Discovery and surprises at the Winnipeg Folk Festival

Cat Empire, Patrick Watson and Kaki King amongst top performers at Festival

The best part of any music festival is the anticipation of new discoveries. Some people go to the festival with open ears, ready to experience whatever they stumble upon, while others know beforehand what they want to see, having already researched every musician performing. But no matter which camp you belong to, there are always surprises.

I attended several shows at the 40th Winnipeg Folk Festival from July 10 to 14 that were amazing, like the Cat Empire, Patrick Watson and Kaki King, but I expected those shows to be amazing. In the end, the performances that will stick with me are the ones that took me by surprise.

Serena Ryder

Before I saw Serena Ryder perform live, I thought of her as as slightly better than average pop singer. She played on the mainstage on Thursday, July 11, the second-last act before Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. As she took to the stage, I stayed in my seat, expecting to passively listen to her in the background.

But Ryder has a stage presence that cannot be ignored. She engages the crowd with her friendly manner; she was playing for a crowd of about 10,000, but her comfortable comments and anecdotes suggested the atmosphere of an intimate venue.

Her voice is gorgeous, with her most impressive moments when she sang a cappella. She even got a skeptical listener like me on my feet a few times! The crowd’s response to her show was huge, and I left wondering why she hadn’t headlined the evening instead of Colin Meloy.


I had been looking forward to seeing Galatic perform. Their most recent album has big brass, big drums, and a medley of sounds ranging from funk to dance to latin inspired beats. It always gets my toes tapping.

Galactic is employs a rotating stable of guest singers on their songs, and from the moment he stepped on stage, their touring guest singer Corey Glover from Living Color stole the show. By the end of the first song, he had the entire crowd eating out of his hand, and he strung us along from there.

Glover has incredible energy and an astounding range, and he was never shy to improvise. The addition of Glover to the mix also gave the band an entirely new sound. The eclectic sound from their album disappeared to become purely funk, and the new aesthetic didn’t disappoint.

Xavier Rudd

Xavier Rudd has played at the Winnipeg Folk Festival three times previously, but this year’s performance may well go down as the most powerful. He started his set on Sunday night with the thrumming sound of his didgeridoo echoing across the festival site. The sound was like a call to everyone who could hear, and some listeners came running.

Before the performance had even ended, he had nearly everyone in attendance on their feet. He employed a perfect blend of high energy, danceable numbers with slower ballads. At times the show felt more like a religious ceremony than a musical performance due his frequent spiritual references, but that spirituality only added to the energizing ambiance.

His performance was a surprise to me because I’ve seen him perform twice before and I thought I knew what to expect: Australian folk music with some didgeridoo action thrown in. A fun time, but nothing new. I was wrong. I already can’t wait to see him perform live again.

“Will The Circuit Be Unbroken” workshop

One of the best parts about the Winnipeg Folk Festival are the daytime workshops, where several artists are invited to play together in whatever way they see fit. For some workshops, this means each artist plays a song of their own, but the most exciting workshops are when they work together to create music that’s never been heard before.

The latter was certainly the case for a Friday afternoon workshop with A Tribe Called Red, Afro Kumbe Sound System, and Blue King Brown. DJs NDN, Shub, and Bear Witness from A Tribe Called Red mixed their electric powwow beats seamlessly with the electro-cumbia sounds of Afro Kumbe and the reggae rythms of Blue King Brown.

The three bands played off each other for nearly an hour, rarely slowing down to change gears, instead working together to change the direction of the show mid-song. The result was an electronic powwow-cumbia-reggae rave that blew the minds of everyone in attendance. More than one seasoned festival goer agreed it was the best workshop they’d ever seen.