The true measure of any folk festival is the freak quotient — the ratio of normal people to absolute weirdos. In more genteel settings (cocktail parties or five-star restaurants, say) a high freak quotient may not be so beneficial. At a folk festival, however, they're the life of the party.
The Winnipeg Folk Festival does well in this regard. At opening night on Wednesday, the bucolic grounds of Birds Hill Provincial Park were scattered with a bug-eyed Jesus look-alike bearing a giant driftwood walking stick, a young man in a translucent moo-moo complete with dunce-hat hood and an old man in a sea captain's uniform.
And then there was Elvis Costello, Freak-in-Chief. His looks might be conventional enough — he wore his trademark suit and dark-rimmed glasses — but the musical range he and his band demonstrated Wednesday night was downright deviant. It made for a perfect folk fest moment that may not be topped anywhere in the country this summer.
Martha Wainwright, the act prior to Costello, wasn't easy to follow. With a voice that eases seamlessly between vulnerable whisper and booming chanteuse, she has the stage presence of a full band even while playing an entire solo acoustic set. Not surprisingly, the 33-year-old Wainwright took drama at Concordia University before slipping into the profession that has made several of her family members household names among music lovers (she's the daughter of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright and sister to Rufus Wainwright).
That combination of folk pedigree and theatre training lent her a certain ease on the festival main stage, which will feature the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Loreena McKennitt and Steven Page in coming days. Wainwright virtually grew up among such surroundings, after all. Even her frequent memory lapses and a failed attempt at a sing-along were entertaining. "Maybe it's a little too early in the folk fest for a sing-along," she said.
Too early by 15 minutes.
As soon as Elvis Costello stormed onto the stage, doffed his purple fedora and jammed into "Accidents Will Happen" from his 1979 album Armed Forces, hard-core Costello fans were singing along. After playing five old hits — including "Mystery Dance," "You Belong to Me" and "I Hope You're Happy Now" — he put down his Telecaster and picked up a sunburst Gibson acoustic, tugging the show in a rootsy, country direction. It was one of several musical transformations Costello's chameleon-like backing band — drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and Davey Faragher on bass — would make throughout the night. The varied set proved that Costello is a man without a genre, an old English punker who is just as impressive singing Appalachian roots or Delta blues. Freaky.
The remainder of the nearly two-hour concert drew equally from the 54-year-old's vast catalogue of old hits and his new country-infused album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. He even offered a chilling unreleased country ballad about a young man on death row who promises to "come back to haunt you and visit your dreams."
After playing "Radio Sweetheart," "the first song I ever recorded," he mused that as a brash young rocker he'd imagined playing before his name in "neon lights" beside "three girls in sequins." The three women who soon joined him on the folk festival's main stage were much more welcome. The Georgia-based Lovell Sisters added fiddle, mandolin, Dobro slide guitar and beautiful harmonic vocals to the mix.
"This is something special," Costello commented.
It certainly was. The Sisters added bluegrass tinges to the stage just as the setting sun radiated across the cloud-splashed sky. They worked through "The Crooked Line" — adorned with Nieve's Cajun accordion stylings — "From Sulphur to Sugarcane" and the classic "Mystery Train."
For a half-hour encore, Costello started slowly, keeping the Sisters around for mournful rendition of "The Scarlet Tide." But he soon trimmed the band to four and book-ended the show with a medley of classics: "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." All were played with a fresh punk rage that had the crowd — freaks and commoners alike — chanting along on what was a quintessential folk festival night.