Warming up at Winterfolk
Canadians boast of our winter heartiness, our perseverance through sleet and slush, teeth bared and shovels brandished. We’re proud of how we brave the elements and celebrate the snowy season with outdoor sports and activities.
But there’s another side to the winter experience that we do so well—we know how to build the most warm, welcoming spaces to come home to. We excel at creating comfort and coziness. We are experts at mid-winter interior design, with cottages and chalets, hot drinks and thick socks, unafraid of snuggling in close to each other.
It’s this sense of huddling together, of coming in from the cold to brightness and cheer, that establishes the Winterfolk Blues & Roots Festival.
The festival, now in its ninth year, ran February 18 – 21, filling rooms along the Danforth in Toronto with music and merriment. The event takes the folk festival construct, sticks it in the middle of February and brings it indoors in the middle of the city.
It’s a welcome opportunity for performers to play multiple stages over the course of a weekend at a time when such bookings are slow. The festival generates business for local bars and restaurants when there would usually be less walk up traffic. Unlike many summer festivals that take place at secluded campsites and country farms, the strip of venues in Greektown is easily accessible by public transit, encouraging locals to head east of the Don Valley.
The seven stages range from restaurants to sports bars to pubs to martini lounges. Most do not regularly present live music. While this poses some challenges in terms of live sound quality and good sightlines, the performers are adaptable and resilient, capturing audiences where the setting might not be entirely ideal. With music running from early afternoon until late night, there’s a noticeable shift in the crowd during different timeslots. The daytime audience is more sparse and attentive, while the nighttime revelers can get loud and rowdy. This may suit a rollicking party band, but is less favourable for the quiet singer-songwriter types, which make up much of Winterfolk’s programming. However, there is something enchanting about claiming a space and filling it with song, when the music overtakes a bar crowd and has them joining in on the sing-along chorus.
The festival is a gathering spot for the neighbourhood, the audience, and the performers, comfortably housed away from the wind and the weather, with central heat and indoor plumbing. Outdoor festivals invite sprawling blankets and quiet downtime to laze about under the sky, while the multiple indoor venue format of Winterfolk makes for some awkward seating situations, and the practice of catching several stages over a short time period isn’t as conducive to settling down with dinner and a drink.
Largely a showcase of talented local acts, the festival represents the Toronto folk scene well and many of the performers already know each other. Winterfolk is an opportunity for reunions and collaborations with old friends who might not get to see each other very often, with their touring commitments and gigs. It’s a chance for folks to network, catch up, and play on each others’ tunes. Several stages are structured as workshops, resulting in some very magical interactions between acts.
The programming is, however, uneven at times and could offer more variety year to year, especially when drawing from the local talent pool.
In the end, Winterfolk is packed with four days of music and it’s completely free. The festival is supported by numerous sponsors and funders, donations from the audience, and the commendable work of dedicated volunteers. The Family Day programming is kid-friendly and community collectives like the Moonshine Café open stage and the Corktown Ukulele Jam get their showcase spotlights. In recent years, Winterfolk has also held auditions in nearby towns such as Stouffville and Peterborough to seek out new talent. There is a true sense of community and kindliness throughout.
As James Gordon said, when introducing a most beautiful and heartbreaking song about a refrigerator: “The neighbourhood just felt more alive”.