BIRDS HILL PARK — Thursday night’s mainstage show at the 41st annual Winnipeg Folk Festival could be summed up in one word: chemistry. All four of the headlining mainstage acts had it in spades — especially blues-folk singer/songwriter Ben Harper and harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite.
Chemistry is no doubt why the duo picked up a Grammy in January for the collaboration Get Up! — an acclaimed album that gave both men a creative shot in the arm and announced the arrival of a white-hot new blues act.
And chemistry is what the pair brought when it finally took the stage a half hour later than scheduled, opening with the title track off Get Up! The two obviously enjoy playing with each other — and off each other — with Harper’s languid solos complementing Musselwhite’s harmonica riffs. The blistering I Don’t Believe A Word You Say followed, Harper shucking his hushed folkie vocals for deep, soulful pipes with power. Musselwhite took over the mic for The Blues Overtook Me. Consummate bluesmen, both.
From the steamy slowburner When It’s Good to the sweaty, swaggering I’m In I’m Out I’m Gone, Harper, Musselwhite and their backing band turned in a muscular set of blues rock tunes. The appropriately raw Blood Side Out was followed up by the Musselwhite-led Homeless Child, before the pair slowed things down with the weighty I Ride At Dawn, a solider’s lament, and a mammoth cover of Muddy Waters’ Long Distance Call. The musicianship on display was absolutely jaw-dropping; Musselwhite’s laid into a harmonica solo that was nothing short of scorching.
The band closed its main set with an electrifying cover of Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks that more than a few dancers were, like, really into, man.
Wood Brothers hit their stride
Before Harper and Musselwhite lit the place on fire, Americana/blues trio The Wood Brothers — actual brothers Chris and Oliver Wood, along with Jano Rix — had us feeling all right with their high-and-lonesome brand of back-porch twang. You could picture the sweating glasses and lazy flies — especially during their take on the Los Lobos drinkin’ song I Got Loaded. While their set started slow, the Brothers quickly hit their stride. Honeyed harmonies and funk grooves were the order of the night; Chris’ upright bass solo on Atlas was a crowd pleaser, as was the rocking Is What It Is.
The Wood Brothers are extremely technical, virtuosic musicians, but they’re not hemmed in by that fact; while the performances were tight, their set had loose, jam-like vibe. By the time set closer One More Day rolled around, The Wood Brothers had attracted quite a congregation of dancers.
Chic Gamine debuts sublime new sound
Earlier in the evening, local soul/R&B outfit Chic Gamine made a big splash with its bold new sound during its stunning mainstage debut. A lineup change spurred the new sound; founding member Ariane Jean left the group earlier this year, and Andrina Turenne, Alexa Dirks, Annick Bremault and Sacha Daoud welcomed Benoit Morier to the fold. Chic Gamine 2.0 sees the Juno-winning band eschew a cappella arrangements — without ditching those indelible girl-group harmonies — for more fleshed-out, full-band soundscapes. The results are sublime. Everything sounds fuller, bigger, deeper.
All three women are strong vocalists in their own right, and when they come together, it’s intoxicating. Still, it’s hard not to single out Alexa Dirks, who is such a commanding force onstage. She’s easily one of the best vocalists we’ll hear from all weekend.
The 12-song set included a bunch of newer songs — including the sassy R&B number Girlfriend and the arresting Dirks-led I Could Be Your Girl — fuelling excitement for a new record. Of course, there were some older tunes, too, such as the soulful Motions, from 2013’s Closer. Jean reunited with the band for Tristesse Suspendue — also from that album.
Chic Gamine closed its set with the sexy stomp of All Night.
Della Mae delivers a soundtrack to friendship
Nashville bluegrass quintet Della Mae initially came together as a joke. "I would just get a bunch of girls together and we'd play high-testosterone bluegrass music and wear power suits," fiddle player Kimber Ludiker told Rolling Stone in 2013. They dubbed their music "mangrass." It wasn’t long, though, before they realized they had a real connection — and their energy on Thursday night was infectious. It was like listening in on a jam session among five very talented (and adorably dressed) BFFs.
The string band’s toe-tapping set drew heavily from 2013’s Grammy nominated This World Oft Can Be, which was recorded at Johnny Cash’s Cash Cabin Studio. Della Mae’s arrangements are strikingly beautiful, a point underscored by songs such as Paper Prince and Heaven’s Gate. Primary vocalist/guitarist Celia Woodsmith has one of those gritty, gutsy voices that suits both the blistering barnstormers and the whiskey-soaked love songs.
The band's rendition of The Low Anthem’s To Ohio was a set highlight, serving as the perfect soundtrack to suppertime conversations between old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. Fragments from their catchups — "How was your winter?" "Did your sister have her baby yet?" "It’s so good to see you" — were carried by the breeze, mingling with the heady scent of sunscreen, bug spray and a certain plant, along with the iridescent bubbles blown by sunhat-clad toddlers. You don’t get much more Folk Fest than that.
Full-day festival programming starts on Friday with seven daytime stages hosting concerts and workshops. Buffy Sainte-Marie will get things started on the mainstage at 6 p.m. South Carolina folk duo Shovels and Rope, new-roots act Hurray for the Riff Raff and Swedish Americana trio Baskery are also among Friday night’s mainstage performers.