The sky was painted a perfect shade of blue as the first few performers took the stage on Saturday night at the Brett Kissel Hometown Homecoming concert. The mood was joyful at the Jaycee ballpark, with children running around giggling, people two-stepping on the grassy dance floor directly in front of the stage, and the sun setting perfectly, offering a golden glow as Kissel took to the stage shortly after 9 p.m., receiving a huge applause from his hometown crowd.
Kissel might be a Canadian country music star living the dream in Nashville, but for one week, he returned to his old stomping grounds in St. Paul and was given a hometown hero's welcome as he toured local schools, saw his name up on the town's welcome sign, put on a mini-concert and appreciation night, and capped it off with a talent-studded blowout performance on Saturday night.
Saturday was extra special for Kissel, as he also accepted a plaque on stage for his single “Started with a Song,&” which has gone gold.
“I don't think I've ever been as humbled as I am now to come back and to feel this type of love and support from the community,&” said Kissel on Thursday evening, during a break from an appreciation night for the event sponsors. The All Saints Ukrainian Cultural Centre was transformed into glitz and glam with Kissel's name in bright lights headlining the stage, and was filled with hundreds of appreciative listeners, in the lead-up to his Saturday night performance.
St. Paul Mayor Glenn Andersen and the County of St. Paul's Kyle Attanasio read a proclamation declaring Saturday, June 18 as Brett Kissel Day, leaving Kissel further blown away by the response to his hometown homecoming.
“This is so special,&” he said, thanking the pair for the honour.
With his trademark affability and knack to create intimacy even within a crowd, Kissel disarmed and charmed audiences with his banter and music that ranged from country classics to a heartfelt ballad for his baby daughter to his new singles, with Kissel bringing up his old friends and fellow local performers, bass player Tony Noel of Route 66 and master fiddler Calvin Vollrath, on Thursday to perform alongside him.
Emcee Jackie Rae of CFCW led Kissel through a fireside chat in which he reminisced about growing up in St. Paul, dating local girls, chasing cattle and of course, playing music as an aspiring country musician.
While his concert stages now stretch from Nashville to Glasgow, Kissel recalled his first stages were places like the Co-op's rodeo talent show and the rodeo beerfest. At the age of 11 - when his voice was more Dolly Parton than anything else, he joked - he put out his first CD with the help of Vollrath.
“We ordered 100 copies for family and friends,&” he said, adding that 100 turned into 500 copies, which turned into a 1,000. Record certificates range from silver to gold to platinum, with Kissel joking, “No word of a lie, my first record - we went rust.&”
Keepin' it Country, the first of Kissel's six CDs, would go on to sell 7,500 copies. His success exploded further after he was signed to Warner Music Canada in 2013, with Kissel collecting awards from the Junos, CCMAs, and the ACMAs and gaining more and more commercial success with his last two records, 2013's Started with a Song and 2015's Pick Me Up, all leading up to Kissel being picked to open for one of his country music heroes, Garth Brooks.
Throughout the whirlwind ride, Kissel said he had been waiting for a chance to come back to St. Paul, with his last home concerts taking place in 2011 when he did a series of pre-Christmas shows in the area.
“I've been ready to do something like this for five years,&” he said.
He and event organizer Keynon Ternovoy got together in January to have dinner and talk, at which time, the pair each expressed an interest in doing a show in their hometown, after enjoying success in putting on a sold-out show in Camrose.
“I said, ‘What's your idea?'&” recalled Kissel. “He said, ‘I want you to do an outdoor show at the Jaycee ball park.' And I said, ‘Oh my God, that was my idea. I want to do an outdoor concert at Jaycee ball park.' So he said, ‘Well, let's do it.'&”
Kissel saw an opportunity to bring more exposure to the show, and being close to people and event producers with Canadian Music Television (CMT) from Toronto, he pitched the idea of CMT coming to St. Paul to broadcast the event.
“I said, ‘You guys, this is a show you're going to want to catch. And here's the reasons why.' And they said yes.&”
CMT estimated 300,0000 people might be listening to the radio broadcast, with an additional one million tuning in for the two-hour concert special, said Kissel, adding, “What a great opportunity to put St. Paul on the map, and it's all for the good of country music and for that I'm very proud.&”
Originally, the pair was aiming to sell 1,000 tickets for Kissel's hometown concert, but the demand for tickets blew away those expectations, with just over 3,000 people attending Saturday night's event.
Kissel said that St. Paul's mayor had noted, “the town's almost going to double in size, and that's really special we're going to have so many people coming to this special event.&”
While crowd expectations were high to see Kissel, excitement was also at a fever pitch to see special guests, including country star Charlie Major. Special guests included Vollrath, Route 66, Cassidy Zahar and Olivia Rose.
“It was absolutely amazing,&” said Zahar, after the event wrapped up. She recalled looking out into the crowd and recognizing a lot of familiar faces, and feeling nothing but “joy and gratitude.&”
Reflecting on the week and her performance, Zahar says she will take away an important lesson, and treasure some new memories.
“I think I'm really going to take away that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I was very nervous on Friday night. I played and I practiced until my hands were swollen,&” but, those feeling disappeared once she got on stage.
On Saturday morning, while she was doing sound check, Zahar says Kissel came up to her and commented on one of her guitars, which happened to be her grandpa's. She offered the guitar to Kissel to try it out, “and we had a little jam back stage.&”
Zahar will also walk away with a few physical reminders of the experience, including a hand-written thank-you note from Kissel, and a pair of earrings he gifted her that matched a necklace she had been wearing.
Just as his own success surpassed expectations, Saturday night's homecoming exceeded Kissel's expectations as well.
“When it says the sky is the limit, I never really thought we'd get the sky,&” he said, adding he really appreciated the support from his home crowd and for the event.
“It's very difficult to put into words because I know how every small town, every small business, every committee, everybody has rallied behind this show, to support this show and I couldn't be more proud. I wouldn't have it any other way.&”
Thursday and Saturday offered some surprising and generous donations for one well-known local organization - Haying in the 30's. On Thursday, Kissel, along with Vollrath, St. Paul's world long-drive champion Jamie Sadlowski, and curling champion Marcel Rocque, joined together, and each offered up a signed piece of equipment, raising a total of $7,000 for Haying in the 30's through a live auction of the items.
Then on Saturday, after taking Mayor Glenn Andersen on stage, and Dragon Den's Brett Wilson, Kissel announced that the Hometown Homecoming committee would be donating $5,000 to Haying in the 30's and $5,000 to Fort McMurray wildfire efforts. Wilson then announced that he would match both those donations.
A proclamation dubbing June 18, 2016, as Brett Kissel Day was signed by Town of St. Paul Mayor Glenn Andersen (second from right), and County of St. Paul's Kyle Attanasio (second from left) on Thursday night. Pictured in the centre is Kissel. The group is flanked by two RCMP members in red serge.
Brett Kissel stands next to Real Michaud, a former St. Paul resident. Michaud purchased a group of signed items as part of the live auction on Thursday night, raising funds for Haying in the 30's. Along with a signed guitar from Kissel, there was also a signed driver from Jamie Sadlowski (middle), an autographed broom from curling sensation Marcel Rocque (second from right), and a signed fiddle from Calvin Vollrath (right).