Winnipeg Folk Festival – 2018

I’ve just come back from my annual inoculation of peace, love and optimism – four days of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. My faith in the human race is once again restored. I can go on boldly nattering on about my ideological, social-liberal, tree-hugger beliefs, knowing I am not alone.

Hot Hot Hot!

The overarching theme of this years festival was heat, record-breaking heat apparently. Thursday, Friday and Sunday were hot days, but Saturday hit 33 and felt like over 40 degrees C. To live, work and party in that weather is taxing, dangerous even. The motto for Saturday was “take care of yourself, and take care of your friends and neighbours.”

We worked the closing shift on Saturday. Our job was to clear the site at the end of the night and we couldn’t quit till everyone else had. We expected the worst after a day so hot. Five Alarm Funk and Too Many Zooz were ramping up the party at Big Blue @ Night while A Tribe Called Red at main stage filled the dance area. Without really knowing, the day had felt like a record crowd for numbers. The situation was ripe for all sorts of problems.

But this is the Winnipeg Folk Festival. All evening long we listened to our walkie-talkies, but mostly all we heard were radio checks. When the bands were finally allowed to quit for the night, a very satisfied crowd filed out, orderly if somewhat noisily. Some were heading to buses or cars, some walking to the campground to continue the party. Many more got on their bicycles, in the dark and safely cycled off to wherever they were spending the night. Santa Lucia Pizza off-loaded what was left of their pizzas to the volunteers and we all gathered at headquarters for a late night snack together. Ray and I cycled off into the dark, to our cozy Westphalia in the Provincial Park campground.  It was 3 AM by the time we got to bed.

It’s for Everyone

I was a teenager when the Folk Fest began and let me tell you, I resented the liquor rules back then. We did everything we could to smuggle in booze, with some margin of success. I’m not proud of it, but I once filled up a baby bottle with white wine; a baby bottle I didn’t need because I was still breast-feeding my baby (Rob). Why would you make a music fest booze free in the first place? Well, the folk fest isn’t booze free any more and hasn’t been for a long time, but it’s still completely family friendly. I guess it’s 45 years of experimentation that has created this successful balance.

There’s something for everyone here. There’s a children’s tent and crafts and art for families. Two taverns serve alcohol ($7 – beer, wine and coolers served) both located by the two main stages, so you don’t need to miss anything when you go for a drink. You might smell the aroma of marijuana occasionally but discretion is the etiquette here.

Security volunteers at the Folk Fest have special training designed to de-escalate situations quickly and in a “folkie” way. Health issues are treated with respect at the First Aid tent, no matter the cause. I believe the festival campground might be a little more extreme with the parties, but it’s expected that the festival site is a place for families and decorum. Well, more decorum anyway.

The Folk Fest is all about inclusion, and diversity. I saw two young men dancing with each other, embrace and kiss, with no fear of reprisal. It’s refreshing. New immigrants to Canada often volunteer as a way to learn Canadian culture, and it almost brings tears to my eyes (no, it really does) that this is what they learn about us. We had two new Canadians on our team this year.


Speaking of  the campground, there’s a whole other side to the Folk Fest that people who don’t camp in Festival camping never see. This is where the real party happens. I suspect there are people who never even make it to the concerts! I can’t even get in to see Festival camping because I stay at the Provincial Park campground, but I’ve heard about it. One of these years I’ll convince Ray to try it, maybe.

No driving is allowed in Festival camping. Campers park their cars and carry in everything they need. There is an RV section that obviously drives in, but absolutely no one will be driving their cars over tents or “sleeping” people here. There are traditions that have grown over the 45 years of crazy here.  There’s a piano somewhere in there, played spontaneously and often. Drum kits are banned, but little else is.

When you ride your bike home along Festival Drive at night you can hear Popes Hill alive with the beat of the drummers. The drumming goes on all night, I’ve heard. There are food vendors and the glow village and who knows what else. Sure, it’s hard to sleep but is sleep really why you came to the Folk Fest?

For those that might want some sleep, or would like to protect their kids from observing the debauchery that a four-day party encourages, there are a couple of good alternatives: Quiet Camping and the Provincial Park campground. To camp in the Provincial Park takes some forward thought and good Internet, as the site reservation lights up in April and the park sells out in about 5 minutes. There’s a shuttle bus to both daily but the biking is awesome.


The Winnipeg Folk Fest took on a new meaning for me when Ray and I decided to volunteer. We had taken a break from the festival for a few busy years, but when we came back we started to notice there might be more to this. It seemed that every second person walked around with this magical pass around their necks. These people just waltzed right back stage like they owned the place, and sometimes they emerged with plates of delicious looking food. They watched the concert from the sidelines, hobnobbed with the artists and seemed even more integrally entwined with whole event. “Let’s try it,” I said. “Yes, let’s,” said Ray and so we signed up, and never looked back.

Ray and I are part of an excellent crew – Site Safety Access A. Within one season we became a tight-knit crew of friends and co-workers. Every year new people join and some people take a hiatus. Willow is in Japan now, but I bet she’ll be back. Jenn is our fearless leader. We only see Heather and Roger once a year so it’s a big treat.  Dale and Adele abandoned us for another crew, but we’ve become good friends despite that. We all have this one thing in common, our mid-July weekend will be spent working hard and playing hard at the Winnipeg Folk Fest.

The Music

Last but obviously not least is the music. Every year I’m asked “So who is playing this year?” I don’t know, and I never know. I start to hear about headliners close to the event, but it’s never the reason I go. It’s not the reason the full weekenders go either. For sure Sheryl Crow on Sunday night attracted a crowd – for good reason as she totally rocked that stage. The Strumbellas, Passenger, A Tribe Called Red, Elle King, Bahamas; all acts that can attract audiences all by themselves. The Winnipeg Folk Festival does attract some of the best.

Sheryl Crow

The real magic of the Festival often occurs in the most unexpected places. There are seven stages that play throughout the day, and they call these workshops. Sometimes there’s a concert going on and sometimes there are several groups playing together. I find on Friday I don’t recognize most of the names in my program, but by Sunday I have favourites. Sometimes a workshop just strikes magic, a fabulous jam or an intimate song. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and I’ve sung along. This year on Sunday afternoon Lanikai, Five Alarm Funk and Too Many Zooz joined forces at Snowberry stage.  People had been partying to these three bands separately all weekend long, and the crowd that amassed under the hot afternoon sun was huge.

I was working a shift during the tarp shuffle on Thursday afternoon. Two policemen were watching the spectacle, one for the first time. Both had worked Dauphin Country Fest the weekend before. “When does the concert start?” the neophyte asked me. “6 o’clock, I think.” It was just after 10 AM. “They are going to lay those tarps down and leave them there all day, unprotected,” said the experienced cop. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Both cops were amazed.  And almost nothing ever goes missing. That’s the Folk Fest. On Sunday evening a woman came up to myself and my partner, Elise to report a stolen blanket. “You should check with your neighbours, or in the bush,” was Elise’s response, because theft is the most unlikely cause. We reported it anyway, but that’s the Folk Fest.

From the sea of bicycles at the front gate to the compostable drink cups, every year I leave the Folk Fest renewed. People really do just want to love one another, love the environment and want to have a little fun.

Peace, love and music – The Winnipeg Folk Festival.


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