Thirty years is quite a milestone and really a testament to how well the Brandon Folk, Music & Art Festival has been received over theyears. It’s become a highlight for many a folk music fan’s summer.
With a lineup that leans toward local and regional acts, mixed with a sprinkling of festival circuit headlining artists, Brandon’s folk fest offers a unique entertainment experience for a market this size, artistic director Shandra MacNeil says.
"A lot of festivals that are our size in terms of attendance across the country have budgets that are three or more times larger than ours. So we’re up against that to start with and we book a fairly original lineup," she said.
"A lot of festivals across the country you’ll find similar artists who are on tour, but I think with a festival our size, the important thing to do is make it very individual and a very distinct lineup which makes for a very distinct festival that reflects the character of our community."
Although the operatingbudget is smaller, the Brandon Folk, Music & Art Festival has become one of the buzz festivals to play on the folk circuit, with an impressive number of applications from artists wishing to perform here.
"We get about 300 applications a year," said MacNeil, adding the online digital applications make it easier for artists to apply. "The online aspect of it also makes it easier for us to get to in to talk to the agents who represent the bigger names and those used to be doors that were closed to us."
The stringent screening process is also responsible for the festival’s glowing reputation of assembling top-notch talent.
"The headliners like playing here and they know that even if they’re being put on stage after a local artist that they’ve never heard of before, they know that they can count on the fact that that artist is really ‘class A’ calibre talent."
When it comes to putting together a lineup, MacNeill likens the process to making a mixed cassette tape.
"I loved making mixed tapes. When I was a kid, it was the way I communicated with friends and it meant a lot to me," she said. "So a lot of being an artistic director is really like making a mixed tape except you’ve got three sides (laughs). Instead of two you’ve got three nights."
MacNeill has been volunteering at the Brandon folk fest since she was 15 and has only missed two of them. This will be her fifth year as artistic director and she truly has an artistic flair with her approach to things.
She credits Winnipeg Folk Festival creator Mitch Podolak as one of her main mentors.
"He’s worked on pretty much every major festival right across Canada and some in the United States. He’s sort of been like a minor deity to me in Canadian culture," she said.
"He once said to me, ‘The daytime programming is all about this really lovely time, but the evening program of a festival is showbizz. It’s gotta have that excitement and a little bit of the glamour of performance.’
"So every night has to have a flow of its own. I like putting a singer-songwriter on during the dusk set right when the sun is going down and the stage lights come up — then everybody’s focus is really intent. So there is a theatrical side to it."
As for the performer she’s most intent on seeing this year, MacNeill says hands down it’s Martin Sexton.
"I’ve been a fan of his for 20 years — he’s amazing and such a riveting performer," she said. "You know, Brandon has such a really heavy guitar culture and that’s one of the reasons why I thought he’d be a good fit.
"Because even if you may not like folk music or blues — which he is heavily influenced by, so anybody who likes blues would dig him — but he’s an incredible guitar player. So any of those guys who are in bands in town who just really appreciate a stellar guitar player, they’ll have a great time at that show."
Those who’ve yet to hear Sexton should YouTube "Diner", "Freedom of the Road", "Glory Bound" or "Hallelujah" and prepare to have your mind blown.
Sexton is the Friday night closer and will be doing a concert-length set (90 minutes), as are all headliners that close off the evenings throughout this weekend.
Other than the music aspect of the festival, MacNeill says her favourite part is the diversity of the crowds.
"Maybe somebody who hasn’t been to the festival before has a particular notion of who goes to a folk festival but … if you look out into the audience on Saturday afternoon, you see pretty much someone from everylittle pocket of Brandon and I think that’s important," she said.
"They enjoy being outside on a summer day. They can enjoy having some of the food from the market place, listen to music, hanging out with their kids in the family area — so yeah, I think it’s a good event for anybody, not just people who happen to love folk music."
MacNeill says the site will be cleared of any trees that suffered damage during recent storms and all systems are go within the treed-in canopy area of the southeast corner of the Keystone Centre grounds.
Gates will open Friday afternoon.
For tickets, Ted Goods. Lady of the Lake, 10,000 Villages and Faders are your Brandon early-bird ticket locations, plus Poor Michael’s in Onanole.
Weekend passes are $80, $70 for students and seniors (ID required atgate) while children 12 and under arefree. Day passes are $40 for Friday while Saturday and Sunday passes are $45. Camping passes are $15 for individuals and $25 for families.
Frank McGwire is a radio personality and booster of the music scene in Brandon and Westman.