BIRDS HILL PARK — Elvis Costello's aim is still true, and last night he shot three decades worth of musical mojo towards the crowd at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
The iconic British singer-songwriter and his band the Imposters headlined the first night of the 36th annual mini-Woodstock, an expanded five-day affair that began a day earlier than usual.
Attendance figures weren't available last night, but Costello's appearance drew several thousand music fans to the park, ranging from families to neo-bohemians to grizzled veterans who filled hundreds of blue and orange tarps in front of the mainstage.
"It's fantastic, the people are out and everyone's having a wonderful time," said executive director Tamara Kater, surveying the site during her first festival as head of the event. "There's phenomenal music, the audience, the volunteers and the audience are happy. Everyone's smiling and that's what we want."
Costello sure put a lot of grins on the faces of the crowd, many of whom have been waiting since the late 1970s for the legend to return to the city.
Taking the stage wearing his signature Fender Jazzmaster, Costello and his three-piece band the Imposters gave the audience what they wanted early, starting with a loose version of "Accidents Will Happen" and following it up with "Mystery Dance," two classics from his New Wave period.
From there he remained in the past, with the wonderfully noisy "I Don't Want to go to Chelsea," and the bouncy "You Belong to Me" kicking off one of the most rocking sets Birds Hill Park has ever seen.
He stuck in the mid and early 1980s, and switched to a Telecaster, with "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Man out of Time." The Imposters acted as the perfect foil for Costello, coming across as a rowdy kick-ass bar band who made their presence felt, but never overshadowed their leader.
After the rollicking opening, Costello strapped on an acoustic and slowed things down with "Motel Matches" and "Complicated Shadows," the later off his new roots album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
"You want to hear a new song? This isn't on a record yet — you have to come out here to this beautiful location in Winnipeg," he said before "Condemned Man," a slow-burning tale of a man at the end of his life.
The new led to the old as he pulled out "Blame it on Cain" off his 1977 debut My Aim is True.
At press time he was urging the crowd to sing along to "Radio Sweetheart," an hour into his planned two-hour, 29-song set.
Martha Wainwright was second up on the three-act bill. The daughter of Loudon Wainwright III (also playing the festival this weekend) and Kate McGarrigle proved the family's musical blood runs rich in her veins with a mellow set of her sharp, personal songs backed only by her acoustic guitar.
The Lovell Sisters from Georgia — Jessica, 23, Megan, 19, and Rebecca, 18 — kicked off the musical side of things (and later joined Costello on stage), after the site was blessed by Anishinabe elder Dave Courchene Jr., with a set of tried-and-true Americana that wafted over the ever-growing crowd, who continued to stream through the gate after waiting in line to purchase tickets for last night's show, which was ticketed separately.
That seemed to be the only snag of the new opening night — the line to get tickets. Festival-goers reported waiting between 30 and 60 minutes to get in after getting to the site.
"The lineup was quite the conundrum, but it worked itself out in the end," said Chris Bauer, who waited for 45 minutes to get his ticket.
Another busy location was the beer tent, which acts as the social hub of the festival. It was already packed halfway through the Lovell Sisters' set as old friends reunited and made new friends over a few cold ones.
Then there was the campground, which was a non-stop procession all day of cars and campers hauling their gear to the site. Vehicles lined the highway to get into the park before 6 a.m. and campers reported waiting between seven and 11 hours to get in.
Today the action doesn't start until the mainstage begins at 6 p.m. Tonight's performers include local singer-songwriter Alana Levandoski, Vancouver world-trio Pacifika, countrygrass group the Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile (ex Nickel Creek), Nigerian juju (a form of African dance pop) group King Sunny Ade and his African Beats and one-man band Xavier Rudd, a festival favourite.