Music festivals are among the events that have been greatly affected by COVID-19 over the past two years, but the Edmonton Folk Festival is among those planning a return to near normal this year, with headline acts that include the National and the War on Drugs.
The folk fest kicks off Aug 4 at Gallagher Park as it seeks to restore itself as a staple on the Canadian festival circuit.
Terry Wickham, producer of the Edmonton Folk Festival who has been working with the event for 34 years, explains what the return means and what audiences can expect this time around.
How does it feel to be back after two years of no festival?
Exciting and terrifying. Exciting because this year, we have a very good lineup. I don’t always say we have a great lineup, but I think this year we do. We’re back and we’re back with a bang.
But Omicron hasn’t gone away – or sorry, COVID hasn’t gone away – so that’s making everything a bit more difficult. I am glad to say, though, that our ticket sales look good. Some festivals are struggling with that and thankfully we’re not.
What do you think the return of the folk fest means for performers and audiences?
It’s been a hard couple of years, you know. The first year we went online and we did a documentary. That was great, but it wasn’t the festival. Even last year, we took to the streets and we brought music to people on their lawns, but again, it’s not the same type of buzz.
It’s been really hard on musicians – a lot of them without an income for two years – which is why we’re doing everything to keep them safe this year. It’s also been hard on organizers and audiences in their own way, not getting that release or payoff for two years.
Speaking of COVID, how did the pandemic affect your planning?
We aren’t using our dishwashers – everything’s disposable, which, to be honest, a lot of us weren’t happy about because we prefer sustainability. The plates and utensils we’re using are compostable, but still. We also have strict vaccination policies for everyone who’s backstage – that’s about 1,500 people – and we have plenty of N95 masks.
A lot of people, they’re done with the virus, though the virus isn’t done with us. So we have to be careful. We’ll have more hand-washing stations, more masks available. The federal government has been very good in helping us out.
Have expectations about attendance been affected by the pandemic?
Thankfully, no. We’re expecting about 100,000 people over four days, not including kids, who get in for free.
I didn’t want to come in with a 75-per-cent festival. I wanted to come in fully loaded and exciting and I think we got that. We were worried about eliminating in-person ticket sales but that ended up not being a problem, because we are 100 per cent sold out.
What can people expect from the lineup this year?
This time we went for a fresher, younger lineup than usual, and because of that, I think it’s the most anticipated festival we’ve ever had. We’ve been chasing the National for I don’t know how many years, and same with the War on Drugs. We also have returning bands, like Lord Huron, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Kaleo, and so on.
One thing I’m really proud of this year is a big Indigenous component to our lineup. A part of that is artists in the regular lineup like Jeremy Dutcher, William Prince, and Juno winner Celeigh Cardinal, but the other part is an educational aspect through programming that will celebrate Indigenous culture and history.
Who are you personally most excited to see?
Oh jeez, there’s so many. Bonny Light Horseman is one – I really like the lead singer, Eric D. Johnson, and Anaïs Mitchell, who actually has a strong Edmonton connection. I’m also really looking forward to people like Abigail Lapell from Ontario. I think she’s brilliant, and no one has seen her.
There are African artists and bands like Bombino and Dobet Gnahoré, who I’m looking forward to very much. The Legendary Ingramettes, who are coming from Richmond, Virginia. They make amazing gospel music. And while we’re not as strong on maybe Celtic or bluegrass as usual, Lúnasa and Claire Lynch are also going to be amazing, I know that for sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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