Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Folk

I was 22 years old when I attended my first official folk festival. And I happened to lose my folk festival virginity at one of the finest in Canada: the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

It was July of 1989 when I flew West to visit my dear friend and former roommate, Monica. Her birthday is July 8th and, since the festival is always scheduled during the second weekend in July, it was a good time to reconnect with her and celebrate. The year before, Monica dragged me to see Michelle Shocked perform at the Danforth Music Hall. A decade later, she nearly pees her pants laughing her Winnipeg arse off when Toronto calls in the army to deal with its snow blizzard of '99. See, Monica is a good, Manitoba Farm girl. When I lived with her, she wasn't yet a Doctor of Psychology. She was still working on her Masters and constantly referred to her thesis as her "feces". Monica has another girlfriend named Sydney and one night on the town in The Big Smoke, she delighted in introducing us both to everyone as "Syd and Nancy".  Monica kinda rocks. I haven't seen her in years, but I love her like a sister. And I already have three sisters so professing that is quite something.

Here is some of what I recall that July of '89. Landing in Winnipeg, the first thing that strikes me is how flat it is. They say it's so flat that, on a clear day, you can see the back of your head. Attending the festival is also the first time in years I experience a hot, July day without one drop of humidity. The breeze that caresses the oceans of wheat fields on the drive to Birds Hill Park is cool and delicious. Perfect.

That year, Loreena McKennit is just starting out, selling little tape cassettes with four or five of her songs on them. I spoke with her a bit after she played at one of the smaller stages. The gig was entitled "Ancient Instruments": she plucked the Celtic harp, some dude played the Indian sitar and a third played some ancient Korean instrument called the kayagum. What was really cool was, after each play their respectve instruments, they perform a spontaneous jam session, all three together. Neato.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival marks the first time I ever drank iced coffee. Rain had fallen for part of the weekend and the straw hat I'd been instructed by Monica to purchase expressly for the festival became so warped, it resembled more a wad of sticky taffy than an actual chapeau atop my pate. It looked so wacko by the second day that Billy Bragg, leaning against a post I was passing, felt compelled to call out, "Nice 'at!" Ah, Billy. What can I say? The man's clearly got taste.

John Mann. Be still my beating heart.

That was the year Spirit of the West played, too. Sadly, John Mann had just gotten hitched the week before or perhaps my life might have taken quite a different turn, but alas! He was already snapped up. Merde.

An Irish-born, Canadian singer named Stephen Fearing was also selling his tape cassettes. I've seen him many times over the years since now and, like John, every time I see them perform and chat with them afterwards, they always act as though they recognize and remember me. I think, obviously, it's just politeness and the way any talented musician acts towards an adoring fan, but s'lovely regardless.

Among my favourite memories of that festival was how much the Five Blind Boys of Alabama absolutely rocked the mainstage the first evening I attended. It was the first time I heard Buffy Sainte-Marie. I fantasized I was Margo Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies. Either that or I developed a small crush on her.

Addicted to cowboys.

But the thing that I think I loved MOST about that festival was the fact that people would lay their blankets in this huge field in front of the main stage and claim space by pushing some kind of pole or stick into the ground. And affixed to this pole or stick would be a kind of flag or marker, created out of whatever they chose to fashion it with: teddybears, scarves, balloons, cowboy hats, feather boas. People got really creative. But the beauty of these small gestures - the claiming of ground via flag and blanket - was that nobody, and I mean nobody, claimed that spot once that blanket was laid and flag posted. You could wander off, back and forth at any point during the entire weekend and return and there would be your blanket in the same spot, untouched. With your unique flag marking it, unmolested. A total respect of space, no ifs, ands or buts. It's something unique about that festival and, I think, quite a testament to the type of people who attend it.

Four years after I attended that festival, The Boy I Loved would tell me a very special story concerning his boss and that festival. It was a sad story. Also, a pretty beautiful one. A moving one. Sad and beautiful and moving. So this particular folk festival holds a certain place in my heart, you understand.

I haven't been to Winnipeg in 21 years now. This July, I looked up who was playing and wanted to kick myself for missing this year's amazing lineup. Among the fabulous performers this summer, the following fall into my own, personal, not-to-be-missed category:

The Avett Brothers (sample: The Ballad of Love and Hate)

Del Barber (sample: Coming Home with the Summer)

Delhi 2 Dublin (sample: Apples)

Devon Sproule (sample: Plea for a Good Night's Sleep)

The Dodos (sample: The Season)

Luluc (sample: My Little Suitcase)

Pieta Brown (sample: Faller)

Gregory Alan Isakov. Warped hats are cool.

and last but definitely not least, and perhaps my favourite, whom I still hope to catch live some time:
Gregory Alan Isakov (sample: That Moon Song)

Even though we couldn't make it out West this summer, last weekend, my baby boy and I did attend a local folk festival closer to home than Winnipeg. We danced to Lovely Allen by Holy Fuck and, Holy Fuck! They were amazing! On the Sunday evening, he fell asleep under the stars to Stars and their Ageless Beauty.

The Boy I Loved. The one who told me the story about his boss and the Winnipeg folk festival? He once wrote me that he would always avoid folk festivals. I hope that ain't true. 'Cause otherwise he's missing some damn fine music out there. And the special vibe unique to catching live music at an outdoor venue under summer or autumn skies. The kind of event that brings people together who don't mind getting rained on or being caked in mud while they wander from one stage to the next; who spread blankets and sprawl out under stars that peek out of a much larger, indigo blanket hanging above; who close their eyes and open their hearts to the sound of instrument and voice. A capella or accompanied. Guitar, banjo, sitar, accordion or harp.

There just is nothing like spending time with some really good folk...

(p.s. Happy belated, Monica. Thanks for all the fun twenty years ago. Hey girl, we was wild then. This one's for you. Keep on rockin, girl.)


Brian Miller said...

nice. i love a good festival...such interesting things to see and do and the people themselves make the most of it...

Cam said...

I completely feel you on this one...so much so that my skin is sticky from the night's dew, my skirt is wet from sitting on the grass, and upon closing my eyes, I can hear the music.

I love a festival.

And, a lumpy hat.

Anonymous said...


Only A Girl said...

How did I miss this?

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