Joni Mitchell ought to smile about the latest change at the West End Cultural Centre.
The Winnipeg concert venue and community hub is turning the songwriting legend’s famous lyric "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot," on its ear by transforming its parking lot into a sort of musical paradise: a patio that serves as a small concert venue this fall and for 2022.
The WECC is the latest place in Winnipeg to join the pandemic patio trend, but artistic director Jorge Requena Ramos says its community focus sets it apart from downtown pop-up bars that host music acts.
"The board understood from the very beginning (of the pandemic) that the idea of a patio was a necessary thing for the West End Cultural Centre," Requena Ramos says. "There are a number of patios in the city that offer music... We’re hoping that this patio will be different than all the other patios in that we’re presenting a group that may not have access to those places."
The WECC has long been a haven for Winnipeg folkies to see some of their favourite acts. Requena Ramos says that will continue, but added the venue’s board learned it needed to look more in its backyard, to help emerging artists who live nearby to establish themselves.
"We identified pretty quickly in our anti-racism and anti-oppression strategies that there’s a kind of artist that we’re not servicing at the moment," he says. "We’re not well suited to serve the artists and up-and-coming artists in the neighbourhood, a lot of BIPOC artists that work in the hip-hop space, a space that we’re not necessarily well connected to.
"This is an effort to connect with our neighbours, with those who live in the neighbourhood and work in the neighbourhood who are also artists."
The patio was christened Wednesday night when loop artist Alex Maher joined hip-hop performers Osani Balkaren and Maribeth Tabanera to a sold-out show of about 60 people.
Requena Ramos says the aim is to open the patio to audiences of up to 120, and that could be realized as soon as this weekend, when Manitoba expat folk-blues songwriter Dan Frechette plays the patio Friday and metal group Vagina Witchcraft, which earned a spot in the 2021 Polaris Prize longlist, performs Saturday.
"This is the kind of artist we’re interested in. We want BIPOC, we want queer, we want diversity here," Requena Ramos says.
The shows begin at 6 p.m. each night and tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.
For Frechette, Friday’s show will be a long-awaited return to a Winnipeg stage. He lives near Santa Cruz, Calif., with his wife and bandmate, violinist Laurel Thomsen, but Manitoba would be a regular stop to perform and visit with his family in Pinawa prior to COVID-19’s emergence last March.
He’s been mostly on the road performing since deciding to take up music as a career in 1991, and being stuck at home, even in an idyllic place such as northern California, didn’t suit him.
"I would never volunteer to be anywhere for two solid years. That’s not the way I roll," Frechette says.
The pandemic, along with the closure of the Canada-U.S. border, has kept him from Manitoba for the past two years and from connecting with fans from his old stomping grounds. His last show in Manitoba was in November 2019.
"I went to Pinawa where I’m from and visited an amazing town. I got to hang out on my old dock and visit my old friends and I’m playing with my old band on the patio this weekend," he says. "It’s all priceless stuff to me. I’m savouring every minute of it while I’m here."
The virus wasn’t the only peril Frechette’s dodged in the past two years. Forest fires that spread into the Bonny Doon area near Santa Cruz in August 2020 and destroyed 911 homes came too close for comfort, he says.
WECC patio showsClick to Expand
Friday: Dan Frechette
Saturday: Vagina Witchcraft
Sept. 23: Bannock Babes Indiedrag Show
Sept. 29: Boogey the Beat
Sept. 30: 10K
Oct. 1: New Wales
Oct 2: The Noble Thiefs
Shows begin at 6 p.m. Tickets at eventbrite.ca. All performers, crew, staff, volunteers and patrons must show proof of vaccination; masks are required when not seated at a table or eating and drinking.
"It came very close to burning the cabin I live in and it did burn a shed where I had a recording studio, and so I had to get a new shed built," Frechette says.
"It’s been a tough few years and just a lot of anticipation to finally be back and I’m so glad to be here. It’s been a blessing."
Without gigs, Frechette resorted to expanding his profile on Bandcamp, the online music service that allows artists to post songs and albums for sale and download.
He posted 99 albums, including his latest, 2021’s Jasmine Dreams: Volume Seven, to the site as a way to connect with fans who haven’t been able to see him live.
"They’ve allowed me to put up an insane number of albums on their site for free," he says. "Every time I keep uploading an album, I’m expecting an error message to show up to say "OK, too much buddy.’ It doesn’t ever do that and I’m floored."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.