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This article was published 6/7/2017 (959 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s hard to imagine a more jovial group of people than the ones who make their way out to Birds Hill Provincial Park for the opening day of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. They’ve been waiting 350-some days to get back here, and Thursday, it was finally time to be "folk fest happy" once again.
And that type of happy comes in many forms — for some, it’s a bra covered in tiny artificial sunflowers or a belly-dancing skirt, for others, it’s piggy back rides and naps in the grass under a setting sun as the first round of musicians take their turn on Main Stage.
Some ominous skies early in the evening were looking to put the kibosh on that plan, but it wasn’t long after the opening blessing by elder Mae Louise Campbell — during which she focused on the importance of water and taking care of the Earth — that the clouds kept right on moving, providing clear skies and perfect temperatures for the rest of the night.
Local duo the Small Glories kicked off the music portion of the night. The pair — made up of JD Edwards and Cara Luft (formerly of the Wailin’ Jennys) — are fairly traditional folk/roots musicians; with only a banjo and acoustic guitar (and occasionally a harmonica) to guide them, they stomped out melodies that told a story even before the lyrics began. Both Edwards and Luft are strong vocalists, but the balance they find in their harmonies is what makes this duo special — they are seasoned musicians and their understanding of dynamics and expert technique is wonderful to watch in a live setting.
One of the most anticipated acts of the fest — Brandi Carlile — filled the middle slot of the night. This is Carlile’s first appearance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the 36-year-old Seattle native and her beat-up six-string were welcomed boisterously.
"Well, thank you very much," beamed Carlile before launching into The Things I Regret, off of her 5th studio album, 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter.
Much in the same vein as the Small Glories, Carlile’s music is all about foot-stomping melodies and thorough storytelling but her sheer vocal ability is something to behold. Her falsetto is delicate and sweet, her head voice powerful and emotional, and her lower register is full of gritty texture and rasp; the way she seemingly effortlessly dances between them is inspiring. A particular highlight was The Eye, an affecting ballad performed with two of her band members singing backing vocals, who created a delicious three-part harmony.
Carlile was certainly feeling her own version of folk fest happy — a smile never left her face — and proclaimed she loves the "vibes" at Canadian folk festivals (she’s played Edmonton folk multiple times), adding they must just be better than the ones in her home country.
"And you can quote me on that," she laughed, in one of many endearing bits of banter she interjected throughout her 75-minute set.
When someone is as good at what she does as Carlile is, it’s almost hard to find things to say without sounding ridiculously gushy; as a songwriter, musician and performer, she’s pretty much perfect, and if the chance to see her live should happen to roll around again, she’s not to be missed.
American indie-rockers the Shins — who have not played Winnipeg in more than 15 years — rounded out the night. Without a word from frontman James Mercer, the band barrelled through three songs, including the lead single, Name For You, from their new record, Heartworms. When Mercer did speak, he was complimentary of the city and the festival
Not long into their set, the Shins had inspired an amoebous dance party mid-field. The band, too, seemed to be in good spirits, bantering with the crowd and cracking jokes as they rolled through a set of Shins classics with a few new tunes thrown in for good measure. In fact, the new tracks seemed to have gained real traction with the fans at Birds Hill – Half a Million received the loudest and lengthiest applause of the main set, while album closer, The Fear, was a stunning (if not a bit low-key) start to their encore.
Mercer’s vocals are stunning live – he confidently maneouvered through some of the more difficult melodies that feature his upper register and looked as though he was honestly giving it his all — though at points he was a bit drowned out by the absolutely booming (and great) band. Regardless, it seems unlikely anyone who has waited 15 years to see the Shins in Winnipeg again would have been disappointed — a solid performance by a solid band to close out a solid opening night.
Today’s Main Stage lineup features — in order of appearance — Esme Patterson, Bruce Cockburn, John K. Samson & the Winter Wheat, City and Colour and Dakha Brakha. Daytime performances start at 11 a.m. and the Main Stage kicks off at 6 p.m.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.