Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ottawa Folk Festival – Sunday and wrap-up

After all the rain on Saturday, the weather for the Ottawa Folk Festival on Sunday was much better – cool with a mix of sun and non-threatening cloud.

As I’ve noted before, I consider the daytime programming – particularly the workshops – to be the heart and soul of a folk festival and I spent almost all of Sunday parked at the workshop stage where I heard a lot of fine music and was rewarded with much of the spontaneous interaction that folk festival workshops are noted for.

The first of Sunday’s scheduled workshops was an on-stage interview with actor/singer-songwriter Jill Hennessy. Unfortunately, we arrived late – just in time to hear her perform one of her alt-country songs at the end of the session. I would have liked to have heard more.

The rest of the workshops were multi-artist, round robin style song swaps with vaguely-defined thematic titles which pretty much allowed the artists to take them wherever they wanted to go. First up was Any Way You String It, hosted by Arthur McGregor of the Ottawa Folklore Centre who was playing his banjo for the occasion. Other participants included country artist Nudie of Nudie and the Turks, Newfoundland folk trio The Once and the sublime singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (who was joined for a song by the equally sublime singer-songwriters John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, her partners in the folk supergroup Red Horse).

Among the workshop’s highlights were Arthur’s instrumental banjo interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Nudie’s dipping into Sam Cooke’s early years for some Soul Stirrers gospel, The Once getting all the artists playing and the whole audience singing on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and Eliza’s sing-along rendition of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

Next up was Hellos & Goodbyes hosted by Lucy Kaplansky with British folksinger John Smith and a stripped down version of the indie-rock band Said the Whale.

Clearly Lucy, who called Eliza Gilkyson up to sing with her on one song and John Gorka on another, carried the workshop with several of the songs from her stunning new CD, Reunion, including the title track which recalls a 1971 family reunion in Toronto when she was 11 and a recent concert trip to Toronto attended by many of her Canadian cousins.

John demonstrated his songwriting roots in traditional British folk music and also played a version of Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” that was quite lovely despite nervousness that caused him to trip-up in a couple of verses. John’s work with open guitar tunings was quite creative. Said the Whale, playing without their bassist and drummer, seemed a bit like a fish – or whale – out of water in the folk festival workshop setting.

Toward the end of the workshop, I dashed over to the main stage to see Chris White, one of the most tireless animators of Ottawa’s folk music scene, receive the Helen Verger Award. Named for the founder of Rasputin’s the late, lamented Ottawa folk café, the award has been presented annually by the Ottawa Folk Festival to someone for outstanding contributions to Canadian folk music. Chris, the Ottawa Folk Festival’s founding artistic director and guiding spirit for 16 years, was a most deserving choice for the award.

Then it was back to the workshop stage for City Slickers, Country Songs, hosted by Pat Moore, followed. Also on hand were Gordie McKeeman & (one of) His Rhythm Boys, Catriona Sturton and Amy Helm.

Pat, accompanied by guitarist Pat McLaughlin, was a charming host and contributed several excellent performances in both straight country and Ray Charlesesque country/R&B. Catriona particularly shined on a harmonica/guitar instrumental.

But, clearly, the stars of this workshop were Gordie and Amy. Gordie was also playing without his bassist and drummer, but his infectious fiddling and step-dancing and Peter Cann’s hot guitar playing more than carried the day with their down-home tunes.

Amy, who played mandolin, was accompanied by guitarist Dan Littleton and called up Byron Isaacs – who also plays in her band and was a band mate in Ollabelle – to sing harmony on a couple of songs. Amy was the only person I heard sing a Woody Guthrie song at the festival in this centennial year of Woody’s birth. Her rocking version of Woody’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” was reminiscent of the version by Bob Dylan and The Band (which included Amy’s dad, Levon Helm) from the 1968 Woody Guthrie memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. She also did a stunning version of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”

There was lots of musical exchanges and jamming by all of the artists throughout the City Slickers, Country Songs workshop.

Then it was back over to the larger stage area to see most of Michael Jerome Browne’s concert set. Performing solo and  playing multiple instruments including guitar, fretless gourd banjo and fiddle, Michael showed his mastery of various traditional and contemporary roots styles – blues, folk, Appalachian, Cajun, etc. – in a repertoire that ranged from traditional folk material to an Al Green soul classic and several of Michael’s excellent original songs written in collaboration with lyricist B. Markus.

And that was it for me at this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival. Scheduling conflicts meant I couldn’t stay for the Sunday evening concerts. Among those I particularly wanted to see were Amy Helm and Red Horse (Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky.)

The festival also continued with a Monday night concert headlined by Bon Iver which apparently attracted a massive crowd to Hog’s Back Park.

Last words

I’m very happy the Ottawa Folk Festival attracted the big crowds it did this year. It portends well for the future.

As I noted in my first report, the Ottawa Folk Festival has really become two festivals in one – an indie rock event and a folk festival. Unfortunately, the overbearing sound bleed from the big stages sometimes overpowered the quieter folk stages.

I fully understand why Bluesfest director Mark Monahan has gone in the indie rock direction with most of the programming. Clearly, his choices brought in the biggest – and youngest – crowds in the festival’s history. But the two streams of programming needn’t compete the way they do.

My suggestion would be to program a real folk festival during the daytime and the louder rock acts at night. The big crowds of university students and folks in their 20s, for the most part, only show up at night anyway.

Expand the workshop schedule on Saturday and Sunday with more stages and creative, visionary programming that doesn’t seem like it’s almost an afterthought – including having much more and much more diverse traditional music. Shut down the huge main stage during the day and restrict daytime concerts on the bigger side stages to folk and/or acoustic artists. There’s so many of them around. It will also bring in a lot more of the traditional folk festival audience, many of whom feel alienated from the current festival format.

And then, use the evenings for the louder indie-rock concerts that bring in the huge crowds. As I said, those crowds only show up at night anyway.

Kudos to Mark and the rest of the Bluesfest team for maintaining some of the Ottawa Folk Festival traditions including the kidzone, dance area, and environmental policies, and for banning smoking on the festival grounds.

And kudos, too, to the great corps of volunteers, another Ottawa Folk Festival tradition.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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