Block Heater music festival warms up Calgary’s arts scene in frigid February

Canadian singer songwriter Basia Bulat takes the stage at the Calgary Central Library during the 2019 Block Heater music festival. Heide Pearson/Global News

The lull of winter and frigid temperatures may be weighing on many Calgarians, but for those who love an infusion of live music in their life, a weekend festival is just the ticket.

For the fourth year in a row, the Block Heater music festival — put on by the Calgary Folk Music Festival — is taking over downtown Calgary with live entertainment at several iconic arts venues.

“We just wanted to do something that just got people excited for the summer festival but is also a great way to just get out of your house and enjoy the company of friends and enjoy some great live music,” said folk fest executive director Sara Leishman.

Leishman said the festival started four years ago in response to the fact that in February, there’s not much going on in the usually bustling city.

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In its early days, Block Heater took place at a number of smaller venues in Inglewood. Since then, it’s grown significantly and most of the events have moved into the downtown core — showcasing the spaces of Studio Bell, the King Eddy, Festival Hall and the new addition this year, the newly-opened Calgary Central Library.

Irish duo Saint Sister perform at the Calgary Central Library during the 2019 Block Heater music festival. Heide Pearson/Global News

“With the opening of Studio Bell and the opportunity for us to be able to bring in some programming to animate the space it just seemed like the perfect fit, and they had keen interest as well.”

Leishman said when the National Music Centre was actually conceived, it was designed to reflect the Calgary Folk Music Festival in some ways — with the curves in the walls paying homage to the river, alongside which the summer festival takes place — making it an ideal fit for the indoor winter version.

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Last year was the first year the festival took place at Studio Bell, and this year they’re taking advantage of one of Calgary’s newest attractions.

“Moving over to the library is super exciting for us because we’re just as excited about the space as everybody else and to be able to actually do something in that amazing space is unbelievable,” Leishman said.

“They’re still obviously in the early days of their programming and what they’re doing within those walls, but for us to be able to come in and say, ‘Hey, are you guys interested in pushing the envelope a little bit?’ They stepped up to the plate right away and we’re super keen and excited.”

Leishman said hosting concerts with artists like Basia Bulat and Matt Mays — performing on Friday and Saturday nights at the library — comes with some small challenges, but for the most part, the stage at the library is already set up to host events of this kind.

“We can go into any space and make it sound amazing,” she said. “For us to be able to transform a space into a concert venue of any size is something that our team just excels at.”

Variety of artists, experiences at fingertips

Leishman said that with a ticket for the evening shows, people aren’t just buying a ticket for one concert — they’re buying a ticket to an entire evening of Block Heater experiences.

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“That is something that people don’t necessarily know about,” she said. “They think that when they’re buying a ticket it’s just for one particular concert. It’s very much like the [summer] festival in that you’re buying entrance into the experience and move within the experience and within the different venues subject to capacity.”

There are also events festival attendees can take in outside the concerts, including an outdoor event on Stephen Avenue.

Starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, there will be fire pits and hot chocolate outside the library near the St. Louis Hotel.

At 3 p.m., festival-goers can watch, or participate in, an artists-versus-audience street hockey game in the same area, which Leishman said organizers hope will become an annual tradition.

To celebrate four decades of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, guests can also check out a showcase of photographs taken over the 40 years of the festival by volunteer photographers.

WATCH:Forty Years of Forward Thinking’ exhibition celebrates the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 40th anniversary

Click to play video: '“Forty Years of Forward Thinking” exhibition celebrates the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 40th anniversary'
“Forty Years of Forward Thinking” exhibition celebrates the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 40th anniversary

That space will also play host to a stage for musical acts throughout the weekend.

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Block Heater’s lineup features artists from across Canada, the United States and as far away as the United Kingdom.

Leishman said the some highlight performances include the upbeat band The Mariachi Ghost, who bring a taste of Mexico to the stage; Saint Sister, a duo from Ireland; and Basia Bulat, who was born in Toronto but now calls Montreal home.

“We always say our artistic director Kerry Clarke has booked your next favourite band, you just don’t know who they are yet, so you gotta come down and find them,” Leishman said.

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