more space. As a result of the failure of Ordo Sahkna to attend due to visa problems, the group with the most unusual name at the fest, Swamp Ward Orchestra, was parachuted in at the last minute to the delight of the audience. After all, how often do you get to hear a hurdy-gurdy? These three women met in Kingston, Ontario. The Swamp Ward is the equivalent of Winnipeg’s North End – a lower middle-class enclave of immigrants. Each of the three women making up the Swamp Ward Orchestra was conservatory trained and performed in symphony orchestras but, in their off-hours, did what they loved playing an eclectic mix of French, Acadian and East European folk music. I met with Jan Le Clair (accordion, concert pianist), Allison Gowan (hurdy-gurdy, double bass, penny whistle and classical violinist) and Laura Murray (cello, banjo and classical violinist) who advised that they were given two weeks’ notice to appear. They were a joy to hear even if the drone of the hurdy-gurdy was not something the audience might have been used to.

Connie Kaldor in front of biblical clouds from previous Folk Festivals

My question to Connie Kaldor, veteran of the Winnipeg Folk Fest after eight appearances, as to whether she ever got tired of the musical life, unleashed an essay. She said that she loved performing before audiences and would never get tired of that but that the music business could get her down at times. She started her career at the same time as Stan and Garnet Rogers whom, she said, opened the door for Canadian folk acts. She floored me when she told me that, in 1980 (not 1880), she was advised by an unnamed folk festival that they already had their ‘female singer songwriter’ and so wouldn’t require her attendance.

Appearing with her husband and two sons as part of her group, Kaldor said that performing was a privilege and jokingly said that if she lived long enough she’d be a legend. I guess she has achieved the right age because she already is that. She commented that when the Winnipeg Folk Festival first started, the Main Stage acts were only twenty minutes long giving the audience a much greater variety of musicians to appreciate. Now that they were an hour or more, some of the concerts have been moved to the daytime stages. Connie did say that she understood the change as booking major acts demanded more time for them to play in order to cover their costs. She asked me whether I had heard Matt Anderson yet.

I hadn’t but I since made up for it. Not only did I hear him several times during the Fest, I interviewed him. He told me that he was one of 86 musicians vying for the top prize in the solo/duo category at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. He became the first Canadian to win. Matt is a big man with an even bigger voice. Kat Danser, who I’ll talk more about later, said she met Matt and his mother while in the Maritimes when they performed some gospel music together. He told me that he grew up hearing his grandfather playing fiddle music. Many in his family were musicians maintaining that Maritime custom of musical family gatherings. He may have stubby fingers but, boy, can those fingers play.

Dan Crary is an amazingly erudite man and that is as it should be considering that, until 2002 when he retired from the profession, he was a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton. He is widely recognized as an innovator in bluegrass guitar. He told me that he was fortunate in being able to squeeze his academic career into Monday to Thursday, which permitted him to fly off to festivals on weekends. He said that many of his academic colleagues frowned on a guitar-playing professor while the younger ones thought it was “cool”. He told me that he was born in Kansas City. I said that I associated KC with jazz to which he responded that that was way before his time. He said there was little music in KC when he was growing up and picked up music by picking his guitar to the radio. Asked if he would ever retire from music, he looked at me as if I were nuts. He responded that being a musician had two great rewards: the love of an instrument and the great feeling that was given when someone comes up to him to say they’re really moved by his music.

Kat Danser, blues musician and PhD student

Crary wasn’t the only academic musician at this year’s Fest. That’s where Kat Danser comes in. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta in ethnomusicology, where she is studying the pipe and drum blues of northern Mississippi. She enthused about Manitoba Film and Sound that provided her, as an out-of-town artist, with a grant to come to Manitoba, where she recorded her first CD at Don Benedictson’s studio in Roseisle. Kat was inspired to play the blues by hearing Bessie Smith twelve years ago. Another who learned her craft by listening to records, she wrote her first blues song after playing guitar for only three months. She never looked back, her slide guitar gracing the stages of many festivals since. Echoing Kaldor’s words, she said that folk festivals were kinder to women artists than blues festivals, which still had a tendency to hire male artists over female ones.

Naomi Shelton is an aging, frail-looking black woman who began singing at the age of six in Alabama churches. She began her career singing R&B but later gravitated to gospel. She said that she didn’t find much difference between the two as they are both all about love. Her group, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, backed by organ, guitar, bass and drums, certainly knew how to reach into you and bring out that feeling.

Oh My Darling discover themselves in a field

Three years ago, a new group emerged at the Festival du Voyageur. With only one of their members having a French background, they billed themselves as the Fill’d’Riel (Daughters of Riel). The name has since changed to Oh My Darling but they are still playing their roots based music. I met with Vanessa Kuzina (guitar, vocals) on Sunday following their Shady Grove workshop mentioned earlier. She advised that the idea of a roots based group came from banjoist Allison de Groot during a conversation with her. It began to take shape when they heard violinist Rosalyn Bennett at a club. The group took shape when Marie-Josée Dandeneau, whose attitude is the epitome of cool, responded to an ad for a bass player. Recently returned from a six week European tour during which they were extremely well received, they are on a tour of Canada before heading down to the US where they have been accepted to perform at two showcases, following which they will do their first US tour.

Probably the sweetest person at the fest was Valerie June, a beautiful and personable woman with the most amazing dreadlocks whose spoken voice belies the three octaves her singing voice ranges over as she twists roots music and makes it her own. She hates her middle register which, she says, is why her voice makes these incredible octave leaps to jettison itself away from it before descending into a deep, guttural growl. She started guitar six years ago, banjo two years ago, and ukulele just recently. She says that it was thanks to the International Folk Alliance showcase in Memphis, which she described as taking place in a major hotel each room of which had a different folk act in it and agents and other music industry individuals walking around and deciding whom they would contract, which got her started. This is the same situation in which Vanessa and the rest of Oh My Darling will shortly find themselves. Valerie says that she uses her instruments as supports for her voice. As such, she doesn’t learn the folk roots music the way it should be played, which causes her enormous problems when she gets to a workshop setting.

But as I said way back at the start of this column, the Winnipeg Folk Festival is much more than music and musicians. It is also the people and the surroundings. Part of the surroundings is the food vendors where having a whale tail has become a tradition for many. The festival is the only place in Manitoba where you can obtain this deep-fried delectable smothered with cinnamon and sugar or strawberry jam or a host of other toppings including parmesan cheese. It’s all good.

And then there’s the handmade village where you can find a luthier amidst numerous tie-died and henna tattoo shops. One of the more interesting shops is Pigeon Alley Pottery where David Krindle uses Red River gumbo to create a black glaze. He wants to write a book about using various local items in the pottery process. Or there’s Sherry Quesnel who lives in Gimli where she makes the drums that she sells at the Natural Hide Drums venue whose hides she acquires from a nearby elk farmer. Or there’s Larry Lambert who lives in Komarno, Manitoba just north of Teulon on Highway Number 7, who harvests wolf willow, one of about five or six native species of willow, from the creek banks and, through a special process, creates these incredible walking sticks that he sells at Willow Wood Studio.

Being part of the media has its privileges and protections such as not getting your face slapped when you walk up to some unknown, wildly gyrating woman whose body is doing anatomically impossible things with a hula hoop and commenting that you’ve been admiring the way her body moves. Rachel Kroeker said she came to the Folk Fest for the first time last year and admired the things that other women were doing with hula hoops. She decided she wanted to learn how to do that. She returned this year and, believe me, she learned as she performed this erotic interpretive dance while listening to the Mighty Popo at the Green Ash stage.

Then there were the two sixteen-year-olds and the thirteen-year-old who were by themselves and taking care of a two-year-old toddler. One of the sixteen-year-olds and the thirteen-year-old said that they had decided to come to last year’s Folk Fest, never having been brought by their parents. They said that they loved the music and the energy. They had returned this past Wednesday bringing the other sixteen-year-old with them. They said they were bringing their parents with them the next day.

Taylor Hammond recalled coming with her parents to the festival fifteen years ago when she was five. I had thought that Dan Mangan was one of the worst acts I’d encountered at any Winnipeg Folk Festival but, when Taylor said that her favourite acts were Oh My Darling and Mangan, I paused to reconsider thinking “hmmm, there’s that old generation gap thing again.”

Basam Hozaima attracted my attention on the bus out to the festival on Sunday. He was sitting with two children, one of whom was in a stroller. I asked him whether he was a single father at which he pointed to the seat behind him and said he was with his wife, Liz Carlyle, a former president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association. Basam and Liz were with their seven-year-old twins and year-and-a-half daughter. This was Basam’s third time and Liz’s tenth. They spent most of their time in the Chickadee Bigtop which, they said, their baby loved, particularly the sand box.

There have been better Winnipeg Folk Festivals. There have been worse. But you can always find something that will appeal to you, something that will surprise you and something that will bore you to tears. But in the process you’ll likely meet some great people who are exceedingly friendly having let their guard down for this weekend and who have joyfully adopted a hippy lifestyle and who gleefully watch as Darryl Sterdan rotates.


  1. Duncan
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Nicely written. I had to miss WFF this year due to rehearsals but this article helped me to visit in cyber fashion!

  2. Gerri Thorsteinson
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    A well-written, comprehensive article that captures some of the festival spirit and interesting insights from hugely talented performers. I thought Dan Mangan was great, too – maybe it’s not a generational thing but a gender thing, John! It was neat to see long time faves and to “discover” Andy White, Kat Danser, Matt Anderson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Scott Nolan, Christa Couture among others – that’s what the festival is all about!

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On the Town

John Herbert Cunningham

John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.