The new version of the Ottawa Folk Festival – under Bluesfest management – had what appeared to be a very successful kick-off last night.
Arriving at the new site at Hog`s Back Park for the first time, I was very impressed with the new digs. It`s a lovely, lushly green location for the festival with the stage areas all within a two-minute walk of each other. The food and artisan vendors are on park grass, a big improvement over the concrete they occupied at the old Britannia Park site and there’s a much bigger variety of food than in past years.
Although the festival is under new management, it was very nice to see, early in the evening, well-deserved recognition paid to 18 people who either founded the Ottawa Folk Festival or were highly involved over many years in its organization. The 18 were the first inductees into the newly-created Festival Builders Hall of Fame. Congratulations to AL Chopper MacKinnon, Alan Marjerrison, Arthur McGregor, Barry Pilon, Carol Silcoff, Chris White, Dean Verger, Gene Swimmer, Joyce MacPhee, Karen Flanagan McCarthy, Max Wallace, Pam Marjerrison, Peter Zanette, Rachel Hauraney, Roberta Huebener, Rod McDowell, Sheila Ross, and Suzanne Lessard-Wynes on the well-deserved honour.
And, congratulations again, to Gene Swimmer, the Ottawa Folk Festival’s volunteer executive director for many years, who also received the Helen Verger Award, recognizing his many years of work on behalf of the folk festival.
With three stages going almost simultaneously, choices had to be made. Early in the evening, I didn’t really make a choice and wandered from stage to stage catching a couple songs each from local artists Megan Jerome, John Allaire and Gerry Wall.
I also caught a few songs by American singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman. I’d been looking forward to hearing him but he didn’t really capture my attention so I went to hear the last few songs by Dry River Caravan, a local Ottawa band that plays music blending klezmer, Balkan, bluegrass and other musics. It was my first time hearing them and I was quite impressed. I’m looking forward to hearing more of them.
The best set I saw last night – indeed, the only one that I watched from beginning through encore – was Justin Townes Earle. The son of Steve Earle (who plays the festival tonight), he is one of the finest young singer-songwriters around today (click here for my review of his latest album). Playing guitar, and accompanied by the superb bassist Bryn Davies and the equally superb fiddler Amanda Shires, Earle engaged the audience with his down-home demeanor and well-crafted songs steeped in folk, blues, country and western and swing traditions.
After Earle’s set, I dashed over to another stage to catch the last half-hour of the Punch Brothers set. The Punch Brothers are a kind of post-bluegrass band led by mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile – who’s a lot taller now than the first time I saw him play when he was a 13- or 14-year-old mandolin prodigy, circa 1994 or ’95. The instrumental skills of all five guys in the Punch Brothers are awesome and they’re good singers too. But, I wasn’t crazy about their material. Other than an astonishing instrumental (whose title I didn’t catch) and a great version of Robbie Robertson’s “Ophelia,” the other four songs didn't really draw me in.
My best bets for tonight are Vance Gilbert and Steve Earle – who, of course, are playing at the same time on different stages.
Workshop alert: For me, the real heart of a folk festival are the daytime workshops. The Ottawa Folk Festival workshops -- curated by the Ottawa Folk Festival -- are on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I’ll be taking part in one each day. I'm doing an on-stage interview with Colin Hay on Saturday, 4:00-4:45 pm, on the Heron Stage; and hosting the "Southern Folk" workshop on Sunday, 3:00-3:45 pm, with Lynne Hanson, Hayes Carll and Kelly Willis, on the Slackwater Stage.