Wielding an accordion, harmonica and guitar, Fred Pellerin led the crowd through cheers and tears, carrying them with a collection of folk songs and anecdotes.
"This is the beginning of something; we're finished with talking about the end," the Quebec folk singer told the hundreds gathered as he opened a month of concerts to comfort the people of Lac-Mégantic.
With a stage set on a knoll beside the local supermarket, the crooner was the first act to reopen the Musi-Café, a bar destroyed in the derailment that claimed 47 lives in the Eastern Quebec town last month. On an evening when dark clouds loomed, locals smiled and laughed outside together for the first time since the disaster.
"We wanted to help. At first we were going to bring [our] entire village, with the chefs, bands and everything," said a deadpan Mr. Pellerin, 36, a recipient of the Order of Quebec and well-travelled chansonnier in his home province.
His ambitions were eventually brought under control and he arrived Friday with only his brother and a backup band. After a minute of silence, the first song was a symbolic choice: The Beginning of the World.
"He's ideal for tonight, especially for a show that's so emotional," said Chantal Rosa, a Lac-Mégantic native who joined an overflowing crowd to watch the show.
"He pulls at a fibre inside of you that reminds you of your friends and your family; it's touching," said Alain Ouellet, a cottage owner who spends his summers in Lac-Mégantic.
Although the original Musi-Café was destroyed in the fiery explosions that wrecked the village's downtown, a triple-peaked tent was erected in the northern end of Lac-Mégantic to host a summer edition of the bar until late September.
"It's a ray of sunshine," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said of the reopening.
The entire venue was completed in just over two days. The paint around the bar was still damp on Friday and parts of the stage were being hammered together only minutes before the show started.
Nearby, palm trees swayed in the wind and a series of gardens were planted amidst small patios.
Only a month before disaster struck on July 6, the bar underwent a large renovation where palm trees were added to the outside patio. For the bar's staff, the trees were a reminder of the bar's rebirth.
"It used to be an oasis; it will be one again," said Karine Blanchette, a waitress at the Musi-Café.
Nearby, hundreds of local residents stood in line to buy grey T-shirts with the Musi-Café's logo. Increasingly seen around town, the shirt has quickly become the unofficial uniform of Lac-Mégantic's rebuilding.
"These people are wonderful; we've had issues putting this together. I ran the Musi-Café for 12 years and it was almost perfect at the end. You can't match that in two days," said Yannick Gagné. The 35-year-old owner was exhausted, at work since 4 a.m. to help reopen his bar.
While dozens of the province's most well-known artists offered to play in the shattered town, Mr. Pellerin was the first to volunteer. The artist has played Lac-Mégantic in the past, always selling out his shows months in advance.
Throughout his career, Mr. Pellerin has found inspiration in his village of Saint-Élie-de-Caxton, using the plights of locals for comedy. On Friday night, the storyteller played the role of ambassador to a similar village.
"I never sing like this. This isn't a gig, this is human. We want to give the people of Mégantic a space to be happy together," Mr. Pellerin said.