Necessity mother of invention for FolkWest

Organizers had to get creative in folk festival's sophomore year

IN CONCERT

FolkWest featuring Caravan, Milk Carton Kids, Joy Kills Sorrow, the Breakmen, Adonis Puentes, Ruth Moody, Mae Moore and more

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When: Friday to Sunday

Where: Logan's Pub (Friday to Sunday) and Royal Athletic Park (Saturday and Sunday)

Tickets: $70 (festival pass) or $42 (day pass) at Larsen Music, Lyle's Place. Long & McQuade and Hemp & Co.

Information: folkwest.ca

For a festival organizer, predicting a potential audience -- much like touching the Stanley Cup before you've won it, or speaking of Macbeth while in a theatre -- is considered a highly inadvisable activity.

The affable Oliver Swain has made a career out of bucking musical trends, which means the Juno-

nominated cross-pollinating musician isn't going to play it safe with matters regarding the second annual FolkWest festival.

"Promoters always hate to say it, but we're feeling really strong heading into the weekend," said Swain, the festival's artistic director.

"We're feeling cautiously optimistic about how things are going this year. Sales are up. It's a stronger package altogether."

Swain and his fellow organizers in the non-profit Lower Island FolkFest Society should feel confident about what they have built.

With funding consisting mostly of in-kind sponsorships and society memberships, organizers had to be inventive along the way. Following the steep learning curve of its inaugural run, one that resulted in what Swain calls a "moderate deficit" in 2011, that meant there was a lingering sense of pressure in planning this weekend's edition.

Now that he's ready to unveil what FolkWest has to offer in its sophomore season, Swain is feeling justifiably confident. "We put on a good festival last year, which meant the whole year building toward [this one] was made so much easier. Right now, it could be the perfect scenario. But I'm not going to relax until Friday rolls around and the sky is blue."

The event will feature more than 20 artists from across North America, including a contingent of local and locally bred musicians. Caravan, the Milk Carton Kids, Joy Kills Sorrow, the Breakmen, Adonis Puentes, Ruth Moody, Aboubacar Camara and Doundounba, and Mae Moore are slated to appear over the course of the weekend.

The festival includes three nights of events at Logan's Pub beginning Friday. The real appeal of FolkWest, however, is its offerings at Royal Athletic Park on Saturday and Sunday.

Swain hopes to see thousands of folk music fans making themselves comfortable at the Caledonia Avenue venue. That said, he isn't fixated on audience totals. "We would be happy if everyone that came last year came back. But it's about the long-term vision."

Swain and his fellow organizers opened the doors to RAP for free on opening night last year in an effort to give fans a sneak peek at what FolkWest had to offer. The start-up costs were considerable for the first-year festival, so it was considered a calculated risk. Despite drawing more than 4,500 fans to the park over three days last summer, organizers were left with what Swain called a smallish deficit.

FolkWest needed only another 200 people to break even, Swain says. All things considered, that's a successful first kick at the can.

"In every other way it exceeded my expectations. I was totally blown away by the effort and work and product. There was a great sense by everybody from last year that we had to do it again. It was too good not to."

The road to the festival began in 2009 with a series of benefit concerts that were designed to help secure the festival's future. The non-profit Lower Island FolkFest Society, which is run entirely by volunteers, was designed to absorb a loss in its first year, Swain says. Nonetheless, it has been tough going.

Luckily, the flexibility of a dozen or so key players has enabled the FolkWest team to adapt and evolve. The lack of a sizable promotional budget prompted events such as the Market Square flash mob that was held on Aug. 1, which saw dozens singing along to 19th-century gospel song Angel Band and the Stan Rogers staple The Mary Ellen Carter.

It was a shrewd bit of publicity for the organizers, who have proven to be most effective at raising grassroots awareness about FolkWest.

"It's really about community building," Swain said of the festival.

That world-class artists are now expressing a desire to join in the fun is all the advertisement FolkWest needs, according to Swain.

"That's a really good sign of the kind of organization that we are building."

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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