It is the premier folk festival in Canada, say its legion of loyal fans, and every July Thompsonites, ranging from a local legal luminary to a reprieved CBC Radio personality -- and ex-Thompsonites -- flock to Birds Hill Provincial Park northeast of Winnipeg to let their hair down, at least metaphorically, and enjoy the sweet sounds of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, while they enjoy both planned and impromptu reunions.
This year marked the 36th year for the festival -- with an eye-popping record 73,000-plus in attendance. The five-day Winnipeg Folk Festival kicked off July 8 with Elvis Costello and The Impostors and wrapped up July 12 with Morden, Manitoba's own Loreena McKennitt, who had last played the festival in 1992.
In between, fans were treated to performances by Arlo Guthrie, son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, who got his own start as a folk legend in his own right at the age of 20 in playing at Woodstock, followed a few days later in August 1969 with the release of the iconic Vietnam war protest movie, Alice's Restaurant.
Also on hand at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this year was Steven Page, until recently the front man for the Barenaked Ladies, along with Bellowhead, Xavier Rudd, Tamara Nile, Serena Ryder, Neko Case, Pacifika, Great Lake Swimmers, North Carolina's Bill Homans, who morphed into bluesman Watermelon Slim after the Vietnam war (he farmed watermelons in Oklahoma and joined Mensa) and Acadian fiddling and step-dancing up-and-comers Vishtèn from Prince Edward Island and maritime Quebec's nearby Îles-de-la-Madeleine, or Magdalen Islands, whose second album, "11:11" won the 2008 award for "Francophone Recording of the Year" at the East Coast Music Association Awards.
On hand to host the main stage for Friday and Saturday nights was Jian Ghomeshi, host of Q on CBC Radio since its inception in 2007. Born in London of Iranian descent, Ghomeshi lives in Toronto. Also a singer, songwriter, and musician, Ghomeshi was a founding member in 1989, along with Murray Foster and Mike Ford - all of Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill, Ont. - of multi-platinum selling folk-rock group, Moxy Früvous, who toured regularly until 2000 and shared stages with a variety of artists including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ani Difranco and Elvis Costello.
This was the first year the Winnipeg Folk Festival, founded in 1974 to celebrate the City of Winnipeg's centennial, took place over five days from Wednesday to Saturday, with 79 groups and more than 300 performers slated to perform. The festival now has an annual operating budget of more than $3.9 million.
About half the fans come from Winnipeg. About 25 per cent come from the United States, including large contingents from neighbouring Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The festival estimates it generated initial expenditures last year of $7.6 million in operating and visitor spending and in turn those expenditures generated $17.8 million in gross economic activity when direct, indirect and induced expenditures are factored in.
While the Winnipeg Folk Festival has 23 full-time, part-time and contract employees (wages and salaries in 2008 amounted to $5.7 million), and an additional 25 workers heading up site crew for the festival, it couldn't take place without the 2,500 volunteers who undertake almost every task imaginable. The backstage "La Cuisine" kitchen, strictly off-limits to patrons and the media, feeds over 3,000 performers, volunteers and guests three times a day for the duration of the festival.