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Opening night doesn't disappoint at Winnipeg Folk Festival

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Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

WEDNESDAY, JULY 10 — About 300 cyclists head north on Hwy. 59 to Birds Hill Provincial Park then to the Festival Campground to set up their camping spots.

BIRDS HILL PARK — "Hello beautiful people. Welcome home."

That’s how acclaimed local singer/songwriter and main stage host Del Barber simply and beautifully welcomed revelers to the 40th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Whether you’ve been coming to Birds Hill Park the second weekend of every July for a few years or for four decades, you know it feels like coming home.

And what a show to come home to. The festival’s Wednesday night opening concert, an addition made in 2009 to accommodate Britpop icon Elvis Costello, has played host to impressive, big-draw headliners in the subsequent years, Tegan and Sara and Feist among them.

City and Colour, a.k.a. Canadian singer/songwriter Dallas Green, met that lofty bar with his mellow, if a bit sleepy, set of intimate, reflective ballads.

Armed with an acoustic guitar, the former Alexisonfire guitarist opened with Forgive Me off his 2008 sophomore album Bring Me Your Love before launching into the rollicking The Lonely Life off his latest, 2013’s The Hurry and the Harm.

Green’s dulcet voice rose above the slightly muddy mix — a good thing, since his lyrics are worth hearing.

At press time, he was jamming out the slinky slowburner As Much As I Ever Could.

Red-hot North Carolina folk-rock outfit The Avett Brothers, easily among the lineup’s most-anticipated act since wowing folkies back in 2010, delivered a raucous, crowd-pleasing set in the evening sunshine.

Although the band has been enjoying a higher profile thanks to its most recent pair of releases — 2009’s breakout album I and Love and You and last year’s Grammy-nominated The Carpenter — Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, along with touring members Joe Kwon and Mike Marsh, drew from all over the Avetts’ estimable catalogue.

The bouncy, Britpop-inflected Will You Return, from 2007’s Emotionalism, and I and Love and You’s breakneck bluegrass jam Laundry Room were highlights.

Although it could have been held back for a closer, the crowd was rewarded with the pure pop bliss of Live and Die, The Carpenter’s biggest earworm, early in the set.

The band also shone in its quieter moments. A stripped-down and soulful rendition of traditional gospel hymn Just a Closer Walk with Thee — which saw the three core members gather around one microphone — was a stunning showpiece for the band’s honeyed three-part harmonies. And those Southern boys sure know how to tug on the heartstrings; it was hard not to get a little choked up during I and Love and You’s hopelessly romantic title track.

Revered local bluegrass/roots quartet Oh My Darling kicked things off with an appropriately twang-filled set of high-energy toe-tappers. Banjoist Allison de Groot, fiddler Rosalyn Dennett, guitarist Vanessa Kuzina and bassist Marie-Josée Dandeneau are easily among the upper echelon of Winnipeg players, as they effortlessly reminded us Wednesday night.

It’s always rewarding to see ’Peg boys and girls do good. Kuzina started her folk festival career as a Young Performer — now she’s playing the main stage.

Her heart-on-sleeve performance of Won’t Need My Shoes (On Heaven’s Floor), a song written for her grandmother on the morning she passed away, was among the night’s most touching moments.

Colin Meloy of Portland indie rock outfit The Decemberists headlines Thursday night’s main stage.

Patrick Watson, Danny Michel, Lindi Ortega and Nathan Rogers also perform.

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