It's Wednesday afternoon at Birds Hill Provincial Park. The temperature is 20 degrees, with a cool breeze sweeping over the grounds of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Chris Frayer and Lynne Skromeda both know it: the campers should be setting up right now, settling in to hear songs they’ve heard a hundred times and ones they’ve never heard before. The not-so-calm before the… well, storm is the wrong word. Before the commotion.
"This whole place would be rocking," says Frayer, the festival’s artistic director, surveying the green grass while Skromeda, the executive director, stands nearby with arms akimbo.
Instead, it’s serene, quiet, placid — not rocking, just waiting, as for the second year in a row, there is no festival starting today: the pandemic is especially unfriendly to hippies and hipsters exchanging free hugs and squishing five people into two-person tents in the sweltering summertime heat.
When normally hundreds or thousands of people with varying degrees of folk fest experience — five years, 10 years, or every year since the first one in 1974 — would be here by now, instead there are seven or eight staff members, who came earlier in the day to plant trees and do some site work, now standing outside the rickety brown site office that’s been there since Day 1.
"We’re demolishing it this year," Skromeda says with some obvious nostalgia, pointing to the chipping paint and rotting roof. "It’s done its job," production manager Arwen Helene adds, fighting through some tears after the original sign is removed. (It’s being saved, don't worry.)
For Skromeda and Frayer, just being at the site brings back a rush of memories.
There was the time a 14-year-old Frayer sneaked out to come to the festival, and when Sharon, Lois and Bram rocked a six-year-old Skromeda’s world. Past performances return in flashes: Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, Donovan singing Mellow Yellow, the audience munching on Elman’s pickles during a performance of Arlo Guthrie’s The Motorcycle Song, along with moments spent with family and friends that had nothing to do with music at all.
They walk down the serpentine wooded paths from the rickety office, emerging on the other side where the main stage would be.
"It would have been up two weeks ago," Skromeda says, looking out toward the field where people would normally race to place their tarps and lawn chairs in the ideal spot.
When the last notes of the 2019 version of the festival were played, nobody had any idea there would be a hiatus coming. In fact, the 2020 edition of the festival was slated to have as solid a lineup as the festival had ever had, with the now-signature mix of old school and new.
The lineup — featuring headliners such as Vance Joy, Tash Sultana, Canadian idols Tegan and Sara, Sharon Van Etten, Japanese Breakfast, Kurt Vile, a stable of local talent, and a true folk legend in the troubadour John Prine — was announced March 4, 2020.
Seven days later, the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a worldwide pandemic, and a little over one month later, the 73-year-old Prine — who Frayer says once mistakenly attempted to use a Chuck E. Cheese token in a downtown Winnipeg parking meter during a previous tour stop, something that sounds like a lyric he'd write — was in the hospital battling COVID-19.
On April 7, Prine died.
That was what told Skromeda and Frayer that the festival would likely not happen, a tragic loss for the folk community that signalled a dark future for the music world, a metaphoric moment that forecasted more pain down the road.
Even if the festival had happened by some miracle, Frayer said, there would have been a cloud hanging over Birds Hill Park. It would have felt wrong.
With Birds Hill empty, the festival ran a successful online version, with would-be attendees watching performances by everyone from Newfoundland singer-songwriter Alan Doyle to American superstar Sheryl Crow from the comfort of their sofas and on projector screens set up on their boulevards. A tribute to the late Prine was held. Thousands of people tuned in, a relative success that happened with a short turnaround.
This year, there were plans for a minor return to the live form, but those were scrapped as coronavirus cases spiked in Manitoba, making it at one point the hottest hotspot in North America. "We had a lot of plans and then the third wave happened," says Frayer, who recently got an electrified banjo tattooed on his forearm.
Since then, Frayer and Skromeda say, the focus has been on this fall's concert series, which, knock on wood, is but a few months away.
In November, performances by folk and pop acts the Weather Station, Martha Wainwright, Bahamas and Leif Vollebekk are scheduled. Montreal art-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor is coming to town next March, and Halifax singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett is playing the Park Theatre in September 2022.
Standing near the rows of empty food vendors, where no deep-fried Whales Tails have been crafted for two calendar years, Frayer and Skromeda are asked whether they're still feeling that initial sense of loss. Both nod. When will it go away? "Not until it happens again," says Frayer.
There are plans for that: with vaccine uptake rising, the pair are optimistic that by July 7, 2022, Birds Hill will be rocking once more, though a lot has to go right for that plan to proceed. "I think it'll be a very happy '22," Frayer says giddily, not revealing much more than that.
"Something we say is that the festival is the way the world should be," says Skromeda, alluding to the spirit of sharing and community. Even though it's grown from humble roots to become one of the largest festivals of its kind in North America, that's still true to her.
It's also true to a pair of longtime volunteers, Karen Dana and Candice Masters, who came by Wednesday to pay their respects for the first time since last year, when they hoped that by July 2021, they'd be back and busier than ever. "They came with the site," Frayer jokes.
"I'm going to cry," says Candice Masters, who indeed started to tear up a little bit.
Asked to recall her favourite folk fest moment, Dana picks the day when American folk legend Pete Seeger's set was interrupted by the falling rain. "Not one person left," she says. "Everyone shared rain ponchos and stayed through it."
But rather than remain there for four more days of music, everyone on site packed up for the day late in the afternoon Wednesday, leaving the festival grounds when it was obvious they would given anything to stay. Even if it rained.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.