Musicians heat up 5 Calgary stages for annual Block Heater Festival

The Block Heater Music Festival kicks off tonight, featuring 38 artists at five venues, making music on everything from turntables to banjos. 

Music fans offer top picks to help festival-goers navigate packed lineup

From left, nêhiyawak guitarist Matthew Cardinal, guitarist Kris Harper and drummer Marek Tyler. (Levi Manchak)

The Block Heater Music Festival kicks off tonight, featuring 38 artists at five venues, making music on everything from turntables to banjos. 

Music fans in Calgary are looking forward to the annual winter music festival, which organizers have dubbed "the ultimate cure for cabin fever" — but some may find themselves overwhelmed at the packed roster of local and international performers, playing over three days on five stages.

Luckily, CBC music aficionados have come forward with a bit of guidance. 

One of the CBC's top music fans, Katherine Duncan, considers herself lucky that she will meet a few of her "top picks" when she records them for her weekly radio show, The Key of A.

Katherine Duncan, host of CBC's Key of A.

Duncan plans to be in the audience for nêhiyawak​​​​, the Indigenous trio from Treaty 6 (Edmonton), who just won the Edmonton Music Prize and has been nominated for a Juno for Indigenous Artist of the Year. Nêhiyawak performs Friday and Saturday on two stages.

She is also reserving a spot for award-winning singer Karimah, who will be performing with a five-piece band on the SkyBridge at Studio Bell on Saturday night. The R&B singer-songwriter competed on The Voice Canada in 2017, when she reached the top 24.

Duncan has also got her eye on classically trained pianist and singer Laura Hickli, who will perform a solo show on Saturday afternoon at the King Eddy. 

As a bonus, Hickli will be playing with another of her "local faves," 36?.

"They'd also be a pick with their wildly original and varied songs, and terrific stage act," Duncan said. 

Last but not least, Lynn Olangundoye will be burning up the "Stand and Command" stage at the Central Library on Saturday night with a 10-piece band, including two poets — part of the Black Future Month lineup at Block Heater. 

"I will definitely be in the audience for that one," Duncan said of the R&B powerhouse.

The fifth annual festival is put on by the Calgary Folk Music Festival and runs through Saturday at five venues: Festival Hall, the Ironwood Stage & Grill, Gorilla Whale restaurant/lounge in Inglewood, the King Eddy at Studio Bell and the Central Library in the East Village.

This year, a packed lineup includes a roster of local and international performers and includes DJ Shub, Son Little, Hannah Georgas, Del Barber, Kid Koala and Justin Rutledge.

The lineup is also packed with local talent, including Calgary singer/songwriter Amy Nelson, who plays the banjo. During Block Heater shows, she'll be performing with a full band of lap steel, drums, washboard, bass — mostly originals, with some traditional banjo songs.

Nelson checked in for a chat with the Calgary Eyeopener this week to share her love of making music.

"I think that music used to be something that was in everybody's home as a way of connecting to community, and we've kind of lost that," she said. "Where only the people who play music are the performers we go and see on a stage, instead of realizing that it is actually fun to do that in your kitchen, and it is fun to do that at a party, and just to hang out, people playing music."

Nelson said she taught herself to play one of her favourite instruments, the banjo.

"I love how primitive sounding it is, it takes you back to before, you know, technology and before things were plugged in, because honestly the banjo sounds best when it's not plugged in, when it's just acoustic," she said. "I love the guitar, too, but the banjo, there's something very surreal and spiritual about it." 

Nelson said once she found the older style of music, she embraced it.

"There's this whole style and sound of music that is raw and honest in ways that it's not about being perfect, it's really more about the emotion of it," she said. "That old music really taps into that. I think of times when I've been at a festival where sometimes it is just somebody playing a very simple old traditional folk song and it does take you back. It reminds you of like before, you know, we had computers and cellphones constantly going off."

Nelson performs Thursday night and Saturday.

Amelie Patterson performs during the Block Heater Festival this week in Calgary. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

CBC's associate producer Nathan Godfrey, musician and music aficionado in his own right, brought Nelson to the show to give listener's a taste of this fresh new voice.

He also has his eye on a few other acts at the festival, like Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone.

"He's been learning and performing songs from field recordings made by folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1940s and '50s," Godfrey said. "So Jayme's been digging deep into an interesting repertoire."

Godfrey also recommends The Weather Station, a folk group out of Toronto. 

"The songwriters I know all rave about her lyrics," he said of singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman.

And then there's the Mexican roots music of David Wax Museum.

"This band fuses Americana music with a style of Mexican roots music called son jarocho. They play a traditional eight-stringed instrument called the Jarana, from the Mexican state of Vera Cruz."

Banff singer/songwriter Amelie Patterson also dropped into the CBC Calgary newsroom for a chat with Jim Brown on The Homestretch this week.

Patterson said she looks forward to putting on a great show when she hits the stage in the city that gave her first release, Roll Honey Roll, a YYC Music Award.

"I'm delighted and really proud of our city, and proud of the local artists that are playing," Patterson told The Homestretch. "And I'm proud to be representing really for the local Calgary artists."

For Patterson, music was a calling that she thought she needed to set aside for a more serious schooling. But Patterson, whose parents are both doctors, eventually abandoned her biology degree, and her plans to become a veterinarian, to pursue a career in music.

Patterson was named Banff's first poet laureate, and she now performs a lot of spoken word poetry in her act.

"I always say that if you have talent, and you have drive, you're very fortunate — even though it's a tough road and arts is not always smooth sailing, but nothing worth doing is," she said. "And I always feel very grateful that I found the thing that really gets my heart going."

She'll perform her special brand of alternative folk music and spoken word at the King Eddy tonight.

Here's the complete lineup of performers for this week's Block Heater Festival:

  • 36?
  • AfrotroniX.
  • Amelie Patterson.
  • Amy Nelson.
  • Bella White.
  • Boogát.
  • Carmanah.
  • Carsie Blanton.
  • Cécile Doo-Kingué.
  • Chad VanGaalen.
  • David Wax Museum.
  • Del Barber.
  • DJ Shub.
  • Élage Diouf.
  • Geoffroy.
  • Hannah Epperson.
  • Hannah Georgas.
  • Jayme Stone's Folklife.
  • Jess Knights.
  • Jom Comyn.
  • Justin Rutledge.
  • Karimah.
  • Kid Koala.
  • Laura Hickli. 
  • Lynn Olagundoye.
  • Marlaena Moore. 
  • nêhiyawak.
  • Richard Inman.
  • Sam Lynch.
  • Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar.
  • Shane Koyczan.
  • Son Little.
  • Sunglaciers.
  • Angelique Francis
  • Tchutchu.
  • Villages.
  • The Weather Station.
  • Wyatt C. Louis.

The festival schedule and ticket/pass information can be found on the Block Heater website.

With files from The Homestretch and the Calgary Eyeopener.