Portage and Main: Urban Boys Bring Country Music to Crocks

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Story and Photo By Tricia Roy

After a good night in Winnipeg performing at the West End Cultural Centre, John Sponarski is standing at the side of the stage looking out at a nearly empty Crocks He’s not taking it personally—it is, after all, the “evening after” most St. Paddy’s Day debauchery. And besides, as one of the frontmen of Portage and Main and also helping out with tour mates White Ash Falls, the tour so far has been going well.

Portage and Main are a five-piece band that, despite their name, hail from Vancouver. “When Harold [Donnelly, the band’s other frontman] and I first realized we had something real here and were thinking about names, I happened to mention that I had grown up in Portage La Prairie. And he confessed that he had spent time with relatives in Winnipeg. Portage and Main turned out to encompass everything we were: our roots in the prairies, the fact that we were urban boys playing country music, and the renowned place name evokes a strong sense of Canadiana,” he says.

Sponarski and Donnelly knew each other as rivals in separate punk bands during their teenage years in Vancouver. Later, in music school, they ended up in the same classes and started playing together. They played in all kinds of bands together and apart, in jazz bands and primarily indie rock outfits, but it was the night that Donnelly came over to Sponarski’s place with a personal recording device in his pocket that set their destiny. “I don’t think this is just a phase in my musical career. I really wanted to be a songwriter and composer. Everything else has felt stilted, but this happened so naturally. And working with Harold is amazing. There’s no judgment.”

Showcasing songs from their sophomore album, Never Had the Time, the band moved through their alt-country repertoire. On occasion their sound was country pop—not unlike some of Blue Rodeo’s upbeat numbers—at other times a bit grittier and driving, like Elliot Brood. About halfway through the set, St. Patrick’s Day lunatics began filtering in, creating a bit of a honky-tonk saloon vibe with hooting, hollering, and dancing that uplifted the atmosphere. Despite Sponarski’s disclosure that touring is a necessity only and he would prefer to just write songs and do recordings, the band sounds even better live and touring will garnish them more praise.

Also feeling like he is playing the music closest to his heart after dabbling in various genres of music and retiring from playing bass from Yukon Blonde, Andy Bishop started the evening off with his band White Ash Falls. More of a traditional rootsy country sound, Bishop’s rich voice reverberates and breaks through with lush harmonizing from his bandmates. The songs are more bare-bones than Portage and Main, but they are also more impassioned—old country with a folky soul and a hard-hitting punch.

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