“I remember going to Winnipeg Folk Fest and camping with my buddies back when I was 14, 15,” muses Romi Mayes.“We would sit around the campfire and play tunes. I would be playing a shaky G chord with my thumb and hacking my way through some covers I hardly knew. Never in a million years at that time would I have ever dreamed that I would be playing that same Main Stage that we could hear floating into the campgrounds while I was strumming that guitar.”
Mayes has come a long way since the Folk Fest campground. This year marks the singer/songwriter’s third time performing and her first time with a coveted spot on Main Stage, opening Thursday night’s line-up. In recent years, Mayes has picked up a host of awards and accolades, including four Western Canadian Music Awards and a Juno Award nomination for her most recent release, Achin’ In Yer Bones.
Mayes isn’t the only one to go from inspired audience member to Main Stage performer. Singer/songwriter Nicky Mehta, of Juno-winning folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys, has an indelible memory of her first Folk Fest, which set the stage for a life in music.
“I was a budding singer/songwriter and my boyfriend at the time bought me a copy of Performing Songwriter from the Festival Music Store,” remembers Mehta. “I read that magazine all day in between workshops and then watched in awe as Geoffrey Oryema took to the Main Stage under a brilliant orange prairie sunset. It was pure magic and sealed my fate.”
Mehta and fellow Manitoban Ruth Moody make up two thirds of The Jennys (the other third is American singer and bassist Heather Masse), who kick off this year’s festival on Wednesday night with a Main Stage show. The trio has been busy on the road in the U.S. and Canada since the 2009 release of its latest effort, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which spent several weeks in the top 10 of Billboard's Top Bluegrass Albums chart. The band is set for a fall release for its third studio album, helmed by acclaimed producer/engineer Mark Howard, who has worked with Emmylou Harris. Harris, meanwhile, plays Main Stage after The Jennys set on Wednesday night.
Mayes and The Jennys are just two of several of homegrown acts taking to the stages at this year’s festival. Joining them is some of this province’s most innovative talent, both emerging and established. The local line-up features award-winning fusion band The Duhks, The Weakerthans' front man John K. Samson, indie singer/songwriter Greg MacPherson, children’s acts Aaron Burnett and LuLu and The TomCat, singer/songwriter Del Barber, and Latin jazz outfit Trio Bembe, while DJ Beekeeni and Mama Cutsworth join Big Bluestem’s roster of alternative nighttime acts.
Audiences can catch two Manitoba-centric workshops this year, including Friday’s special celebration of legendary Winnipeg-born singer/songwriter, Oscar Brand, with Barber, Samson, MacPherson, The Duhks, and Brand himself. Sunday features the Making A Prairie Scene workshop with Samson, Barber, MacPherson, Mayes with Jason Nowicki, The Duhks, The Wailin’ Jennys, and Trio Bembe. Click here for the complete Folk Fest schedule.
The venerable festival has inspired countless people, including aspiring musicians, for 37 years. Manitoba’s internationally recognized roots community can be traced to the opportunity the festival offers to not only witness some incredibly talent live and to interact with world class artists. Many of this year’s Manitoba artists have been going to the festival for years, building their own musical histories by experiencing the artists that have gone before them. Veteran artists also have unforgettable moments from their moments on and in front of the festival’s stages.
“Ani DiFranco, the first year I saw her, it would have been early ‘90s sometime, that was a real revelation, one that I think has had a permanent influence on me,” says Samson, whose band will also be on hand to backup Ottawa artist Jim Bryson during his performances this weekend.
Relative newcomer Barber, fresh from the release of his sophomore album, Love Songs for the Last 20, credits the festival with making him a stronger performer. “The festival has shown me the breath of the folk tradition, teaching me to listen better, play better, and write better. I see the festival as an opportunity to participate and contribute something (albeit minuscule) to the local scene and even the tradition at large.”
“I love the workshops. It's such a great opportunity to get to know other artists' music and to collaborate,” says Moody, who will not only play with The Jennys but also do a daytime solo concert on Sunday featuring material from her new solo effort, The Garden. “The workshops invite spontaneity and collaboration and real moments that haven't happened before and may never happen again.”
Burnett, who has worked with Folk Fest for several years on their Little Folk program offering music classes to young kids, sees the connection between offering an incredible festival and developing the local music community by encouraging young people “to be actively part of live musical experiences.
“Not only is it a terrific experience for the kids and their parents, but it is grooming an audience of new music lovers for the future,” says Burnett, who performers this weekend in the popular children’s area.
Folk Fest’s year-round programming centres largely around its downtown venue, The Folk Exchange, offering concerts and regular open mic nights as well as workshops and other training. The festival offers the Folk School Tent at the site and runs the specialized training through its Folk Retreat every year. Open to emerging musicians age 14-24, the festival’s Young Performers Program offers a day of workshops and mentoring with festival performers and a chance to perform on stage during the weekend. Several participants from its Young Performers Program—including alum Barber—have gone on to careers in music.
Audiences and performers alike have their favourite parts of the festival weekend.
“I love seeing all the different types of people at Folk Fest - no one cares how old you are, where you're from, what you're wearing (or not wearing), or how you dance - everyone's there to have a good time,” says Trio Bembe vocalist, Amber Epp. Click here for a free download of Trio Bembe’s song, “Mora na roca."
“The volunteers, the volunteers, the volunteers,” says Mehta. “And the food. And the people. Everything, really. It's a small utopia where people get re-energized and go back out into the world with renewed hope.”
Listen to some of this year's Manitoba performers in the streaming Manitoba Music Radio, including new tracks from Ruth Moody, John K. Samson, Del Barber, and more.
Check out the Indigenous artists playing Folk Fest this year at aboriginalmusic.ca.