Monday, August 29, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival – Sunday and wrap-up

Sunday in Ottawa was cloudy, very windy and unseasonably cool courtesy of the northwestern edge of Hurricane Irene. Unlike Montreal, just 120 miles to the east, we were spared Irene’s torrential rains – all we felt was an occasional isolated drop or two.

We started our Ottawa Folk Festival day at the Falls Stage watching the last half-hour or so of Ball & Chain and their band playing a fine set of Cajun music for dancing. Sylvie even got me up on the dance floor for a number.

We stayed put for a strong concert performance by Lynne Hanson, one of Ottawa’s finest singer-songwriters. Lynne’s songs are firmly rooted in the storytelling tradition and fiddler Lyndell Montgomery’s playing really helped bring out the best in them.

Then it was up to the workshop area where I hosted a round robin session called Southern Folk with two great Texas-based singer-songwriters, Kelly Willis and Hayes Carll, Lynne Hanson – who comes from southern Canada – and the David Wax Museum, a Boston-based band influenced by Mexican and Appalachian folk music. All of them played some great songs and I had a fine time hosting.

We then headed back to the Falls Stage to hear an excellent set by Anaïs Mitchell – who was in a songwriters’ workshop I hosted in 2006 at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont – and the first half of a charming performance by Catherine MacLellan.

By then, the cold was really getting to us. As much as I wanted to stick around and hear concerts by Lynn Miles, Hayes Carll, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, and Levon Helm. It just wasn’t in the cards. It was “Goodnight Irene” for us.

As I mentioned, I really think there were two very different festivals happening at Hog’s Back Park this past weekend. A variation on Bluesfest, particularly at night and particularly on the main-stage; and a variation on the traditional Ottawa Folk Festival on the rest of the grounds, particularly during the daylight hours. The formula was successful in that it brought in bigger crowds than the Ottawa Folk Festival has seen in years.

If that’s what it takes to have a successful folk festival in Ottawa, then, I suppose, that’s what it takes. But, there are a few things that can be done to make the festival better.

The first, as Ian Robb suggested in a Maplepost message, is shut down the main-stage during the day. The overbearing sound from that stage just puts an unnecessary damper on several of the other stages and the jamming area. The daytime programming on the mainstage was unnecessary and the crowds drawn by some of the main-stage headliners (as opposed to the folkies who come for the festival experience) only show up at night anyway.

Second, the festival should be booked with an artistic vision that includes creative workshop programming. The Ottawa Folklore Centre did a great job with what they had to work with, but the workshop programming was an afterthought in the grand scheme of the festival when it should be at the forefront because that’s what makes a folk festival special.

Third, there were a few too many acts booked that had no connection to folk or roots music. While headliners like Steve Earle, Colin Hay and Levon Helm certainly do belong at folk festivals, there were some who just didn’t.

Fourth, include more traditional music and dance and more traditions. I’d have loved to have seen some klezmer music, some Celtic music, some traditional African music and so much more. There should always be room for traditional music and a diversity of traditions at a folk festival.

This was year one for the Ottawa Folk Festival under Bluesfest management. Despite such problems as sound bleed, I did think it was a more-than-worthy festival. I hope it will continue to evolve into the great festival it can be.

--Mike Regenstreif

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