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‘We got our festival back’: River Rats reigns in successful return

Two-day event brought more than 3,500 people to Athabasca riverfront
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17-year-old Ava Nayana was one of a rising crop of young musicians featured in this years Magnificant River Rats Festival. Her hour-long performance left locals flabbergasted and earned her her first ever encore.

ATHABASCA - Twelve musical acts, a strongman competition, karaoke, and cowboy church turned this year’s Magnificent River Rats Festival into a resounding success.

The Canada Day long weekend tradition had a renaissance this year, despite a lower operating budget. Festival president Fred Minville attributed the resurgence to the decision to make the June 30 and July 1 affair free.

“Making it free seems to be the way to go,” he said. “The atmosphere was so light; people were just like, ‘Yeah, we can come, we can go,’ and anyone that wants to come out for the day can be there. It made the flow of the festival and the feel so cool and awesome.”

The Athabasca Ministerial Association ran a two-hour long outdoor sermon with music and prayer for anyone who was interested before the Athabasca Community Band took the stage for an hour.

The first professional musician of the day was Jordyn Rayne, a 24-year-old from Edmonton who brought a heavier sound with her.

“It’s funny, last night we were playing at a small little dingy bar in Edmonton — no stage, just on the floor, and this was the very opposite end,” said Rayne, whose band played a variety of punk rock songs, many written by herself. “The community engagement was really nice to see as well, there’s a lovely view of the river and everything. I definitely hope to be coming back next year.”

Local acts, including 19-year-old Jasmine Frances — a four-time Country Music Alberta nominee — and Plamondon’s Girlz with Guitarz also played on Saturday, bringing their more traditional sounds to the festival grounds.

“There’s always been bands in our hometown, at one point there was 12 in a town of 250 people,” said Tracy Lord, who plays with her sister Karen Levoir and their aunt Michelle Gauthier in the bilingual group. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to play. We played together in a band when we were younger, and now we’re playing with our aunt and it’s just wonderful.”

Headliners Justin Sutton & North of 49 and Rum Ragged capped off the Sunday night festivities, with the latter coming all the way from Newfoundland.

“It’s amazing to be able to go in different places around the world and in our country and see some people from home,” said Mark Manning. “We’re lucky to see those people, but they always bring their friends that they’ve made over the years living here. It was a fun day to get to share some Newfoundland and Labrador music in the field.”

The band was popular, selling more than $1,000 of merchandise after their show and they didn’t rule out an Athabasca return.

“It was a fantastic day, we’d love to come back sometime and hope that everybody really enjoyed it as much as we did,” said Manning.

Not just about the music

The Alberta Strongman Association debuted the River Rats Strongest 2024 to a healthy crowd on Canada Day. The event saw contestants lift barbells, carry 200-plus pound drill bits, and flip tractor tires to prove who was the strongest — and for a $200 prize.

“It was a really good show, it was a lot of fun to compete in,” said Brandon Jeffrey, who travelled from Edmonton for the competition. “This was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen for a competition I’ve done. It was really exciting, normally there’s crowds of 30 to 50 people, and there’s at least 200 here today.”

In total, over 2,000 wrist bands were given out on Canada Day, one of the busiest days Minville could remember. Monday was headlined by Bill Durst and an Eagles tribute band called The Long Run, but a 17-year-old from St. Albert may have made the biggest impression of the day.

“Honestly, I thought the audience wouldn’t be as good, but I think this was the best audience I’ve ever had,” said Ava Nayana, a singer/songwriter who played the guitar and piano during her set. “I’ve never done an encore or anything like that before and I’ve never had so many people come up to me and talk to me.”

While the musical genres were more varied this year, members of the organizing committee agreed the younger approach they took with artists paid off. Rayne, Frances and Nayana are all examples of young, up and coming musicians, something board member Ida Edwards enjoyed.

“I like to think our festival is a discovery festival,” said Edwards. “I think we got a lot of these guys right as they’re taking off.”