Back in 1993, the iconic Canadian roots-rock band Blue Rodeo released their album Five Days in July, probably their most defining work in their nearly three decades as a band. With notable singles like "Bad Timing" and "Five Days in May", the album resonated with Canadian music fans, so when the Winnipeg Folk Festival announced that they'd be kicking off their 38th annual festival with the band playing the album live in its entirety, it was no surprise people were excited.
This excitement was felt throughout the festival grounds at Bird's Hill Park on Wednesday night, and the sizable crowd consisted not only of festivalgoers with five-day passes, but a good amount who made the trek out specifically for this unique performance. And they were not left disappointed, as Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and the boys sounded in fine form throughout, joined for a handful of tunes by festival opener Melissa McClelland (filling in for Sarah McLachlan, who sang on three of the album's tracks). After a scorching, hot day, a cool breeze accompanied the disappearing sun, and the gorgeous summer evening made for the perfect backdrop to a very Canadian musical experience. As I walked to my car to drive back into the city, the band was capping off their Five Days in July opus by playing their huge 1991 hit "Lost Together".
I'm certain the fact that this performance was kicking off five wonderfully folkie days in July wasn't lost on organizers or the band, but it still must be said that it really was a fitting start to the festival. Two years ago, when the Winnipeg Folk Festival expanded from four to five days by building a special Wednesday night show around headliner Elvis Costello, there was some question of whether the festival would be able to sustain the longer time frame (especially without a huge name like Costello kicking things off). Wednesday nights are a hard sell for walk-ups as Bird's Hill Park is outside of the city, and for a show ending near midnight, it makes for a late night on a work night. Also, since the daytime schedule doesn't kick in until Friday, there's less incentive for full festival pass holders (besides die-hards or those without full-time jobs) to start their weekend a day early. Last year's Wednesday performers -- Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Cliff -- may be icons, but there's nothing particularly special about either of them playing a folk festival.
Making the first night a special event is the only way to get people to feel like it's worth their time. Elvis Costello was a special event, and Blue Rodeo playing all of Five Days in July certainly qualifies, too. Here's hoping festival organizations continue to try and make the opening Wednesday night a must-see event rather than just a typical Winnipeg Folk Festival main stage line-up.
Blue Rodeo wasn't the only band on stage Wednesday night, of course. After the official opening of the festival, previously-mentioned Ontario roots singer/songwriter Melissa McClelland had the honour of being this year's first performer, and her set of pleasing and relaxing country folk was a nice way to ease into five days of music. Winnipeg's own The Crooked Brothers, with their interesting blend of country, folk, and blues, played the first tweener set on the main stage, receiving a good reception from their hometown crowd. (A lot of the folks taking in the evening's festivities may not have known who they were at the outset, but these guys are definitely on their way up.)
Next up was another pretty legendary band in their own right: Minneapolis, Minnesota's The Jayhawks. The band has had some line-up changes over the years, most notably with co-leader Mark Olson leaving the band in 1995. However, they've recently begun playing again with that 1995 line-up, and plan to release a new album (the Jayhawks' first since 2003's Rainy Day Music) with that same fivesome. For many, it was just a big deal to finally see Mark Olson and Gary Louris perform live again. And even though their particular brand of alt-country isn't this writer's "thing", buzz around the site from longtime fans of the band showed that they've still got it!
Rounding out the performers was a tweener set by Irish singer/songwriter Andy White, who I believe may have also served as MC for the evening between acts (you can tell how much we in the media tent pay attention to all the on-stage banter). Early on in the evening, the crowd was treated to a surprise appearance by Loreena McKennitt, the Manitoba-raised world music legend, who came out to speak about her new position with the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and specifically the Staging the Future campaign to help improve the festival experience in all aspects and keep things going for many years to come.
All in all, this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival got off to a wonderful start! Hopefully you can make it out to Bird's Hill Park for one or all of the remaining four days of the festival (Thursday's main stage show begins at 6pm), but if not, remember to keep checking in at ShowbizMonkeys.com and follow us on Twitter (@showbizmonkeys).
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)