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Mellow DiFranco dazzles Saturday Folk Fest crowd

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Sarah Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

Ani DiFranco, who received the Winnipeg Folk Festival's Artistic Achievement Award in 2013, performs again at Folk Fest Saturday evening.

BIRDS HILL PARK — The mainstage at the 41st annual Winnipeg Folk Festival has hosted its share of righteous babes — Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Bonnie Raitt, Amy Helm, Chic Gamine and the Bondesson sisters of Baskery among them — but Saturday saw the return of the righteous babe, Ani DiFranco.

The pioneering folksinger/songwriter, feminist icon and tireless activist was feted with a 2013 Artistic Achievement Award from the Winnipeg Folk Festival last fall and, not surprisingly, her Saturday night set drew a huge crowd.

It was a chill set from DiFranco. She appears to have mellowed with age; songs such as Angry Anymore and Swan Dive — "I'm going to do my best swan dive in the shark-infested waters/I'm gonna pull out my tampon and start splashing around/'Cause I don't care if they eat me alive/I've got better things to do than survive" — didn’t exactly seethe with the rage that captured the minds of scores of young women in the early 1990s.

Still, it’s not as though DiFranco’s fire has been extinguished. Her performances burned with a quiet intensity — particularly classics such as 32 Flavors and set closer Both Hands, which earned a standing ovation. Besides, DiFranco has zero to prove; she was just confirming what we already knew — she’s a matchless lyricist and a virtuosic guitarist.

 Blowing the speakers — with a ukulele

Ukulele god Jake Shimabukuro, meanwhile, redefined what’s possible on a four-string. The Hawaiian native — who rose to international prominence via a viral YouTube video featuring him wailing on While My Guitar Gently Weeps — shred so hard on his uke that he actually blew the speakers during the second song of his set. "Did I just blow the speakers?" he asked incredulously. "With a ukulele?"

Thankfully, it was just a small technical snag, and Shimabukuro carried on serenading the audience with his melodic and highly technical songs. In his hands, the ukulele — sometimes unfairly maligned as a novelty instrument — becomes vocalist and rhythm section. Run it through a pedal and he can make it sing like an electric guitar. His passion for the instrument is obvious on his face; he plays it with love.

His original compositions are gorgeous, particularly the tender Blue Roses Falling, inspired by the hallucinations of a friend’s ill grandmother, but Shimabukuro broke out a few of his now-fabled covers, too — including an inspired rendition of Queen’s opus Bohemian Rhapsody and a delicate version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The guy is a phenomenon.

 Word is that while Shimabukuro was tearing up the mainstage, Minneapolis’ Koo Koo Kanga Roo — a kids’ band for adults too — was leading a raucous party over at Big Blue @ Night. I’m checking out their show on Sunday at the Chickadee Big Top at 1:30 p.m. and I’ll report back.

Before Aimee Mann and Ted Leo played their anticipated headlining set as The Both on Saturday evening, Tennessee alt-country act Langhorne Slim & The Law had just taken the stage for what promised to be a barnburner of a set. After the frenetic Someday, Langhorne Slim — a.k.a. Sean Scolnick — left the stage to sing and dance with folkies in the tarp area for the Southern rock ’n’ roll-inflected anthem Fire.

 The calypso after the storm

The streak of perfect weather was broken on Saturday afternoon. Environment Canada had issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for Birds Hill Provincial Park in late morning and, by late afternoon, the sky darkened and the winds kicked up, prompting a mass exodus of folkies trying to beat the rain to secure their campsites or take refuge in their cars in the parking lot. Stage crews were rather ominously advised to "batten down the hatches" via walkie talkie, but the storm blew out as quickly as it blew in — taking out a few tents in the campground in the process — and the sun came out just in time for the irrepressible Calypso Rose to open the mainstage.

It wouldn’t have mattered if the sun hadn’t shown, though; dressed in a red sequined pantsuit, the 74-year-old queen of calypso — who has 800 songs to her credit — brought the heat of Tobago with her dare-you-not-to-dance set. People forgot all about their wet tarps and soggy shoes and shook their hips.

Daytime standouts

Highlights from the daytime stages included Reason to Believe, a loosely Bruce Springsteen-themed workshop featuring the all-star lineup of Shakey Graves, Sharon Van Etten, Hiss Golden Messenger, Daniel Bachman, Shinyribs and Reuben Bullock of Reuben and the Dark. 

Standouts included Hiss Golden Messenger’s performance of the stellar Southern Grammar, which he described during his Friday solo show as being somewhere between "Nelly’s Country Grammar and Morrissey’s Southpaw Grammar." The ever-beguiling Van Etten also elected to play original tunes — hey, some of ’em were penned in New Jersey — but it was the Springsteen covers by a couple of Texans that lit up the stage.

Shakey Graves — who also played a killer tweener set later that evening — did the workshop’s namesake justice with his raspy, rough-hewn croon, while Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell reminded us just how great a song Dancing in the Dark is with his roots interpretation. But it was Russell’s cover of Born in the U.S.A. — which blended seamlessly into Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice — that netted a standing O.

Over at Green Ash, Namgar — fronted by the peerless Namgar Lhasaranova — blew some minds wide open. Raised in a Siberian village near the Mongolian border, Lhasaranova grew up on traditional Buryat and Mongolian folk songs. She’s taken those rich musical traditions and has reinterpreted them in a way that’s totally metal. Traditional instrumentation was juxtaposed with galloping drums and punishing Sabbath-sized riffs courtesy of not one, but two bass guitars. In the centre of the storm was tiny-but-commanding Namgar, in full traditional dress, her peerless voice taking its rightful place at the forefront. Hopefully Folk Fest brings Namgar back; it would absolutely kill in a late-night Big Bluestem slot.

 Sunday spotlight

The 41st Winnipeg Folk Festival wraps up tomorrow, with a diverse lineup of daytime concerts featuring everyone from Constantines frontman Bry Webb to Mauritanian blues artist Noura Mint Seymali. Sunday’s must-see workshop is We Shall Overcome, a tribute to Pete Seeger that features Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Jake Shimabukuro, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Reuben and the Dark and Elephant Revival. The iconic Baez headlines the mainstage, which kicks off at 6 p.m. with The Holmes Brothers. Big Blue @ Night will host Old Man Canyon, Sharon Van Etten and Boy & Bear.


Updated on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 11:07 PM CDT: Corrects typo.

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