September’s Ottawa Folk Fest marks the end of a summer of wonderful outdoor music festivals. Here is an account of its sights and sounds.
On a slightly cooler than usual September night, I arrived on the grounds as they were just opening. As I entered, workers were just putting the finishing touches on the Hill stage, located on the north side. There was also a delightful trolling gypsy vaudeville act offering free wedding ceremonies, complete with musical accompaniment of accordion, bass drum, and violin. Also at this end was the Craft Beer House where TIMEKODE DJ’s Zattar and Memetic were spinning dance-inducing tunes.I wandered into the larger side of the festival,to catch the first of a few must-see’s on my roster, Blues Traveler.
Unable to attend Thursday, I delved into Friday’s events kicking off with the tail end segment of Ottawa’s Pony Girl on the Hill Stage, whose 8-member band offered an alternative art rock set. The group features poetic lyrics by lead singer, Pascal Huot, with the sweet backing vocals of Yolande Laroche, who also played clarinet. Their use of synth arrangements and auxiliary percussion and drum samples gave their music a very new age texture that swept over me like a gentle wave.
I later wandered over to the Craft Beer House which was filled with people enjoying another performance by Coig, a 5-piece band from Cape Breton. Each member of this band is a young solo artist with a successful musical career of their own. The five decided to join forces to create a lively array of Celtic delights featuring three fiddlers, one on piano, and another on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bazouki.
Later, it became time to enjoy the pop/funk/disco electrifying force of Ottawa’s The Peptides. Their brand of highly charged original music, featuring flavours of jazz, R&B, disco, funk, and soul, mixed with a contemporary edge, took me on a rousing roller-coaster ride, complete with all nine members dressed in retro, B-52-styled larger-than-life colourful garb. Emphasis was on stunning vocals by Rebecca Noelle, Dee Dee Butters, Olexandra Pruchnicky, Dale Waterman, and Claude Marquis, combined with highly entertaining stage presence, put an exclamation mark on this night.
I capped off Friday night with a band whose music I was already familiar with, Portland’s Black Prairie. This would be my first time seeing them live, and I enjoyed their set, which included many songs I had hoped they would perform, such as “Ostinato Del Caminito”, as well as their more recent, “Fortune”, off their current CD of the same name. Their live show was all I hoped it would be: grander, and with a wonderful display of blended artistry and chemistry among the musicians.
Saturday was rainy and mucky, so I donned my not-so-fashionable duck boots. The essential volunteer staff were hard at work, shovelling generous scoops of wood chips over the worst areas, which made for trodding through the grounds much easier. The free admission side was abuzz with the Kidzone area, alive with arts & crafts, music and other fun activities for children. A large fence displayed a mural of art drawn by the children earlier in the day.
I went off to the Eh! Stage, where the sound of beautiful, crisp vocal harmonies lured me immediately. Ottawa’s 4-piece band, The Claytones, were thoroughly entertaining the crowd with their catchy, vocally prominent songs laced in a rootsy, Canadiana blend of country music.
Next on my list was Simon Townshend, a dynamic performer whose solo act I had already witnessed last year when he opened for Heart at the NAC. He enthralled us in an array of well-written melodies, whose influences reflect the very similar flavours of his older brother Pete, and his band, The Who.
Simon has been directly involved in many of The Who’s performances and side projects over the years, along with maintaining his own solo career. I enjoyed the intimacy of his performance and was captivated by his truly amazing compositions. One of my favourites was, “Those Eyes”, a beautiful warm ballad in which his guitar became a rhythm instrument that swayed into a dramatic build. His vocals were superb, wide-ranged, passionate, and packed a punch.
Next up was Seasick Steve – a performer I had researched for another Apt613 article. This was his first show in Canada, he informed us, as he picked up a one-stringed Didley Bo made from an old washboard. He’d often switch from one homemade guitar to another throughout a string of heartfelt songs of his life experiences, some not so pleasant. He immediately had the audience in the palm of his hand. His songs were further brought to life with the accompaniment of Dan Magnusson on the drums, which helped to round out the material.
But the highlight for me came when he got up from his chair, slowly made his way over to the front of the crowd, and plucked a young lady out of the audience. He brought her up onstage, sat her down in a chair directly across from him and said, “I’m gonna sing ya a love song, so just pretend I’m about 45 years younger.” He proceeded into his song entitled, “Walking Man”, a song about walking to the end of the line and back to the one he loves.
As I made my way over to the food concessions I noticed the lone efforts of spoken artist, Mustafa The Poet, on the Ravenlaw Stage, who had drawn quite a crowd of listeners. I stayed to listen to his well versed and insightful rhythmic poem, “Invisible Disabilities”. It was very moving, and I found him very talented in the way he constructed the flow of his words to evoke images one could see in their head.
After dinner, a sudden burst of rain brought me into the Craft Beer House to take cover. There was a performer onstage who, at first glance, reminded me of Red Green (I would later tell him so and he would laugh…whew!). It was none other than Fred Penner casting a spell over a large crowd of adults with his iconic storytelling, songs, and natural ability to provoke ear-to-ear smiles. People were spilling into the tent to catch a glimpse of this man.
He led the audience into a rousing call and response with a tune simply about the wonderful phenomenon of the sandwich. He then had everyone (including me) singing along to “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a song that immediately connected us all to our childhood. The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” followed with an assist from members of The Wicked Mercy, who had performed earlier that day. The band stayed on for “The Cat Came Back”, which sprang into all sorts of other melodies that had the Bm, D, C, B7 progression…too many to mention, but it made for a great mash-up!
After the show, I got a photo with him as a great souvenir. Later in my notebook, I discovered he’d left his autograph and a scribbled “TO THE NOTE LADY ?”.
Saturday night continued with 9-piece east coast band, The Mellotones, who rocked out until 11pm with their mix of soul, funk, and R&B mix of dance worthy covers. This band featured a full horn section, piano, drums, bass, and the outstanding versatile vocals of Jeff Mosher, who also played sax.
Sunday, the final day, began with Toronto’s indie rockers, The Wooden Sky, a folk/rock band with the odd tinge of new age sound in their music – sort of Neil Young meets U2. Lush vocal and keyboard effects combined with very heavy, almost tribal-like drumbeats created a very atmospheric sound. The underlying drone of the violin enhanced the effect. The lead singer’s voice had flavours of Steve Earle, with a distinctive trembling vibrato that was unique. With the guitarist and bassist on harmony, they create an illusion of multiple voices at work. I loved their one-of-a-kind, unique sound.
Another band I caught was Winnipeg’s The Bros. Landreth, a bluesy country/rock 4-piece ensemble of 2 guitars, bass and drums. Lead singer/guitarist, Joey Landreth’s warm vocals were amazing. In it, I could hear the lazy swaying tones of Bonnie Raitt, combined with some soulful Daryl Hall accents. All members lent their voices in some great harmony work.
Next, I wandered over to the Hill stage to catch legendary blues guitarist, Matt ’Guitar’ Murphy, who made his way over to a lone chair at the front of the stage. Murphy, now 84 years of age, was known for his outstanding performance at 1963’s American Folk Blues Festival, which toured several European countries. His “Matt’s Guitar Boogie”, became famous and he has worked with the likes of Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Ike Turner, Otis Rush, Etta James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Chuck Berry, to name a few. He also joined The Blues Brothers band in 1978 and appeared in both Blues Brothers movies, portraying Aretha Franklin’s hungry-for-the-road husband in the first film.
Murphy suffered a stroke in 2001, which at first tremendously debilitated his guitar-playing. But through years of rehabilitation and perseverance, he has been steadily making a comeback. Before he began, he addressed the crowd by saying, “I just want you all to know I still remember you.” This brought a supportive cheer from the audience, who were clearly touched by the simple presence of this man. He went on further to say how Canada has a very special connection to him because that’s where his boss, Dan Akroyd, comes from. With perfect timing and just a few flaws, he proceeded to play his guitar boogie piece . We all then met Mrs. Murphy who climbed onto the stage to inform us she was just there to tell him what to play and keep him in line. She stood endearingly off to the side while he played and sang “Stormy Monday“, then engaged the crowd in any questions they wanted to ask. I was hit emotionally by this man, who played to the best of his ability, fuelled by the encouragement of the audience.
I caught one last performance by The Mellotones, who closed out Folk Fest and had everyone gyrating on the dance floor. The five days had suddenly and quickly come to an end, and I was left with the flavours of so many acts that I might not have otherwise had the pleasure of ever hearing. Despite the rainy conditions, I thought each day of events attracted more than ample-sized crowds. All in all, I feel like a kid who’s come home from being away at camp, and can’t wait to go back next year.