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River Rats welcomes performers from near and far

Canada Day festival will be free of COVID restrictions and the 150-person cap will be lifted

ATHABASCA - With the lifting of provincial COVID-19 restrictions slated for July 1, there will be even more reason to celebrate Canada Day in Athabasca, and the artists making the trip to entertain on the Magnificent River Rats Festival stage, are just as excited to see the crowds, as the crowds are to hear from them.

When the Magnificent River Rats Festival Society decided to try to organize the down-sized event after it was cancelled in 2020, they knew they would be up against the virus and resulting government-instituted restrictions and it looked like just 150 people would be allowed inside the gates, but the announcement Friday by premier Jason Kenney that Stage 3 of the Open for Summer Plan, has opened the gates even wider.

Music fans will be seeing a lot of William O'Donnell that day, as the Slave Lake area songwriter kicks the festival off at 11:30 a.m. with a solo show, before joining his band mates in the Richard Woodman Band on stage later in the afternoon. The pandemic has kept the five-piece country-rock-folk band away from the stage for much of the last year, but the band took to the stage at the Slave Lake Boston Pizza last weekend for an impromptu show to help shake the rust off.

"It has been pretty slow, I'll tell you that," said Woodman, who has recorded in Nashville, and was part of CMT's "Big in a Small Town" in 2012, which led to his debut record in 2015. The band's latest single will also be debuting on Canadian country music radio in the next month.

Woodman and O'Donnell have been playing together for more than a decade, but the group in its current form, came together about three years ago. Incidentally, River Rats society vice president Fred Minville will be filling in on drums that day.

"Let's have a good time, this is gonna be our first big gig of the year," said Woodman.

In between those two sets, Sylvan Lake multi-instrumentalist Brianna Lizotte will bring her fiddling talents to the stage, as she pays homage to her family history and Métis culture in general, of which the fiddle is a big part.

Growing up in a musical family that often gathered to perform together, Lizotte was in her high school band and took to music like it was in her blood, because it was.

"I usually like to incorporate a little bit of Métis history in each part of my shows, because growing up, I knew I was Métis, but I didn't know what that meant," she said. "I realized that music and especially fiddle music was a huge part of our culture and is a huge part of our culture. I love to incorporate those sorts of ideas."

She has been keeping busy for the last year, performing at several virtual festival, but cannot wait to perform for a live audience again

"I'm really excited to see people and perform in front of an audience again, a live audience, it's one of my favourite things that I'm looking forward to," she said.

Before the headliners take to the stage that night, Edmonton folk singer Martin Kerr will be back in town, and he's bringing a couple friends to back him up on piano and cello. 

"The audience was so appreciative and real music lovers," said Kerr of his last performance in Athabasca. "So, it's gonna be a beautiful day and I expect that we will have people of all ages there and that's what I love to do really, is play for diverse crowds and and get everybody involved in enjoying the songs together. I think music brings people together like nothing else and that's what Canada is all about."

Kerr may have been the busiest musician in Alberta in 2020, as he embarked on an Edmonton-based street tour, that saw him set up his amplifier in various corners of the city over 300 times, just to be able to continue sharing the music, which there will be more than enough of July 1.

Tickets are $10, and festival-goers can visit the Magnificent River Rats website at for tickets and more information.

Next week, we'll take a look at some of the local acts that will grace the stage including homegrown talents Zac Keller, Eric Creaser, the Dirt Road Angels and headliners Delirium.