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Big Winter Classic offers a break from the cold

By Troy Hasselman, December 4 2019 —

Big Winter Classic, the Calgary arts festival that occupies unique outdoor venues across the Beltline area for a weekend in January has announced their 2020 lineup with headliners including rising indie star Ezra Furman, punk indebted rockers Bully and arty garage rocker Ron Gallo. 

Big Winter Classic started as a summer festival and what started as a winter offshoot has grown into one of Calgary’s most anticipated festivals.

“We started as just ‘Big.’ One thing we wondered was how you stay relevant year-round and not just become a ticketed event once a year,” Big Winter Classic co-founder and director Adrian Urlacher says. “The winter festival came as an idea to keep Big relevant year-round. We realized January, February and March have not a lot going on. Our festival season is May to August with over 1,700 festivals across the city. We didn’t really have much in the winter. After we ran our first one at the Ship & Anchor, it really took off from there and we actually departed from our summer event and turned it into a winter festival.”

The festival’s lineup has a healthy mix of international touring acts and local favourites with Urlacher mentioning headliner Ron Gallo and Calgary acts like Sunglaciers and Crystal Eyes as personal highlights of the festival.

“One of the artists I’m excited about is Ron Gallo,” Urlacher says. “Ron Gallo comes from Nashville. We had a chance to see him perform at South by Southwest in 2018. This was two years in the making, we tried to get him last year. We watched him open for the Black Angels and he literally blew my mind. It was one of those shows I still haven’t forgotten. I’m really excited to bring that show to a small stage in Calgary, I think that’s going to be awesome. From a local standpoint, we’re really excited to have Sunglaciers, Sweet Barry Wine and Crystal Eyes. The lineup is really deep with well over 75 bands so there’s a little bit of something for everybody.”

The platform that Big Winter Classic gives local artists is a keystone of the festival. Local acts share the same stage as the headliners and make up the majority of the lineup, showcasing some of the countless artists from across the province is one of the major goals of the festival, says Urlacher.

“As we’ve grown and bring in more out-of-town bands, that helps with the overall visual and how we’re able to get out and reach other markets, but we’ve always hung our hat on local shows,” Urlacher says. “80 per cent of the festival is Alberta-based. One of our major things is whatever bands we have come in from out-of-market, we want them to be surrounded by our local talent. We’re putting big shows in small venues but innovating and making sure our local bands have a big play at the festival is huge for us, but also having them perform alongside Weaves, Ron Gallo and Ezra Furman is really important to us.”

Big Winter Classic acts as not only a music festival, but a general arts festival. Big Studio focuses on the visual arts aspect of the festival and will be part of the festival for its third straight year with some innovative stage and beer label design being a major part of the festival.

“This year we’re going to be doing intake with our artists to customize our stage designs,” Urlacher says. “We’ve done some stage designs in the past but our art display is taking place via Big Studio, so we’ll be doing intake for local artists to come in and create a unique backdrop. Half of our shows happen in non-traditional venues. How you transform those and create a space for people to enjoy the shows and have a bit of a different backdrop is important to us. Another element this year includes a partnership with some local craft brewers and the creation of our own beer, called “The Big Brew.” This year what we’re doing is we’re going to have custom art designs for established beers that these brewers already have. We have a whole series of big cans which will be in the liquor stores and all the venues through the festival. The two elements will be the stage design and custom beer cans, which will be awesome and I can’t wait to share those with the world.”

The festival will include a mix of traditional venues like Broken City and non-traditional venues like Inner City Brewing, which will have a constructed stage built specifically for the festival.

“Our home base is Broken City and Last Best Brewing and Distilling. Anyone who’s been to Last Best knows it’s not a music venue, but we’ve managed to build some stages there,” Urlacher says. “There’s a stage outside and inside — same as Broken City. This year we’re going to be fully in the Beltline. People will be able to get into all of our venues, all within six blocks. We built a really unique stage there. They’ve got a wonderful space for live music. Last year we heard a lot about how much people liked Inner City. We’re going to be using a bunch of the smaller local businesses. Goat is a small lifestyle salon in the Beltline. We’re going to be setting up a singer-songwriter stage there. We have spaces I can’t tell you about because they’ll be part of our shuttle tours but they’ll all be within the Beltline.”

Urlacher hopes for Big Winter Classic to continue to grow and to help out the businesses that populate the Beltline area. He hopes to see the festival grow into an outdoor winter festival with an entire street blocked off.

“This might be a silly comment but one of our goals from day one is to reinvent Electric Avenue,” Urlacher says. “The downtown economy and what is going on is extremely tight. We want to create an economic event that’s going to bring business into our small businesses in Calgary. What I would love to see is for the festival to take over an entire street outdoors. We are one of the only major cities in Canada that doesn’t have an outdoor winter festival. Edmonton has three or four of them. To create an all-ages, inclusive platform for our communities to come together is extremely important. In five years I can see us having an entire street blocked off in the Beltline.”

The Big Winter Classic will run Jan. 23–26, 2020. For more information about the festival, its lineup and to access playlists for the artists involved in this year’s festival, visit their website.

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