by Anastasia Chipelski
Last weekend’s third annual BBQ & Blues festival promised tasty food and drinks, and a slew of impressive local and international acts. I caught a few songs here and there, but only took in one full set (sadly) – the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer – after stumbling out of bed at the crack of two, groggy from wrestling a nasty stomach bug. While the band had better excuses to be in worse shape, they still pulled themselves together mightily for a rousing mid-afternoon show.
I arrived at Shaw Park at an oddly quiet time, music-wise, and wandered around trying to take it all in. It took a while to get my bearings at first, to recalibrate the duelling realities of “ballpark” and “blues festival,” especially without the well-appreciated luxury (enjoyed by other patrons) of tall cans of beer carried throughout the venue. The concourse offered food vendors and endless tables of baubles and trinkets, staffed by one bored-looking iPhone-scroller and given an equivalent amount of attention by the passers-by. The sandy paths of the baseball diamond were almost like gravel, kind of, but that was as close to gritty as the atmosphere could muster.
For the second and final day, the festival was moderately attended, but the crowds seemed spare and divided between the far-flung ballpark seats and those closer to the stages. Travelling between these two zones, I could hear the kick drum and bass ricocheting off the stands like an endless foul ball. On either side of this rhythmic purgatory, however, the sound was just fine.
The day’s entertainment alternated between the “first base” stage, and the main stage, where an arbitrary line bisected the crown into field-sitters and lawn chairs. Upon taking the stage, Harpoonist Shawn Hall dubbed these sides the “folk festival” side and “classic blues” side, also noting the small and enthusiastic front-of-stage dancing pod. I spread out my hoodie and settled into the shortstop’s territory as the band opened with a slow, swaggering rendition of “Coffee Blues”, and then picked it up a notch for “Shake it”. By their third song, “Love Me ‘fore Ya Leave Me” (one of many penned by guitarist Matt Rogers’ brother, Ben Rogers), the main stage started to feel more like a rickety old shack filled with friends and strangers who are about to become friends.
The band was seated close to the edge of the stage, side-by-side. Behind his miniature drum set-up, Rogers twisted and writhed to the beat as much as he possibly could with all limbs fully occupied. Hall howled away on the harmonica, straying over to Rogers’ perch at time, but devoting most of his attention to the crowd.
After greeting fellow musicians and hell-raisers Romi Mayes and Jay Nowicki, Hall offered up a genuinely humbled shout-out to the musicians of Winnipeg and to the hallowed hollow of the Times Change(d), where they’d posted up the night before.
“Shooting bourbon is a really strange thing, Winnipeg,” he noted, likening the experience to swallowing a hoof.
They featured a few more tracks off their new album, “A Real Fine Mess”, with a cautionary note from Hall: “Be careful what you name your children and your album” (though he later retracted any misspoken words about the children). As they growled and stomped through the set, beers appeared by their sides, and the dancing pod swelled, taking over the front of the stage. When they brought out the crowd-pleaser “Wake Up”, it was almost as if they had bottled up the sweat and energy expended at the Times Change(d) the night before and dragged it out into the light for another raucous go around.
After their set, an inevitable lull followed as the main stage prepared for Big Dave McLean, and the the First Base Stage moved into the BBQ-focused part of the evening, presenting the awards for the weekend-long contest. I moseyed over, hoping to feed my blues buzz, but only heard that a team from “the great metropolis of Transcona,” had taken the highest honours in the Chicken Division.
I trolled around the quiet and unassuming backstage for a little longer, lent my leatherman to Watermelon Slim to fix his wallet chain, and said hi to a few more folks before hitting my limit of being outdoors and vertical and deciding to take a hike. I left the park as a minnow swimming against a light current upstream, passing BBQ winners with their coloured ribbons and trophies, and chair-toting blues lovers getting ready to settle down for the evening.
While I hope to be in better shape to take in next year’s BBQ & Blues festival, there’s greater solace to be found in knowing that these locals and travellers have a home year-round at our favourite little blues bar on Main St – They may not be billed as a “first-class facility” along with our stadium, but they’re damn fine at doing what they do. And if you like the sound of the Harp/Axe combo, they’ll be setting up shop at the Park Theatre October 8.