There are two kinds of artists that sometimes appear on the WSO Pops stage: those that are slickly polished, almost phoning their songs and peppering their sets with those requisite “Winterpeg” jokes; and home-grown bards firmly rooted in Prairie loam, keenly cognizant of the community that shaped them, while singing from their hearts and guts.

There are two kinds of artists that sometimes appear on the WSO Pops stage: those that are slickly polished, almost phoning their songs and peppering their sets with those requisite "Winterpeg" jokes; and home-grown bards firmly rooted in Prairie loam, keenly cognizant of the community that shaped them, while singing from their hearts and guts.

Don Amero, a thrice-JUNO award nominee of Cree and Métis heritage who hails from Winnipeg’s storied North End is in the latter camp; with three-weekend performances led by WSO associate conductor Julian Pellicano running through Sunday.

After an autumnal crisp opener of "Fall Fair" by Godfrey Ridout, the country and folk singer/composer/guitarist came onstage Friday night with his all-Manitoba-born "guys," Dylan MacDonald, guitar, John Baron, bass, and percussionist Daniel Roy to perform one of the night’s early highlights: "Wash Away," arranged by Winnipeg-born jazz pianist/composer Mike Janzen.

Amero, now with 20 albums under his belt, is equally regarded for his advocacy work within Indigenous communities and beyond, including serving as a youth mentor for the Winnipeg Jets and True North Youth Foundation’s "Project 11."

His innate skills as a raconteur — including sharing how he performed a powerfully moving rendition of "O Canada" for a Jets game mere days after the shocking discovery of 215 unmarked Indigenous graves in Kamloops, B.C. — not only allowed him to fully engage with the mixed crowd of 373, but frame each song with often frank, deeply personal revelations about his "all kinds of crazy" upbringing, family life, love, and faith.

One song stood out in particular: "Isabel's Song (Going Home)," penned as an imaginary love letter to his wife from his "grandfather-in-law," who died unexpectedly while running an errand leaving no chance to say goodbye — a potent, timely song evoking the undertow of farewells never uttered to locked down loved ones during the pandemic.

Other highlights included "Twilight Hour," further displaying Amero’s buttery smooth vocals, and "Give it to You" showing even more country twang. "On Down the Road," a bluesier tune prefaced by Amero’s powerful "message of hope," and "We are One," a true anthem for reconciliation in Canada with its dark legacy of residential schools, quickly became another, receiving the loudest cheers of the night and even eliciting a loud "I like that song!" from a fan in the house.

The second half — yes, intermissions are back — opened with Glenn Buhr’s "Akasha," translated from Sanskrit for "sky," with Pellicano setting a brisk pace with a fired-up glockenspiel ostinato figure proving too much of a good thing. Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkryies" became another orchestra-only offering, chosen by Amero as one of his wife’s favourite classics, and spied tapping his toe along while still onstage, clearly entranced by the sound of his "65-piece back-up band."

But he also charmed with self-deprecating humour and wit, quipping "did I do okay?" to Pellicano after delivering "You Can’t Always Be 21," and even sheepishly acknowledging forgetting the lyrics during the show’s penultimate "Gonna Be a Good Day," sung for his wife and their three kids aged, 9, 6 and 2 planning to attend this Sunday.

The admittedly-lean audience rose to their feet at the end of the program, leading to an encore of "Amazing Grace," which Amero dedicated to his late bluegrass-loving father, with the singers’ a cappella vocal harmonies goose-bump inducing.

More of these intimate, up-close-and-personal selections would have been welcomed, with the program at times feeling overly homogeneous and needing texture — perhaps some standalone solos, dedicated instrumental works, or more a cappella numbers. There were also several balance issues — you want to catch every syllable in "Wouldn’t Be Home" - and Amero and his rock-solid musicians often fell into murky shadows without adequate stage lighting.

Still, Amero takes his rightful place in Manitoba’s proud lineage of internationally acclaimed singer-songwriters that also includes Bell, Janzen, Christine Fellows, and John K. Samson, and many moons before that, Loreena McKennitt, among others. With his first full WSO show, he has been given his moment to shine with the orchestra, as bright as those stars we heard about in his final, nature-inspired offering, "Church," penned by Nashville's Ashley Gorley, Matt Jenkins, and Lindsey Hillary, and described as "one song that will grow old with me."

The show repeats in-person as well as via livestream at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and runs through Sunday, 2 p.m. For tickets or further information, visit: wso.ca

Holly.harris@shaw.ca

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