75,000 fans flocked to the Winnipeg Folk Festival over four days in July.

When you think of folk music, chances are you don’t think about Winnipeg Manitoba. But each year, dozens of bands and thousands more people descend on a provincial park on the outskirts of town to celebrate folk music. It’s a celebration of the genre as a whole, with musicians and bands who have been around for a year, or sixty. The festival itself has been around in various forms for over 50 years, with 2023 being it’s 48th annual edition of the festival. 

Last year was the first time the festival returned following the pandemic, and The 2023 edition was a continued triumphant return to form for the beloved Canadian festival. The festival welcomed back a record-breaking crowd of 75,000 fans to Birds Hill Provincial Park over the course of four days. 

The headliners for the festival included:

Fleet Foxes:

The indie folk band delivered a stunning set of their dreamy, atmospheric music headlining the first night of the festival. Their performance was a highlight of the festival, with fans entranced by their beautiful harmonies and intricate arrangements. Following the brief rain delay, the atmosphere was humid and cool – a perfect environment for Fleet Foxes. 

Emmylou Harris:

The legendary American country singer-songwriter delivered a moving set of her classic songs on Friday night. Her performance was a true masterclass in vocal technique, and her fans were treated to a selection of her greatest hits. Her set was a popular favorite among both the crowd, and the musicians from other bands who were performing all weekend gathered side stage and in the audience to watch one of the reigning queens of folk show us all how it’s done. 

Rufus Wainwright:

The Canadian singer-songwriter put on a theatrical headlining set on Friday Night. His performance was full of energy and passion, and he left the crowd feeling inspired. It wouldn’t be the Winnipeg Folk Festival without a Canadian headlining, and Rufus was the man to do it. Wainwright is a true original, and he is one of the most exciting and talented singer-songwriters working today. He made sure to include a special performance from his Dad, Loudon Wainwright, who performed onstage with Rufus before his own headlining set the following day.

The War on Drugs:

The Philadelphia rockers delivered a powerful set of their atmospheric, psychedelic rock to close out the festival Sunday night. Perhaps the loudest act of the weekend, Its likely they were one of the most popular. I know of many people, including myself, who made the pilgrimage to Winnipeg from Minnesota specifically to see The War On Drugs performance on their latest tour. 

Boy Golden:

Local to the Manitoba area, Boy Golden was a last minute replacement for Sierra Ferral, who had dropped out of a few dates of her upper midwest tour for a mental break. Boy Golden’s performance was a perfect replacement for the festival, His music was both mellow and uplifting, and his band, who also were both band members and individual performers at smaller stages through the weekend, perfectly captured the festival’s sense of community and celebration. While the band is relatively small, it was clear the crowd was clearly enjoying themselves, and found themselves a new favorite band – myself included!

Vance Joy:

It’s not often fans will line the railing at a festival just to hear a soundcheck, but there were about a hundred or so festival goers who cheered on Vance Joy and his band during his early afternoon soundcheck before his headlining performance later that night. It was clear from the start that Vance was going to be a crowd favorite, and the Australian musician didn’t disappoint. He seemed to have just as fun onstage as the audience did watching him. 

Adia Victoria:

Adia Victoria is a rising star in the blues and soul scene, and her performance at Winnipeg Folk Fest was a testament to her talent. She is a gifted singer and songwriter, and her music is both powerful and soulful. Victoria took to the stage with her band, and they delivered a set of their signature brand of bluesy, soulful music. The crowd who gathered early was immediately drawn in by Victoria’s powerful vocals and her charismatic stage presence. She took time to explain her philosophy behind her music, which was a rare moment from a headlining act. Victoria is a charismatic performer, and she has a commanding presence on stage, and a bright future ahead of her in the scene. 

William Prince:

William Prince is a talented songwriter who writes personal and introspective lyrics about his Indigenous heritage, and was a great musician to start music on the mainstage on Thursday night. Prince’s music is a blend of blues, soul, and country, and it is both powerful and soulful. He was a great act to catch on the mainstage, as well as at some of the smaller stages throughout the weekend. 

Charley Crockett:

The energy was palpable leading up to Charley Crockett’s set. The troubadour and real life vagabond doesn’t make it up to Canada much with his band, so his presence and his songs was a real treat to the fans who finally got to see him live, as well as the crowd who may have been unfamiliar with his old timey sound. His set was a real barn burner, With Crockett rolling through 20 songs in his hour long set. Fans both old and new sure wished it was longer, myself included!

The mainstage of Winnipeg Folk Festival was a big draw for the crowd, but so too were the diverse variety of acts performing at smaller stages on the festival grounds. Some were out in fields, while others were under the cover of trees deep in the woods. Many of the acts loved the atmosphere of the festival, and the attentive audiences that came with it.

All in the Family: The Wainwright family performs together. 

While Rufus Wainwright is a well known musician to much of my own younger generation, it’s not well known that he comes from a family of musicians, which included his father, Loudon Wainwright, and sister,Lucy Wainwright-Roch. The Wainwright family’s performance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. It’s rare that the family performs together, and It was a testament to their musical talent and their family heritage of music. It was also a reminder that music can bring people together, even from different generations. Fans of Rufus gathered early to hear him perform, while older folkies more familiar with Loudon’s work gathered to hear him perform alongside his children. The performance was nothing short of exciting, both hearing the family sing harmonies together, and the banter onstage that only a parent and their children could have. 

Loudon Wainwright: 

“I was booed off this stage in 1970” Loudon said before starting his set, “Obviously some things have changed now.” He smiled as he poked fun at himself, as he normally does in both banter and in song. To many of the older crowd, Loudon is a favorite songwriter whose performance at the festival was a highlight, even if it wasn’t 53 years ago. While Loudon has been welcomed back to the festival many times since his first performance, he always makes sure to point out to the crowd that it wasn’t always like it is now. When he ended his set, he recalled the day again, asking the crowd “If you could…just for old times sake, and to see what this feels like again.. Could you boo me?” Collectively, the audience began to boo, with Loudon basking in the spotlight, before quickly stopping the crowd “Okay, okay, too much! Ouch! Enough!” 

Throughout the show, Wainwright’s wit and humor were on full display. He told stories about his life and career, and he even cracked a few jokes about his age. But Wainwright’s music was also full of emotion. He sang with passion and conviction, and his songs touched on a wide range of topics, from love and loss to politics and social justice. Loudon’s voice is still as strong as ever, and he has a gift for storytelling in both song and banter. His performance was a real hidden gem of the festival.

Bella White: 

Bella White and her accompanying musicians seemed to feel at home at their stage deep in the forest on the last day of the festival, even if the quiet, relaxed crowd may have freaked her out a little bit. “You’re all so….attentive!” she said. And the crowd absolutely was. In the quiet moments in between songs, you could hear the leaves rustle, and the distant rumblings of louder acts at different stages. Bella White didn’t need to be loud at all. Her voice is beautiful, and reminiscent of the female folk acts that she counts as heroes. The crowd soaked up every word, just as they did earlier this year when she started her tour in Minneapolis. Since her last performance near us, White has since released a new record, and even shared a few brand new songs with the crowd in Winnipeg. What a treat to hear her music in such a quiet setting! 

Kris Ulrich: 

Versatility is something that can be hard to achieve these days in music, with many artists creating their own subgenres and sticking to their sound. But if there was anyone who could get that title at Winnipeg Folk Fest, it’s Kris Ulrich. A phenomenal guitarist and songwriter in his own right, Kris was incredibly easy to find throughout the festival. He performed as a “Tweener” act on Friday night, Performed alongside Field Guide and Fontaine during their sets, and performed with Boy Golden on the Mainstage Saturday night. Kris also performed at various workshops over the weekend, capping things off with a solo set at the Bur Oak stage on Sunday. If I have my stats right, I believe he’s the only one to have performed, in some fashion, every day of the festival. 

SG Goodman: 

SG Goodman was another musician who was easy to find throughout the weekend, Performing at three separate stages with her band at various workshops, before a headlining set at the Green Ash stage on Sunday. SG’s songs are raw and emotional, just like her voice. Even though her songs were raw, she took time to crack jokes between songs, her western Kentucky accent and sense of humor a big hit with the canadian crowd. 

Buffalo Nichols: 

While Nichols doesn’t necessarily classify himself as a blues musician, he has the chops (both vocally and on guitar) to fit well into that genre. However, Nichols isn’t out to “Save the Blues”, a phrase that’s been thrown around for the last 30 years, and, at times, attached to child musicians who figured out the pentatonic scale. Instead, he’s out on a quiet quest to reset the genre. Nichols’ music comes from deep in the heart and deep in history, and ventures into what blues music can be beyond the standard 12 bar song with whiny lyrics.

Nichols has been tagged as a “rising star” in the scene for quite some time, however it’s been an uphill battle for the musician. Nichols has tried to maintain a low profile, and battled talkative crowds who tune out to his music during his opening sets. However, his set at the Winnipeg Folk Festival was refreshing due to the quiet, attentive audience that was there just for him. As a result, it became easier to hear the detailed ambience in his music, and the layers of sound Nichols wants people to hear between his voice, his beats, and his resonator guitar. For the crowd, it also became clear to see the place Nichols was willing to take them with his music. 

And that’s a wrap!

It was quite the long weekend of music for attendees of the festival. While each evening had its threat of rain (and the first night of the festival had a quick squall) The crowd was not deterred from any act, even selling out Sunday – The final day of the 2023 festival. The event drew thousands of people over the four days, and I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one from Minnesota in the parking lots each day. 

2023 had a fantastic lineup of musicians that we’ve covered in the past, and new favorites we cant wait to see swing into town. We’re already looking forward to the 2024 lineup announcement! 

Special thanks to the WFF Media team for their help! 

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