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Feist sets the bar high in fest's opening concert

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BIRDS HILL PARK -- You've raised the bar high, Leslie Feist.

The singer/songwriter kicked off the 39th Winnipeg Folk Festival on Wednesday night with an arresting set that'll be talked about for days to come.

The former Broken Social Scenester is touring in support of her latest baroque-pop opus, 2011's Metals -- a hard but welcome left turn from 2007's The Reminder, an album that supernovaed thanks to a little tune called 1234. It was a single that went on to sell iPods and teach Muppets how to count on Sesame Street, and it would introduce Feist to a much wider audience.

It's telling, then, that there isn't a 1234 equivalent on the new album; as the singer/songwriter has said in press surrounding the album's release, Metals was about a creative rebirth, not commercial success. The record is at once experimental, challenging and dense -- and it translated beautifully live.

Opening the set with Comfort Me, one of Metals' most heartbreaking songs -- "When you comfort me, it doesn't really comfort me" -- Feist treated the crowd to her indelible vocals over guitar, before the giant, booming drums kicked in. The new album's all about the gang vocals and the ladies of Vermont appalachian folk trio Mountain Man (along with the enthusiastic crowd, of course) helped carry them. Breezy single How Come You Never Go There followed, segueing artfully into the primal intensity of A Commotion.

She played some of her hits, too, of course, but they were given inspired reworkings; Mushaboom, in particular, benefitted from a darker touch, My Moon My Man was sped up and transformed into a thunderous, rock 'n' roll anthem that gave way to a bouncy, indie-rock rendition of I Feel It All.

Feist was a playful ball of energy, jumping around the stage, encouraging audience participation (sometimes going to great lengths) and rocking out like a punk rocker. Mellow this set was absolutely not.

And then there's that big, breathy, soul-stirring voice. When she sang the anthemic, field-filling refrain of Graveyard -- "Bring them all back to life" -- at press time, framed by a inky Prairie dusk, it was a emotional moment, crafted by an artist who specializes in creating them.

Before the indie darling took the stage, buzzed-about Irish folkie James Vincent McMorrow, armed with just an acoustic guitar, held those close to the stage rapt with his haunting voice, which raised goosebumps despite the heat.

It's easy to see why the singer/songwriter has been compared to woodsy indie-folk favourite Bon Iver -- both share a fondness for dulcet melodies, featherlight vocals, beards and recording in seclusion. But like Bon Iver, McMorrow's stripped-down setup is likely better suited to a more intimate venue -- or, better yet, a living-room listening session with a glass of red wine. Single Higher Love, which saw McMorrow get behind the piano, proved a crowd-pleaser, but his quietly contemplative ballads often got drowned out by the festival cacophony.

Toronto-via-California act Snowblink kicked off the evening with its low-key, atmospheric indie folk. Frontwoman Daniela Gesundheit's gauzy, ethereal vocals were just as enveloping and sticky-sweet as the hot, humid air, serving as the perfect appetizer to Arts & Crafts labelmate Feist. The band previewed some new material -- including Unsurfed Waves, appropriately titled with its tidal guitars -- off its forthcoming sophomore album, Inner Classics, due out Sept. 11.

Jen Zoratti is the music editor at Uptown Magazine.

Related video: The calm before the Folk Fest storm

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 C5

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