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Salsa, sunshine, and dreadlocks: the Jazz Fest opens with a bang

By in Culture
Michael Franti (right) and guitarist Jay Bowman rocking the opening night of the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival.

Last night the 26th annual Saskatchewan Jazz Fest launched with a spectacular, blue-skyed evening of music courtesy of Wil Campa and Michael Franti. Decidedly non-jazzy, yes, but still exhilaratingly energetic — and the nine-day-long festival has only just begun.

The Bessborough Gardens were overflowing as Cuban Salsa star Wil Campa took the stage at 7:00 p.m. with his muy caliente orchestra. When the brass section let out their first triumphant blast, a large swath of people gathered in front of the stage to dance and didn’t disperse for the rest of the evening. And why would they? Front and centre is exactly where everyone wanted to be.

Michael Franti and his four piece band, Spearhead, followed Campa and within minutes the whole gardens were on their feet, singing along with a raucously uptempo rendition of “Everyone Deserves Music.” A few songs later, Franti and his guitarist Jay Bowman wove their way off stage through and through their fans, rocking the crowd with that personal touch that everyone loves to see.

Luckily they weren’t hampered by the swarm of twenty or so beach balls that were kicked into the audience. These went from mildly amusing to super annoying after about two minutes of intense leaping and squealing, but thankfully the horde of children attending this comparatively family friendly show managed to abscond with them to the sidelines relatively quickly.

The energy levels in the gardens and on stage built continuously until Franti and Spearhead wrapped up, well after the sun dipped below the horizon. It was a brilliant start to what should be an equally exciting festival.

After getting a small taste last night I’m confident the rest of festival will be a blast. But this spring (and in recent years) when the Jazz Fest lineup was announced, I found my myself somewhat concerned that the Bessborough Gardens main stage was suspiciously devoid of anything that might be labelled actual jazz.

Then the same thing happens every year: I get blown away by every act that I’ve been lucky enough to catch in the shadow of our very own pseudo-castle — and any worry I might have had has been entirely drowned out by consistently amazing performances.

The main stage venue really comes into its own when playing host to a high-energy, larger-than-life explosion of sound. It’s perfectly suited to the likes of Campa and Franti, who can whip an audience into a frenzy with ease, and a frenzied audience needs room to spread out. The same can be said for other upcoming main stage acts, like tonight’s sold out Feist, or next weekend’s Downchild Blues Band and the Roots, among others.

The main stage is home to the Jazz Fest’s biggest names, but a lot of the best shows will be taking place in the smaller venues. Jazz purists can still head to the Bassment, the Broadway Theatre, the Free Stage at Friendship Park, or any of the other (mostly free) venues peppered around the city.

There are roughly 130 acts slated for performance during the Jazz Fest this year and, much to my liking, a healthy chunk of them are going to be sufficiently jazzy. That said, variety is the spice of life and this year’s festival is undeniably spicy. We’ve got eight days left and there should be more than enough shows for all different kinds of music lovers to enjoy.

The Sheaf has an all access pass to the Jazz Fest, and we’ll be covering all the big shows and a lot of the little ones. As always, keep up to speed by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Nicole Barrington

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