"You are all good people," proclaims John Scoles through the megaphone. “With an excellent taste in music. Welcome to the Breakout West Showcase at Times Change(d)! Please welcome Joel Fafard.”
The small but enthusiastic crowd gives the former Scruj MacDuhk member a round of applause that fills the room and lifts the chill of a cold Saturday night. It's not the size of the crowd, but the energy that they return to the stage, which is remarkable. The air in Times Church is – as it's affectionately known – full of electricity. Fresh faces and conference delegates mingle with regulars, thrilled to experience the legendary venue.
"It's a roots shrine!" says one delegate. “I had to come."
Note by note, the crowd grows as the blues guitarist slide and stomp through a half-dozen tunes before launching into an intense cover of Bruce Springsteen's “State Trooper.” CKUA records the show for broadcast in November or January. That typified Breakout West 2014: small, but enthusiastic crowds witnessing brilliant performances that impressed even the artists themselves.
Perhaps the weather keeps the crowds at bay, as it forced Thursday's outdoor kickoff party at Fort Gibraltor (Festival Du Voyageur) indoors to the West End Cultural Centre and led to some delegates opting for an early night in their hotel rooms. Too bad, so sad, their loss, as the featured bands put on a whale of show. First up, PinkBrown, a guitar-drum duo that warrants comparisons to Death From Above 1979 and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Underneath a blanket of noise, and drenched in feedback, beautiful melodies and technically brilliant riffs live and evolve into new songs. Or so it seems, as guitarist Gord Grdina was lost in his playing, oblivious to the enrapt audience. Keynote speaker singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and his new band Blacksmith then unleashes a torrent of music that was still folk music, but very, very loud folk music. What an experience!
Closing the night was local pop group Yes We Mystic. Their melancholy, atmospheric set is like handmade ice cream to cap off a good meal, putting the evening to rest with a comforting sound.
"To Times," hollers Mariachi Ghost guitarist Rafael Reyes.
The rest of the night's details are lost in an agave-induced haze. Suffice it say, a good time is had by all, old friends and new.
Friday night: the weather’s still not all right, so most folks stay at one venue for the entire evening, except those that follow The Small Glories from their early show at the WECC to their late show at the Park Theatre.
Even before The Small Glories, Cara Luft and JD Edwards arrive. The buzz about their show at the WECC had reached the Park Theatre. Don't believe the hype, it's an understatement. Backed by guitarist Damon Mitchell who is on fire and rock steady bassist Gilles Fournier, the nearly minted duo blows the roof off the joint.
Imagine if the members of the Civil Wars actually liked each other and played like their lives depended on it. One of many highlights is their treatment of Woody Guthrie's “Way Down Yonder In A Minor Key,” which Edwards converts to a major key. The lonely somber tone of the song raises to a proclamation, "ain't nobody that sing like me." Not Friday night they can’t.
Sunday night at the awards ceremony: the loudest applause comes for a visibly humbled Fred Penner who’s inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He then performs a short set with all four of his children. Noticeably absent is Kevin Walters, who succumbed to cancer this summer.
Walters is posthumously presented the Industry Builder Award which is renamed in his honour for the many projects and events he’s founded or spearheaded, such as the WCMA pre-cursor, The Prairie Music Awards. His widow, Ginette Lavack Walters tells The Uniter that Walters was told of the award before his passing.
“He did know,” she says, managing a smile.