ATHABASCA – The 26th-annual River Rats Festival was nearly in danger of being washed out by the Athabasca River last week, as rising water levels flooded the area around the downtown stage.
Fortunately, River Rats Festival president Fred Minville was able to reach out to some old contacts in fort McMurray and come up with a solution: building a new stage on the west end of the field.
In an interview on June 26, Minville said the new stage is being constructed by a company called AlumaSafway, and he believes it will be better for the festival overall since sound will no longer bounce off the Grand Union Hotel, which created an echo in some parts of the festival grounds.
While it’s possible that the river waters might recede, Minville said, “We didn’t want to take a chance that something was damaged.”
Barring some other disaster, the festival is going ahead as planned this Friday and Saturday, June 30-July 1. Gates open at 10 a.m. on Friday and 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, at which point the parade will also take place.
Three-time world championship hoop dancer and storyteller Dallas Arcand is set to perform at noon on Friday and will then be followed by a line-up of rock and blues bands.
Among those taking the stage are Jimmy and the Sleepers, who take the stage at 7:20 p.m. The band is led by guitarist Jimmy Guiboche, who has been a mainstay on Edmonton’s small but vibrant blues scene for over three decades.
Guiboche said he hasn’t really been to Athabasca, outside of perhaps stopping there for lunch, but the band’s singer, Jared Sowan, was very excited when he heard they will be playing at the River Rats Festival.
“He said it’s a really awesome festival,” Guiboche added. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Notably, the River Rats Festival is the kick-off to a summer full of concerts that the band will take part in, including the Edmonton International Blues Festival in August.
“It’s good to play the bigger events, but I love the smaller towns, the smaller festivals, the theatres and things like that,” he said.
Guiboche said he fell in love with blues as a young man because the music had an honesty that he loved, adding that while it wasn’t necessarily as sophisticated as jazz, it had a “cut right to the heart of the matter” quality that hooked him for 35 years.
While Calgary’s blues scene arguably rivals that of Edmonton’s, he can’t speak to whether there is much love of blues in the communities outside of the two major cities, although he has played gigs like the Lethbridge Folk Festival.
As for what the band is bringing to Athabasca, Guiboche said they put on more of a high-energy blues show that people can get up and dance to.
“If you’ve got one good ear and one good leg, maybe we can get people up dancing. That’s kind of the idea.”
While the line-up on Friday was more blues and rock-heavy (with a couple of divergences, including one hip-hop act), Minville said the line-up of acts on Saturday is more country-focused, with the line-up including a Johnny Cash tribute performance by David James at 3 p.m.
And of course, there’s the headliner Duane Steele, a well-known Canadian country music singer/songwriter who takes the stage at 9 p.m. to end the music festival. Steele previously fronted the band Rock N’ Horse from 1984 to 1993 before launching a solo career that spanned five studio albums.
He is perhaps best known for his No. 1 hit Anita Got Married, though Steele has had a number of songs reach the Top 5 on the Canadian Country Charts. In 1997, he won the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) award in 1997 for Vocal Collaboration of the Year with Lisa Brokop and was named Independent Male Vocalist of the Year in 2001.
In addition to the music, the festival will also feature a farmer’s market, a beer garden, food trucks, an art show and sale and kids’ activities. Steele’s performance will be followed by fireworks at 11 p.m.
Minville also highlighted the flag-raising ceremony involving members of the Royal Canadian Legion, which will occur from 11:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. on Saturday morning.
One-day passes for adults cost $35, while two-day passes are $60. Youth one-day passes are $30 and $50 for two days.
There are also family passes and half-day passes for those attending the festival after 6 p.m. Children under 10 get in free.