Uptown Mag – Winnipeg – Legendary Winnipeg Folk Fest – The beans from the counter


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Kendle chats in the Winnipeg Studios of City TV> Do you think they charge if they do a location shot in Gimli? Get on that Kendle. John is our contributing editor on all things music. He's got a lot of CDs. But that's not why we go to him. He's erudite and funny. And he's feeding two growing boys - twins. Photo by Wayne Rooney.

Folk Fest, Folk Fest, Folk Fest…

Thoughts, opinions and other stuff from five days in July

By John Kendle – Editor Uptown Magazine – Contributing Editor HaliburtonNews.ca

Yeah, I know. It’s been a week, Kendle.


What can I say? It’s been a busy week and when I haven’t been co-ordinating Fringe Fest coverage, overseeing community newspaper production, putting out The Prime Times, attending a Bomber game and entertaining friends from out of town I’ve been ruminating on the five days I spent at the Winnipeg Folk Festival from July 6 through 10.

So here you go …

The attendance flap…

The Monday after the Winnipeg Folk Festival brought some interesting observations from my colleagues Darryl Sterdan of the Winnipeg Sun and Rob Williams of the Winnipeg Free Press on the 38 annual Birds Hill Park event.

Their stories can be found here:

Darryl: http://bit.ly/oPg1oK, and Rob: http://bit.ly/qjiBLu

Both Rob and Darryl remarked on the rather-hard-to-believe attendance figure of 80,000 that festival organizers reported on the event’s last day.This ‘official’ number was described as a cumulative figure, meaning that attendances from the festival’s five concert evenings and three workshops were added together.

Most journalists have no problem with multi-day events issuing cumulative attendance figures — as long as they’re accurate. However, for as long as I’ve been reporting on the Folk Fest (which is 25 festivals now, all the way back to 1987), it has always counted its volunteers and guests and performers in its cumulative figure. The festival claims it has 2,600 volunteers, so multiplying that number by five adds 13,000 to its paid figures, plus an undetermined number of guests who are presumably counted five times as well. Thus the Folk Festival’s  ‘official’ number is hardly accurate.

Why does this matter so much?

Well, strangely enough, newspapers and journalists are interested in facts. The one fact of any entertainment event that gives readers and the public an indication of its size (and relative importance) is its paid attendance. Yet it’s long been difficult for Winnipeg entertainment reporters to get accurate attendance figures from concert and event producers and promoters. The best we ever get are suspiciously round numbers that can only be called ‘estimates.’

Compare that scenario with the fact the city’s sports teams are always able to provide accurate paid attendance figures for their games — before the games are even over.

Those of us who report on entertainment often wonder why it’s so hard for event organizers to give us the basic facts. All travelling shows, concerts and tours ‘settle’ their financial and business affairs on show nights, and these financial calculations always include paid attendance figures.

So what’s the big deal with reporting these numbers to the media? Especially if you’re a non-profit cultural organization supported in part by public funding, nd you’re going to heave to reveal the numbers in your annual general report, anyway?

As it was, Darryl and Rob’s comments obviously stung someone in the Folk Festival’s communications and marketing department, because the official paid attendance figures were issued in a press release on Monday.

For the record, they were:

Weds., July 6 — 11,383

Thurs., July 7 — 10,816

Fri., July 8 — 13,383

Sat., July 9 — 12,336

Sun., July 10 — 11,635

Total = 59,553

In the same release, the festival reported that its cumulative attendance figure (including all those volunteers and guests and performers, counted five times) was 81,320.

That’s still a little hard to swallow. If you figure, as we did above, that 2,600 volunteers x 5 nights equals 13,000 attendees, we’re still left with 7,767 cumulative attendees attributable solely to guests and perfomers.

All I can attest to is that the crowd for Friday’s mainstage show, which featured sets by k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams and Toots & the Maytals, was one of the largest, if not the largest,  I’ve ever seen on the festival site.

I can also tell you that there’s no way there were 11,383 people at the opening concert by Melissa McClelland, The Jayhawks and Blue Rodeo. Nor were there 10,816 at the Thursday concert featuring, among others, The Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, M. Ward and Tegan and Sara. The festival’s paid attendance figures include all five-day passes sold, and I’ll bet many of those passholders were either in the campground or unable to attend on either of those nights.

Ultimately, the calculation of Folk Festival attendance figures will remain an inexact science. But paid attendance numbers are probably the most reliable figures available.

The potential for change…

The Folk Festival is in the midst of a major capital campaign, looking to raise $6 million to further develop its Birds Hill Park Site.

This campaign is now a year old and, while there have been noticeable improvements to site drainage over the past two summers (and the angles of some stages have been slightly altered), major changes to the concert site have yet to be realized.

If the campaign literature is to be believed, the festival is looking to add three new ‘forest stages’, which will offer intimate concert venues a la the Shady Grove stage.The organization also plans to create permanent, weather-proof pathways; to improve mainstage sightlines and to move the beer tent so that it offers a view of mainstage.

(The one major alteration to the site this year involved turning the Snowberry Field stage to face northeast, thus permanently blocking off the path from Snowberry Field to mainstage. This pissed a lot of people off, a fact Marlo Campbell addresses in her piece for Uptown here: http://bit.ly/qfMxno)

All the proposed changes will likely improve the on-site fan experience. What intrigues me most is the flexibility three more stages will offer.

The legendary Glastonbury festival in the U.K., which took place a week prior to the Winnipeg festival, offers up 21 different themed areas, as well as three mainstages.

Granted, Glastonbury’s 365 hectares on Worthy Farm dwarfs the Folk Fest’s Birds Hill Park footprint, but adding stages to the Folk Festival site may make it possible for artistic director Chris Frayer to do even more evening programming — offering shows at mainstage, Big Bluestem and a couple of other intimate stages. Music fans would be offered more choice, and the pressure on the mainstage area may well be eased if the crowd is spread out a little more.

African desert bluesmen denied again…

I was one of many people disappointed to hear that Canadian visas were denied the Tuareg rebel bluesmen of Tinariwen last week. As a result, we missed seeing the group on Saturday night’s mainstage show.

Tinariwen, which was allowed into the U.S. to perform this summer (and which performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver without problem), applied for visas again last week in order to play at this weekend’s Vancouver Folk Festival. Again, they were denied.

Brad Frenette of the Vancouver Sun has the full story here:


My hits and misses…

While Tinariwen’s cancellation was the biggest disappointment of this year’s mainstage program, it wasn’t the only one. Several of the big stage acts didn’t live up to expectations, including The Jayhawks, M. Ward, Toots and the Maytals and Little Feat. Jayhawks suffered from bad sound and tentative performance, Ward was simply underwhelming, Toots Hibbert phoned it in (bringing to mind Joe Strummer’s disappointment in a big reggae show as documented in White Man in Hammersmith Palais) and Little Feat were, in a word, B-O-R-I-N-G.

My faves included Melissa McClelland, the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (the best show of the whole event, in my opinion), k.d. lang (even if her original songs showed she’s a much better interpreter than a writer), Lucinda Williams (who just slayed) and Jeff Tweedy, who closed the festival to a seemingly indifferent crowd but soldiered on bravely anyway, offering up solid versions of his amazing songs.


On the smaller stages, these were the artists who caught my ear:

New Country Rehab, Chuck Prophet (of course), Lucy Wainwright Roche, Scott Nolan (of course), Fairfield Four, Crista Couture and Tom Fun Orchestra.

Finally, my absolute favourite festival moments came courtesy of two local acts:

One was seeing and hearing  Joanna Miller (Scott Nolan’s drummer/percussionist) singing Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean during a workshop of cover tunes called The Song Retains the Name on Sunday afternoon at the Bur Oak stage.

The other was Imaginary Cities’ mainstage ‘tweener set on Saturday night. Crammed into about three square metres of space, Marti Sarbit, Rusty Matyas, Ryan Voth and  Zack Antel showed why they’re a buzz band, and they even earned an extra tune when Little Feat weren’t ready on time.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]