Chinook Blast Warms the Core: Second year of downtown Calgary arts festival finds organizers adapting once more

We’re now at the point where we’ve moved on from the f-in’ “P”-word to the “A”-word or the “M”-word.

We don’t p*vot, we adapt or we modify.

We enter into things with a Plan A through Plan Whatever, and when things change, we do the same.

That’s a lesson well learned by Calgary winter celebration Chinook Blast in its first two years in existence — both of which coming in pandemic times.

“I, too, don’t like the word ‘p*vot,’ ” Franca Gualtieri, executive director for Chinook Blast, says with a laugh during the recent media announcement for the festival, which runs until Feb. 27. “I’ve now decided to say, ‘I’m going to modify as required.’ 

“Our first year of Chinook Blast was during the lockdown, and that was our year of p*vot, where we were told anything that would gather a group we couldn’t have, and we managed to bring something to our city that was important.

“This year, we did have a few blows, but you know … the one great thing about the city and our citizens is that they’re understanding.”

Those blows include the cancellation of one of the five pillar events that make up Blast, One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo, and the postponement of BIG! Winter Classic — both of which were originally scheduled for January.

That leaves three remaining pillars — the GLOW Downtown Winter Light Festival (Feb. 10-12, 17-19), Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater (Feb. 17-20) and new arts and culture showcase Ethnik Festival (Feb. 26). 

They’re supplemented by free ancillary events such as: community pop-ups; a hub in Olympic Plaza featuring art and exhibitions including work from the Exposure Photography Festival and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame; an artists pavilion at the Calgary Central Library; and the HQ Block Party Feb. 18 and 19 at the plaza.

That outdoor party will also rectify some of the modifications all of the pillars and partners had to undergo, with stages hosting performers from all of those five events.

As Gualtieri says, making sure they were represented and given a spotlight was important — just as putting on a second Chinook Blast was important to Calgary, its artists, arts organizations and, most importantly, to its residents.

“I do think it’s an important event for the city for a couple of reasons,” she says. “One: we’ve been in COVID for a couple of years; and second of all, it’s winter. Come February, we kind of tend to hunker down in our homes and I think it’s important to get Calgarians out … and I also think it’s important that we can experience culture, the artists, the music, and bring people out to enjoy.

“If we bundle up we can enjoy even though it might be a little cold, and as was mentioned today (at the launch), there’s always a chinook around the corner.”

If there isn’t, well, there’s also the online route, with block party performances available for streaming, and the entire Ethnik Festival now taking place entirely online.

That, admittedly, wasn’t in the plans — A, B or C — this year for Block Heater, with last year’s virtual fest being pretty much the only option for them at that time.

Yes, after originally announcing multi-venue, indoors, in-person plans for 2022, they had to modify and adapt, but when it comes to Calgary folk fest’s winter wonderland, Plan B is a pretty damn good plan.

It’s not the multi-venue weekend event initially planned, and, yes, some of the headliners first announced won’t be part of things — Basia Bulat and Josh Ritter, for example — but it’s something. Likely something special. And, echoing the words of Gualtieri, necessary for the health of both the winter and summer fest-run events, keeping the name out there, audiences engaged, and artists employed.

“For us it was incredibly important,” says executive director Sara Leishman. “We continued to program throughout the pandemic which has been important for us — to offer Calgarians something to look forward to seasonally, but also to be able to hire artists, which, of course, is a key part of our mandate.

“So trying to do it in a way that’s as safe as possible has been part of our guiding compass in terms of how we’ve (‘P’-worded) over the past two years.”

As to where and how, well, that’s the big issue with this year’s Block Heater, local protocols have required the need to adapt on the fly. So, this year,  BH will now feature free outdoor shows on the stages at Olympic Plaza Friday and Saturday nights plus two physically-distanced concerts in Arts Commons’ Jack Singer Concert Hall on Sunday, Feb. 20 — an afternoon and evening offering.

The lineup for the Jack is an impressive one, and features such sensational talent as hometown faves Reuben and the Dark, husband-and-wife duo Raine Maida and Chantal Kreviazuk, Bobby Bazini, Kacy & Clayton, Shaye Zadravec and Shane Ghostkeeper.

Outside, expect sets from artists including Cadence Weapon, Witch Prophet, Shawnee Kish and Super Duty Tough Work.

No, it’s not an optimal iteration of Block Heater and fairly pared down, but it will work wonderfully for the times we’re currently in, and it’s a setup that organizers won’t change, even if restrictions are relaxed.

“That was one of the reasons that we had pull back a little bit on our original program,” Leishman says, “was to ensure that we could do it well, ensure that we could focus and devote our attention and resources on providing the safest environment possible for the people who do come out …”

And, well, it’s only for another year, right?

That, Gualtieri says, is what she’s counting on when it comes to the 2023 Chinook Blast.

“I am,” she says. “You know, last year was really limited, this year’s growing a little bit bigger, and I hope in future year’s there will be no more restrictions to worry about and that we’ll be able to grow larger — we’ll be out in the different communities, we’ll be able to entice visitors from around the world and have even more for people to enjoy.”

For more information, please see the program guide inside theScene or go to