John Sebastian sounded old when he started singing and I was beginning to wonder if this would be one of those festival workshops that would make me sad, reminding me of my own diminished abilities. But his guitar was sure and flowing and his storytelling on the mark. He wrapped stories around some of the songs he wrote for the Loving Spoonful and played bits of the songs that gave him the inspiration. He talked about growing up in Greenwich Village listening to John Hurt as a kid and stories of the road as an adult.
While every good folk festival needs a little nostalgia, this year Chris Frayer (Artistic Director) gave us a lot new. He brought in several groups of Icelandic musicians who did some traditional and a lot of Icelandic pop music. Ylja was the standout for me.
Los Pachamama y Flor Amargo is a Mexican band that got everyone up dancing in 90-degree heat. The lead singer jumped off stage with her headset microphone and led dancing while singing. I don’t know how she kept it up for several songs. Belting it out while moving it.
I learned that any workshop led by Toubab Krewe, a band from South Carolina playing the music of Mali, was worth the trek to whatever stage they were on. I saw them jamming with a Turkish band from the Netherlands (Altin Gün), the New Orleans Rebirth Brass Band, a Columbian “Tropical Fusion” (Combo Chimbita) band and The Steel City Jug Slammers over two different workshops. On main stage my favorites were The Young’uns, a British trio who were put on state as a “‘tweener” set, acoustic acts that require little set up between the bigger acts that do require a lot of setup. Usually ‘tweeners don’t get the attention that the bigger bands get but The Young’uns commanded the stage from the first four notes and got a standing ovation after four songs. Also, on main stage, Eileen Ivers (from “Ireland’s 33rd county, the Bronx”) stood out. There were so many others but the ones who were the “headliners” like Kacey Musgraves did not move me nearly as much.
The festival advertised 74 acts playing out on 7 workshop stages, the folk school and family area during the day and on two stages at night. I was Program Director at KAXE when we started going and felt I had to run around to sample each act to see who I wanted to put on the station playlist (or at least in the record library.) I did this as well as conducting interviews. When I became manager at Raven Radio, I still felt I needed to conduct a lot of interviews and see a lot of acts. My energy level is lower now and I try to manage the festival by picking one of two things I’m really interested in and then find a shady spot to plunk down and just listen to whatever comes along and trust Chris to send the right performers my way.
That’s not to say I liked every performance. Some of the new singer songwriters who have fantastic recordings have little stage presence or perhaps little experience performing. In workshops seemed to need to overexplain their songs rather than letting the song speak for itself. Usually when this happened people pulled out their devices. During one workshop fully a quarter of the people around me were texting, networking, playing games or looking up the weather. The performer lost the audience. One young couple right in front of me were kind of necking except each had a phone out, so their attention was divided three ways, the partner, the music and the iPhone. Every once in a while, one would text the other, a cellphone ding meant a kiss.
The festival plants artwork around the site. My favorite piece this year was “Spirits of Odonata” (dragonflies) by Karen Wardle. As part of the art she gave out little firefly bracelets. We got two, one for Liam and one for Fiona.
There are also so many little touches I like, like the squad who walks around spraying water on hot festival goers or “bubble man” who walks around making bubbles to the delight of everyone. The first time Suzi saw “bubble man” she said. “The folk festival is real now, we have bubbles.”
We started going to the festival in 1976 and have made it most years since then. We have a lot of Winnipeg friends along with friends from Northern Minnesota who’ve been coming since KAXE introduced us to the festival in the 70s. In the mission statement there is the term “People and Music.” When I first heard the slogan, I wondered why they didn’t put music first. I’ve grown wiser since then.
Each night we pause to look at the prairie sunsets.