I wasn’t a very cool or sophisticated teenager. I know this because despite having lived in Winnipeg for 19 years, I didn’t attend the Winnipeg Folk Festival once. In my later years I wanted to go, but was too intimidated by the rumours of it being a non-stop crazy party.
Since I moved to Vancouver in 2006, I’ve attended every folk fest, and really enjoyed lying in the sun, lounging on the beach, and listening to folk and roots music. Unfortunately, Vancouver’s 3-day, no-camping, stroll in the park folk festival is nothing compared to Canada’s biggest and baddest folk festival in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg Folk Festival is 5 days long (2 evenings and 3 full days of music); the festival campground is a mini Burning Man with performance art, parades, and non-stop drum circles; and nearly twice as many people attend Winnipeg festival compared to Vancouver. Emily and I avoided much of the craziness by staying in the Quiet Campground, but 5 days of baking in the sun and listening to music (as enjoyable as it sounds) was still a tiring experience.
Here are some observations that might be helpful to others attending for the first time.
Weather – Be prepared for extreme heat during the day (most stages have only a few shade trees), unpredictable downpours, and dropping temperatures at night when the sun sets.
Food – There are lots of food vendors in the festival, including some of the best healthy food options in Winnipeg (Mondragon, Tallest Poppy, and Fresh Cafe). However, the prices aren’t cheap. Luckily, you can bring your own food in to the festival. At our campsite we had a cooler with enough food for most of our meals. We would eat breakfast at our campsite, take a packed lunch with us, and then return to the campground for dinner. There is a store in the Festival Campground that sells ice and basic food stuff.
Campgrounds – There are two main campground options – Quiet and Festival Campgrounds, plus the Provincial Park Campground (that can be booked separately). Birds Hill Provincial Park is far enough from Winnipeg that you want to camp – plus it is part of the festival experience. One thing to note, is you can camp on Sunday night after the festival ends, and about half the people do.
The Festival Campground is capped at 6,000 people , sells out quickly, and has 24-hour-a-day partying. It’s the center of the action and within walking distance of the stages. My sister was in this campground and was usually up until 4 am every morning. She enjoyed watching parades of ninjas and elephants and listening to the impromptu concerts, but complained about the constant drum beats. Saturday morning at 4 am, she drove back to Winnipeg to get 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The Quiet Campground is home to families and really friendly folks. The tents are more spread out and it was deadly quiet at night. Each of the 7 areas has a big cooking pagoda with running water and electricity – I was floored to see campers with coffee machines. The biggest problem is the location – 4 km from the festival grounds. A lot of our friends had bikes they used to commute back and forth. Many families drove. We relied on the shuttle.
Provincial Park campground – The unofficial camping option. You can book these sites independent of your folk fest ticket. The shuttle stops here and this is where the only showers are. We never used them though, we just walked down to the lake (15-minute walk from the Quiet Campground, but best accessed by bike) and washed off there.
Shuttle – Runs reliably every 30 minutes, except at the end of the night when people start leaving and car congestion slows it down. It takes about 10 minutes to get from the festival grounds to the Quiet Campground, and 30 minute to return (as it passes through the provincial park campground).
Mosquitoes – Winnipeg is known for bad mosquitoes, but I had assurances from several people that they aren’t a problem during the Folk Festival. Well, that’s partly true. We still got bit in the morning and at dusk, but not too badly. There were thousands of dragonflies patrolling the skies (more then I’ve ever seen in one place before) eating most of the mosquitoes.
Demographics – I was really impressed by the range of ages present at the folk festival. The audience is mostly white, but every age group was well represented. There were lots of little kids running around, plenty of partying teenagers, many young people, and lots of grey-haired older folks.
Music – The Winnipeg Folk Festival stays true to its roots. Most of the bands were folk, with a good mix of world roots and rhythm and a few indie bands. I was really impressed by the newer artists, like the Avett Brothers, Leeroy Stagger, and Del Barber. The older generation (Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, and even Gord Downie) disappointed me. The dancing bands were all really good – Cat Empire and Delhi 2 Dublin had everyone up and dancing. The best part of the folk festival for me has always been about discovering new music and watching bands jam together during the afternoon workshops. The new discoveries for me this year were Hoots and Hellmouth, Leeroy Stagger, and Del Barber. Oddly enough, my favourite workshop was Movin’ On Up, which had 3 bands playing gospel music on Sunday morning.