BIRDS HILL PARK — Thursday night’s main stage concert at the Winnipeg Folk Festival was a celebration of master storytellers, and no one fits that description better than American singer/songwriter and all-around lady-killer Josh Ritter. Roundly regarded as one of America’s greatest living songwriters, the Idaho native earned a standing ovation for a set that will easily go down as one of the best of the festival.
With a handsome, boyish grin that never left his face, Ritter — along with his estimable backing outfit The Royal City Band — treated festival-goers to a groove-filled set under a sinking evening sun. Ritter’s got a shiny new album to promote, March’s The Beast in its Tracks, and the new songs sounded great, particularly the spunky New Lover.
It was obvious Ritter and his players genuinely enjoying playing music together, which was a true pleasure to watch. Their performances had a welcome, laid-back jam-band feel — particularly on tracks that offer lots of room to let loose, such as the rocker Rumors and the driving, foot-stomper Lillian, Egypt.
Ritter is also a force on his own. A gentle acoustic rendering of The Temptation of Adam, a ballad about lovers torn apart by war and one of his most masterful works, was absolutely arresting. Happily, Ritter’s intimate, hyper-literate lyrics (he’s a fiction writer) never got lost in the expanse of the field.
At press time, Juno winner Serena Ryder was taking the stage to rock out the bluesy cuts from her latest album, Harmony, before bookish bard Colin Meloy of Portland indie heroes The Decemberists played his anticipated set.
Earlier in the night, the spirit of the Indigo Girls’ set felt quintessentially folk fest, especially when they crooned the line "I’m going to clear my head/I’m going to drink that sun" from Get Out The Map. Watching the Grammy-winning duo of Amy Ray and Emily Sailers, you were acutely aware you were in the presence of pioneering folk legends with 30 years and 14 albums under their belts, their voices so rich and sure, their performances so effortless. That more than made up for their relative lack of banter between songs, although when they were on, they were on. "Canada, you’ve been good to the gays a lot longer than the U.S.," quipped Sailers before promising a Canadian tour.
And it’s always nice to hear a protest song on the folk fest main stage. The pointed lyrics of Shame on You, from 1997’s Shaming the Sun, still ring true 16 years later: "They say we be looking for illegal immigrants/can we check your car/I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat/back in 1694."
These righteous babes can rock, too. Ray’s raspy, Riot Grrl screams on Go sent chills down the spine despite the blistering heat. They closed, of course, with their essential hit Closer to Fine.
California singer/songwriter, fiddler and Decemberists touring member Sara Watkins charmed the suppertime crowd with her sunny, hook-filled, NPR-approved folk rock. She hit all the high notes from her 2012 sophomore solo album Sun Midnight Sun — including the rollicking cover of the Everly Brothers’ You’re The One I Love (the recorded version features harmonies courtesy of one Fiona Apple) and the summery You and Me.
The festival kicks into high gear on Friday with seven daytime stages hosting a variety of must-see solo concerts and workshops, including the all-Manitoba showcase at Big Bluestem at 12:45 p.m. and a blistering blues gig at 4:15 p.m. at Green Ash featuring Whitehorse and Hayes Carll. Main stage action starts at 6 p.m. with Nathan Rogers and ends with Folk Fest favourite The Cat Empire.