The Hairy Prairies-Photo by Jenny Ramone
The Winnipeg Folk Festival is unlike any other music festival on this side of the globe. There is something about the combination of the balmy weather, the endless prairie evenings, the generous and diverse array of talent and the generally benevolent attitudes of those that attend that just feels right. I have been going to this festival for over a decade as it gives me a chance to revisit my hometown and spend four days in musical paradise. Every year I discover new talent and enjoy the sounds of returning artists. This is the real music lovers kind of event, the performers intermingle with audience members seamlessly, it is void of the us and them divide. This year was notably folkier and involved more new band’s than previous years known for hosting musical legends and box office bands. I personally enjoy this kind of lineup more and believe it is where the magic begins. The following is a collection of interviews and concert highlights from this year’s festival.
Rayland Baxter is a profoundly talented, wildly sharp and a truly authentic individual from Nashville. As the son of musician Bucky Baxter, he has deep music roots,however he does his own thing and does it well. We spoke in between sets on the particularly sweaty Friday afternoon. Baxter is a musician’s musician; he is refreshingly transparent, uniquely gifted and consistently witty. His music is certainly a reflection of his hilarious and unapologetic personality. He crafts real songs woven from his very real life that he seems to love. He explained his aversion towards confrontation, which is made difficult due to his natural yet unwarranted leadership role in his band. He shared that Nashville is still bursting with eclectic talent and not just a collection of cliché cowboy bars. He is draped in picturesque tattoos; he refers to his arms as a tour scrapbook. His smile is infectious, he doesn’t take life too seriously, but he does take it seriously enough. His set at the main stage was completely paralyzing and hypnotizing. The audience seemingly avoided blinking, as they didn’t want to miss even a mere moment. His voice is complex just like his lyrics and his band commits to the heartache and poetry that his music is made of.
Jim Bryson has an impossibly dense resume; he lives and breathes everything music. Bryson was the founding member of the late and great band Punchbuggy. He also played with Winnipeg’s own The Weakerthans, has a strong solo career and produces other musician’s material like no other. He is a Canadian music marvel who is constantly evolving and trying new things. What makes this all even better is that Bryson is incredibly emotionally generous, uniquely hilarious and notably easy to talk to; really talk to. We started our interview right under the wrath of the Winnipeg afternoon sunlight. We discussed anxiety and depression which we agree is an under discussed and important topic in the music industry.
Bryson has two young daughters that he talked about in a charmingly matter of fact, yet nurturing way. Everything about Bryson is genuine, from his approach to music to his sincere curiosity about those around him. Our discussion varied from existential to playful while remaining consistently interesting. Bryson loves the Winnipeg Folk Festival and speaks highly of his hometown Ottawa; reminding me that it is in fact cool and we need to give up Canadian city rivalry. He loves to tour and approaches it quite realistically. He admits he never got into music for the babes back stage and found it funny that I thought that was a possibility. He is deeply humble; the only people that put him on a pedestal are his fans. This makes sense when you see Bryson perform as his music and performance quality isn’t normal. Although the man is very human, his music is surreal. It’s not necessarily experimental or even close to performance art; it’s just really really really strong music.
He shared with me his difficulty with seeing people reading or napping while he is performing in the revealing nature of daytime outdoor shows. It blows me away that anybody can avoid being completely transfixed when Bryson performs. He understands the way instruments work beyond most, like how astronomers understand space. The best part is that he is completely unaware of his commanding power. He would probably just blush at this notion and pump out another extremely astute album.
The Hairy Prairies
The Hairy Prairies are made up of some of the most compelling, hilarious, sweet and talented people who are crucial to the Winnipeg music scene. The five-piece bluegrass ensemble just debuted at the Winnipeg Folk Fest as travelling minstrels, which was a common theme this year. That stated, their performances took place liberally throughout various pockets of the festival, making the entire event better. They were like a one band travelling folk carnival. They are a stampede of talent, painting wherever they visit with joy and wonder. Every individual in the band has a larger than life personality yet plays their difficult instrument with tremendous sophistication and grace.
The connection to each other goes back to the early stages of a childhood that was musical for all of them. The one exception to this is their sharply talented upright bass player Lindsay Woolgar, who moved to Winnipeg from Edmonton for music school three years ago. Little did she know at the time she was going to get kidnapped by these boisterous and talented machines. Their lead guitar player and singer Cary Bilcowski decided to recruit them all for a jam one fateful night that also featured the added bonus of a barbecue. They admit to loving barbecued food almost as much as music. The band educated me on the clearly undervalued instrument; the shuitar which is a guitar that is treated like a percussion instrument. The shuitar is played by the electric Morgan Fiks in this project. The Woods Brothers, who are a great inspiration to the Hairy Prairies also feature the shuitar played by the amazing Jano Rix. The Prairies show off their talent in their cover of the The Woods Brothers’ song Honey Jar. Along with the gifted Lindsay, Cary and Morgan is the lovely Donovan Locken on mandolin and Derek Micholson on harmonica, they all own their craft with individual distinction and skill.
The Hairy Prairies love music in a way so true and rare that you can tell their fingers and minds would run completely restless without the opportunity to play and perform. It is remarkable that they are so exquisitely humble yet wildly talented and hardworking. They joked about their fan club the “fairy prairies” made up of now three people. The numbers went up 300% during the duration of our interview. They are great people making really great music and I can’t wait for you to see them in the packed venues they deserve to perform at.
The Brothers Comatose
The Brothers Comatose are a five-piece San Francisco based avalanche of sonic brilliance. I sat down with front man Ben Morrison in the middle of the conclusive Sunday afternoon wrap up, the ultimate musical comedown day. Any melancholic feelings I was experiencing towards the festival ending were instantly dissolved the second I started speaking with Morrison. The man emanates everything we love about the modern music maker; he encapsulates the old spirit of country and the contemporary soul of rock and roll. His personality is an accurate vehicle towards the music he and his band create. Their sound likely gets reduced to just folk music, yet we all know that doesn’t quite cut it. Ben plays lead guitar and sings while his brother Alex plays the guitar, banjo and sings as well. They are both fine tuned musicians that grew up with parents who played music frequently in their hometown of Petaluma,their musical roots show.
The band was previously on tour with the impeccably well-suited Devil Makes Three and is currently on an extensive tour that will take them to Alaska and Australia. They also quickly jet from the Winnipeg Folk Festival to the Calgary Stampede to meet and play for one of Ben’s greatest inspiration’s Mr. Huey Lewis who they cover in their wide bank of excellent songs. All of the band members love making and playing music and do so with distinction and charisma. This clearly takes them to all the right places. It is evident that Morrison is doing exactly what he should be, it’s as if his cells are music notes and even his spoken voice sounds like he swallowed an amplifier.
He shared with me that the career he feels he would be the least suitable for is stand-up comedy. This is interesting because he is naturally hilarious and magnetic. What he doesn’t do is put on a shtick, which does happen all too often with the genres of music the band plays. This sincerity is true amongst all of his band mates as well. Their music is a fusion of country, folk, bluegrass and even punk with gracefully threaded classic songwriting and modern storytelling. What is possibly the most prominent feature of the band is their flawless harmonies that sound as though they could lift ancient brick towers. Their music is a storm of vitality and takes listeners on a vacation from reality. Their performances visibly possess people with energy and havoc. With three albums under their belt that were recorded in various parts of the world; this is a band beyond a band-it’s a celebration of sound. A sound that crosses genres, melts minds and infuses people with the magic their music is made of.