BIRDS HILL PARK — When Nathan Rogers took the Winnipeg Folk Festival mainstage early Friday evening, you knew you were about to become a part of something special. Something important. Something historic.
In fact, many people had already turned up for the 6 p.m. start time. Attendance for Friday was pegged at 10,034.
You see, the Canadian singer/songwriter was up there honouring the work of his father, Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers, who tragically died in a fire aboard an Air Canada flight in 1983 at age 33 — the same age Nathan is now. Despite a career cut short, Stan’s influence on Canadian folk music is enduring. He wrote some of the genre’s most defining songs, including The Mary Ellen Carter, which is still sung at the Sunday night finale. Stan played the WFF’s stages five times.
Who better to carry on the Rogers legacy than Nathan, whose baritone is a dead ringer for his dad’s. His rich timbre frequently belied his young years, especially on a stunning, standing-ovation-earning a capella rendition of Flowers of Bermuda. Still, his set never sagged under its gravitas; an emotional closing performance of Stan’s most famous work, Northwest Passage, was absolutely celebratory.
While Nathan paid tribute to a Canadian folk great, Lindi Ortega paid loving tribute to the icons of high-lonesome country. Rocking her signature red cowboy boots — she named her 2011 breakout album Little Red Boots after ’em — the Toronto-via-Nashville songbird delivered a powerhouse set that pulled mostly from her killer 2012 Polaris Prize-longlisted album, Cigarettes & Truckstops.
With a great, big, soul-stirring soprano that’s often a dead ringer for Dolly Parton’s, Ortega proved once again she’s a true student of her genre, particularly on the rollicking romp The Day You Die and the ink-black, gospel-imbued ballad Heaven Has No Vacancy.
"You guys like Johnny Cash? Me too. He inspired me to wear black," she quipped before launching into a sultry cover of Ring of Fire. It’s obvious the Man in Black inspired more than that, but Lindi is no pale imitator. Her tales of outlaws and underdogs sound incredibly fresh.
Three-time Juno winner Danny Michel travelled to Belize to record his 10th album, 2012’s Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, with the Garifuna Collective, an Afro-Amerindian cultural group. The record is a deep groove-based, Caribbean-flavoured tapestry crafted from turtle shells, donkey jawbone, Maya guitar, and traditional Garifuna segunda and primero drums, which Michel and the collective effortlessly recreated in the lazy evening sun. (It’s a good thing they got those turtle shells across the border.)
It’s hard not to bring up Paul Simon’s Graceland because it’s hard not to think of it when listening to these songs. That’s a compliment, not a slight; Black Birds are Dancing Over Me is easily one of Michel’s best efforts.
Live, though, it’s something else entirely. Watching him jam with such seasoned musicians — and perform such joyous music — was a real thrill.
At press time, Montreal act Patrick Watson — the eponymous band of singer/songwriter Patrick Watson — was wowing with his ambitious baroque pop. Perennial folk fest favourite the Cat Empire was set to hit the stage at 11:05 p.m., but the night’s real draw was over at Big Bluestem. Lots of festival-goers were leaving the mainstage to catch Ottawa’s trailblazing A Tribe Called Red and its electrifying re-interpretation of traditional First Nations music.
Saturday’s daytime stages will play host to a ton of must-see workshops. You’ll want to snag a spot at Bur Oak early for 1974, which features a host of players who played the first Winnipeg Folk Festival, including Sylvia Tyson, Ken Whiteley and more. mainstage action kicks off at 6 p.m. with Habadekuk, while Big Blue @ Night gets going at 7:30 p.m. with the Dunwells.