BIRDS HILL PARK — Back in 2009, when the Winnipeg Folk Festival announced it would be expanding to a five-day format to accommodate the tour routing of Britpop icon Elvis Costello, it seemed like a ballsy move. Even diehard folkies were divided; would five days be too much of a good thing?
Five years on, and the Wednesday night opener has become an integrated — and, for the most part, accepted — part of the festival thanks mostly to its promise of a big-draw headliner. And who fits that bill better than the first lady of blues, Bonnie Raitt?
The flame-haired, 10-time Grammy winner kicked off the 41st Winnipeg Folk Festival with the slinky, sexy Used to Rule The World and a slow-burning take on Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down the Line, both off her acclaimed 2012 album Slipstream.
At 64, Raitt’s bedroom drawl has aged like a fine wine. Her vocal delivery is effortless, even on athletic R&B numbers such as 1979’s Your Good Thing (Is About to End). That legendary voice is matched only by her virtuosic skills as a slide guitarist — which she also makes look so easy and fun. Raitt always had a mischievous little smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. It’s a singular pleasure watching a musician who has a great time performing.
She brought things back to this decade, serenading the rapt crowd with the tender ballad Not Cause I Wanted To, another cut from Slipstream, under a cotton-candy sky. Even seated, she’s still a commanding presence.
Raitt pulled from all over her catalogue; 2002’s No Gettin’ Over You was followed up with a somewhat perfunctory performance of her 1991 smash Something To Talk About, tossed off mid set. (Anne Murray apparently passed on the Shirley Eikhard-penned song in 1986 after her producers told her it wouldn’t be a hit).
When Raitt was invested — really invested — it showed. Angel from Montgomery, dedicated to her mother, was heart-rending — especially with the addition of fellow mainstage performer Amy Helm, daughter of the late, great Levon Helm, on harmonies.
She turned things over to Hammond organist Mike Finnigan — a legend in his own right who has toured or sessioned with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Etta James to Leonard Cohen — for the down ’n’ dirty blues number I Got News for You. "YouTube him, baby," Raitt said. The sexy strut of Love Sneakin’ Up On You followed, closing the main set on a high.
"It took us a long time to get back here," Raitt said when she returned for the encore; she last played Folk Fest in 1988. "I save this song for this part because it’s really hard to follow," she added, before launching into the devastating ballad I Can’t Make You Love Me. "That song means as much to me as it does to you," she said. It was chased with the stunning Dimming of the Day.
But Raitt didn’t leave us on a sad note. The playful, funk-inflected Love Letter closed the show.
Indeed, it was all about the powerhouse ladies on Wednesday night. Helm wowed with her big, soulful voice. Backed by her band the Handsome Strangers, the singer/songwriter turned in a rollicking, blues and gospel-kissed set chock full of hip-swinging highlights, including the groove-based Sky’s Falling which bled into a cover of Ann Peebles’ 1974 single I Can’t Stand the Rain — which a certain generation will know from its sample in Missy Elliott’s The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly). Her emotional cover of the Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down would have done her dad proud. She closed her slightly overlong set with a high-energy rendition of Sam Cooke’s (Ain’t That) Good News.
Before Raitt took the stage, another singer/songwriter with a musical pedigree performed a tweener set. Sarah Lee Guthrie — daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody — and husband, Johnny Irion, make for a harmonious folk duo, but their intimate, acoustic tunes would be more affecting on a smaller stage. (They play a concert at Little Stage on Saturday.) Texas bluesman Guy Forsyth, who played a tweener set earlier in the evening, is another artist to see on a daytime stage.
Hometown boys the Bros. Landreth started off the night with a languid set of mid-tempo blues rockers resplendent with soulful harmonies as golden and warm as the late-evening sun. These guys turned in tight, technically proficient performances, earning a standing ovation from the suppertime crowd. A slot on the Folk Fest main stage is a dream come true for Dave and Joey Landreth, who have been attending the festival since they were kids, volunteering as stagehands for the main stage alongside their father, veteran musician Wally Landreth. "This is quite a different view," Joey said, surveying the crowd.
The main stage gig is another high in a year full of them for this emerging act; the Bros. Landreth has three 2014 Western Canadian Music Award nominations and the ink is drying on a deal with U.S. imprint Slate Creek Records.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite headline the Folk Fest main stage on Thursday night. Cara Luft, Chic Gamine, Danny Barnes, the Wood Brothers and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald also perform. Music starts at 6 p.m.