The notion that Winnipeg has been home to one of the most vibrant music scenes on the continent was reinforced for this observer in Ottawa last week, where the National Arts Centre has been hosting Prairie Scene since April 26.
Hard to believe it was six years ago, as part of the Alberta centenary, that the NAC pulled the same artistic components together for the very successful Alberta Scene festival.
So when it came to organizing Prairie Scene, NAC staff and programming committees cut an extremely wide swath through communities across Manitoba and Saskatchewan and harvested a terrific line-up of concerts, workshops, exhibitions, and plays that were being devoured by Ottawa audiences as the event unfolded.
I had the pleasure of arriving in the nation’s capital on May 4 as the event was shifting into high gear and the NAC was welcoming, not only a few hundred artists, but more than 40 concert and festival producers, venue operators, and talent buyers from all over North America, and a few from as far away as Australia and China.
For a music hound who focuses much of the time on roots music, the process of figuring out which shows to attend had been taken care of some time ago.
The first concert of note I attended was a bill headlined by The Duhks at the National Library Archives Theatre, where the opening act was the fiddle and banjo duo of Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack.
It was in that show, which had its fair share of memorable moments, where a full house of enthusiastic acoustic music fans was reminded of the deep history of the Winnipeg folk music scene.
Remember, this is the city that gave the West its first major folk festival back in the early seventies, and along with folk music, Winnipeg has given the rest of the nation and the world some great rock and roll artists like the Guess Who and Neil Young, as well as jazz masters like the late Lenny Breau.
But midway through the Duhks’ set, bandleader and banjo player Leonard Podoluk stepped up to his microphone and began talking about how important Daniel Koulack had been in his personal musical journey. (Koulack is a long-time friend of Podoluk’s father Mitch, the founding father of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.)
A number of years back, Podoluk explained, his parents had decided to relocate to B.C. where they had hoped to start a new festival. Leonard, then all of twenty years old, had immersed himself in the Winnipeg music scene, just started Scrooge McDuhk, and was understandably not all that interested in heading West, unless it was on a tour with his new band.
Young Leonard got his own place and up the alley from his new digs was the house of Mr. Koulack.
“I spent many nights parked in Daniel Koulack’s kitchen and he taught me so much about traditional banjo music. I owe Daniel a lot and it’s so cool that he is opening the Duhks show here at Prairie Scene tonight,” stated Podoluk, speaking from the heart.
The hard-working young musician was also noting, whether he was aware of it or not, that his experience is the essential fabric that continues to bind the Winnipeg scene together like few others.
One only needs to talk to Winnipeg guitar heroes like Randy Bachman or Brent Parkin to understand the impression Lenny Breau had on them and so many other guitar players in that city.
Young artists in Winnipeg regularly tip their hats to the players, singers and writers that came before them. Where else in the country do local musicians collectively work together to produce compilations albums paying tribute to local heroes? Two such Winnipeg offerings spring to mind.
One found a number of acts, including the Perpetrators, digging into material they had learned from bluesman Big Dave McLean. The album, released in 2005, is titled We Best Choose To Pick The Blues, while Guess Who’s Home tribute found Big Dave, The D Rangers, Scott Nolan, The Perpetrators and Romi Mayes all adding their signature styles to classic Bachman and Cummings tunes.
The Winnipeg wheel keeps turning and one could feel it, hear it and see it in Ottawa during Prairie Scene.
Oh My Darling, the acoustic and old time bluegrass-influenced band, continue to get stronger with each passing tour and there are a number of reasons that these ladies are one of the acts that has been chosen by the Canadian consulate in London to help celebrate Canada Day in Trafalgar Square this year.
Playing at the Black Sheep Inn in nearby Wakefield, Quebec, and opening for Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods at a Prairie Scene sponsored concert, Oh My Darling had a standing room only crowd erupting with applause as they finished a 45 minute set. An Oh My Darling set is built around tight arrangements and a well-defined musical vision, and it is apparent this is a band that understands the necessity of diligent rehearsal. The trajectory of Oh My Darling’s career is headed in the desired path and I suspect the group will end up with a number of serious inquiries from programmers attending Prairie Scene.
Romi Mayes is another Winnipeg artist who has a work ethic that should serve as an inspiration to her peers across the country. This singer-songwriter hits the road as often as most long haul drivers and she has arrived at a place in her career where serving up one well-constructed song after another is the norm. Mayes was booked to open for Buffy Sainte Marie, a Women’s Blues Night concert with a superb cast that included Little Miss Higgins, and Mayes also participated in a workshop sponsored by the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The latter found her on stage at the intimate black box Stage 4 space in the National Arts Centre with Deep Dark Woods, Del Barber and Shuyler Jansen.
These days Mayes hits the road and stage with guitarist Jay Nowicki, recognized for his long-standing work with Winnipeg’s gritty blues band The Perpetrators. Without aid of a rhythm section the two deliver a full sound with dancing dynamics. The two have found a comfort zone with each other while creating a very distinctive sound, but it certainly isn’t music intended to make the listener comfortable.
This is “in your face” stuff, music that will make you sit up and take notice, impossible to ignore.
There are dozens, no, make that hundreds, of acts out there mining similar veins of roots music, but where most end up with another bland blend of blues meets alt. country equals a snooze fest”, Mayes and Nowicki are head-hunting.
Seek out the latest Mayes disc Lucky Tonight, recorded live in innipeg at the West End Cultural Centre in January, that was released just last week. May I also suggest you ead to her website for a lengthy interview interspersed with concert ootage that is a pretty convincing promotional tool from this artist who continues to keep the Winnipeg cultural flame burning brightly.
Being in the company of all these terrific Winnipeg musicians caused me to recall dashing home from school on Fridays (I think it was Fridays) when I was in junior high school, to watch The Guess Who host Music Hop on CBC out of Winnipeg. That city was happening in a big way 4 years ago and the music scene in that prairie town just keeps on elivering the goods.
Hats off to all those Winnipeg artists who performed with such intensity and sense of purpose and to the community that continues to nurture the talent that is born in that prairie city.
A big thank-you also goes out to Prairie Scene producer Heather Moore and her associates at the National Arts Centre, all of whom continue to champion the best of what this country has to offer in every facet of, and discipline in, the arts.