Longtime volunteer ‘extremely excited’ as Winnipeg Folk Fest begins after two-year pandemic break

After a two-year hiatus, the organizers and volunteers behind the legendary Winnipeg Folk Festival look forward to welcoming thousands of fans back to Birds Hill Provincial Park.

It all starts Thursday and runs through Sunday at the park north of town.

“Just to be back on the grounds with all these people and listening to live music – the whole essence of being there I think is really hard to describe,” said festival executive director Lynne Skromeda.

“But you know it when you feel it, and getting that feeling back is going to be the best thing ever.”

During the planning phase of the 2022 festival, there were some concerns about whether people would be ready to return for large gatherings, but ticket sales have been excellent, she said.

“We’re pretty much where we were in 2018, 2019 – and 2019 was our best year ever,” with a cumulative attendance of 76,000 visits.

Because the festival is outdoors and allowing people to spread out, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for spectators has been dropped, Skromeda said. However, it remains in place for staff, volunteers, board members, artists, backstage guests, vendors and media.

“We wanted to keep the artists in the safest possible atmosphere, and they interact with those people the most,” Skromeda said in an interview.

For the first time, the festival has been granted a site-wide liquor license, which will also allow people to spread out and reduce congestion at the festival’s taverns, she said.

“I think we got it right because the people who want to be out there in the general area will be fine, and the people who need to be backstage will be fine too.”

For the first time, people at the Winnipeg Folk Festival don’t just limit themselves to drinking alcohol in the taverns. You can walk around the premises with alcohol. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Like Skromeda, Candice Masters, a festival volunteer for more than 40 years, is delighted that the event is back.

“I’m just beyond excited. I’m out at the site now and it’s just like, my heart is bursting with joy — lots of hugs with lots of old friends,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s just spectacular. It’s magical.”

Masters described herself as “a rock chick” who knew little about folk music when she was dragged out by her sister to volunteer for the first time more than four decades ago.

“And it was just an instant love affair. It was just so magical, such amazing people, such fabulous music,” she said. “It’s just something you couldn’t pay me to give up.”

For those new to the festival, Masters offers this advice: “Give yourself the privilege of experiencing all the different types of music that you can have here, because that’s one of the things that keeps people coming back . walking around, smiling at people and having fun.”

There are more than 70 acts in this year’s line-up and Masters says she’s looking forward to seeing Dervish, an Irish traditional music group.

“You can’t go wrong with good Celtic music,” she said, then adding Canadian rockers The Strumbellas and singer-songwriter Judy Collins, “an icon” with a career spanning seven decades, to her personal list.

Masters is honored this year with the Glass Banjo Award, presented by the Festival’s Board of Directors to a volunteer who has made significant contributions over the years.

“Obviously, I feel very honored and humbled because…every volunteer is an integral part of the festival’s operations,” Masters said. “To be singled out this year is very, very heartwarming and I’m just thrilled about it.”

The band from Winnipeg starts on the main stage

Three-piece Winnipeg roots-pop group Sweet Alibi performed on the main stage this year. The band’s main stage debut was a long time coming as they were originally asked to perform in 2020, but the festival was canceled due to the pandemic.

Winnipeg’s Sweet Alibi opened the main stage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Sweet Alibi’s Jess Rae Ayre says she’s been coming to Folk Fest since she was a child and says it’s “beyond exciting” that her band was asked to perform on the main stage.

“It kind of feels like home, to be honest. We grew up watching this festival, it’s been… a long time coming for a few years and you can feel the energy and excitement of everyone here,” said Rae Ayre.

“It’s calming and really exciting at the same time.”

Changes to the folk festival

Over those years, Masters says, the joy and quality of music never stopped — but some things have changed.

“There was a time when there was no such thing as an on-site phone,” she said.

“There was no picking up a phone saying ‘help, I forgot’ or ‘help, I need this’. It was a note that was written, put on a school bus and mailed to the hotel. The hotel would do whatever the note says if they could, load everything back onto the bus and ship it back to the site.

That could mean hours in turnaround time, she said.

“So nothing was urgent because it couldn’t be.”

This year, the festival takes advantage of improved access to technology at the site. Debit and credit cards are accepted for drinks, merchandise and other purchases.

A directory for the 2022 Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Tickets are only available online – not at the gates – which Skromeda says will help with COVID prevention.

“[The old ticket counters were] another place where we tend to see a lot of gatherings, a lot of traffic jams and possibly bottlenecks too,” she said, adding that most people now say they prefer to buy tickets online.

There are a few other things that never change at an outdoor festival: the risk of extreme weather and extremely hungry mosquitoes.

‘Come Prepared’

The festival focuses on its natural surroundings and never mists the place with chemicals to drive away skitters.

“We just have to live with the way it is. We only recommend that people come prepared. …bug spray or just long sleeves and long pants can be helpful in the evenings because it’s really dawn twilight part [where they come out]’ said Sromeda.

“But there are so many people [for the mosquitoes] to choose from, I think we’re going to give it out, right?”

Attendees enjoy the first night of the 2022 Winnipeg Folk Festival. (Travis Golby/CBC)

As for the weather, the forecast is for highs of 27C and 30C over the next few days, but there is a chance of rain overnight and possibly more rain on Sunday.

“That’s how this year went. You just have to be prepared for anything,” said Skromeda.

“But I can tell you one thing: the music on the stages will be fantastic, and so will all the people out there.”

The Winnipeg Folk Festival begins after a two-year hiatus

After a two-year hiatus, the organizers and volunteers behind the legendary Winnipeg Folk Festival look forward to welcoming thousands of fans back to Birds Hill Provincial Park.

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