Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ottawa Folk Festival – Sunday, September 8

Mark Monahan presents the Helen Verger Award to Lynn Miles

If there’s been a dream night for the traditional folk festival audience at the Ottawa Folk Festival over the past three years it was surely Sunday night with back-to-back concerts by Ottawa’s Lynn Miles, among the finest of Canada’s contemporary singer-songwriters, the dynamic Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are at the forefront of the recent revival of the African American string band tradition, and legendary singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.

The evening began with the announcement that Lynn, a stalwart of Ottawa’s folk music scene for more than two decades – she performed at the first Ottawa Folk Festival in 1994 – was the 2013 recipient of 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. Lynn, who, as well as being a great singer-songwriter in her own right, has also been a champion of so many other artists, was an excellent choice for this year’s award.

Immediately after Ottawa Folk Festival executive and artistic director Mark Monahan presented the award to Lyn, she gave a terrific hour-long concert accompanied throughout by the exceptional guitar playing of Keith Glass and, for one song, a cover of “Helpless,” a nod to the festival’s missing headliner, Neil Young, by vocalist Rebecca Campbell.
Lynn Miles

Songs from Downpour, Lynn’s superb new album, dominated a set that also included several of her classics including “Black Flowers,” one of the best coal mining songs of recent decades.

As Lynn finished her concert on the RavenLaw Stage, the CUPE Stage came alive with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who turned in one of the most dynamic sets of traditional music I’ve heard in Ottawa in years with original members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens – who are both multi-instrumentalists – joined by Hubby Jenkins, also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and cellist Leyla McCalla.

Dom Flemons & Rhiannon Giddins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Using varying combinations of instruments, with Dom and Rhiannon trading lead vocal roles, they ranged through a repertoire of traditional African American folk music, including much from the African American string band and blues traditions, as well as the occasional foray into other styles – including a terrific performance of Celtic mouth music by Rhiannon. At one point, Rhiannon was joined by her sister, Lalenja Harrington, for a dynamic a cappella gospel song.

A few minutes after the Carolina
Gordon Lightfoot
Chocolate Drops finished up, Gordon Lightfoot and his band took to the RavenLaw Stage for an extended set. While Gordon’s voice was just a shadow of what it was in his prime – it sounded almost like a whisper early in the set but grew stronger as the concert went on – it almost didn’t matter as we were really responding to a Canadian music icon responsible for one of the richest song catalogs of the past half-century.

While Gordon’s set leaned heavily on hits from the 1970s and ‘80s, and even material from the ‘90s, the best moments – at least for me – came with “Ribbon of Darkness” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” two essential songs from the 60s. I must confess there were other ‘60s songs – “Early Morning Rain,” for example – that I wished he’d done.

Still though, we (the audience) were responding to Canadian folk music legend and thanking him for his hundreds of songs and thousands of concerts over the years.

Chris Smither
After Gordon’s set, we made it over to the Hill Stage in time to hear the last three songs – including a bravura rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues – by the sublime folk and blues artist Chris Smither. Chris, who I almost didn’t recognize without his blue guitar (just kidding), was in great form and I wish I’d been able to see more.

Highlights from stage bouncing earlier in the day included a workshop called “Peace, Love and Understanding” with John Allaire, Martyn Joseph, the dynamic Welsh singer-songwriter, and Trent Severn, an impressive trio of three women from Startford, Ontario; a solo concert by young Halifax singer-songwriter Mo Kenney; and some impressive songs by Dave Hadfield (Chris’ brother) who was accompanied by Trent Severn fiddler Laura C. Bates in the “Wild People, Wild Places” workshop.

As always in a big festival, there many sets I missed over the course of the Ottawa Folk Festival that I would have liked to have seen. Among them, concerts by Terry Gillespie, Sheesham & Lotus, David Lindley, Matt Andersen, and Patti Smith.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Ottawa Folk Festival – Saturday, September 7

We had limited time – essentially the afternoon – to spend at the Ottawa Folk Festival on Saturday and spent the time enjoying the community-oriented free side of the festival with its workshop and small concert stages.

Tift Merritt
A folk-rock concert by Ottawa singer-songwriter John Allaire was already about halfway through on the Hill Stage when we arrived at Hog’s Back Park and we sat down and enjoyed several songs before moving over to the Slackwater Stage at 3:00 pm for a workshop called “Femme Fatale” featuring young Ottawa-based singer-songwriters Shannon Rose and Catriona Sturton, and South Carolina’s Tift Merritt.

While Shannon and Catriona did well in introducing themselves to a wider audience, the workshop clearly belonged to Tift, one of the most accomplished alt-country singer-songwriters of the past decade. Playing solo in the workshop setting, Tift showed she was just as effective by herself as she is with her concert band turning in compellingly powerful versions of several songs.

If there was a heart and soul to this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival, it could surely be found at the Hill Arthur McGregor, Terry Gillespie, Lynn Miles, Doug McArthur, Arthur II & Tish Parker – and, for a story and song, Chris White – paid tribute to the late Chopper McKinnon, the beloved host of CKCU’s Canadian Spaces for 33 years, a main-stage MC at the Ottawa Folk Festival for most of its existence, and the personification of Ottawa’s folk music scene for so many years.
Lynn Miles, Terry Gillespie & Arthur McGregor
Stage from 4:30 to 6:00 pm when veteran performers

The artists told Chopper stories and sang some of his favourite songs and songs that reminded them – and us – of Chopper. Lynn’s singing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young, Arthur McGregor’s reading of a poem about Chopper written by Wendy Moore, and Chris’ performance of a seasonal song about Chopper in his Santa-hat were among the most poignant moments of the tribute.

Chris White & Doug McArthur
Unfortunately, sound bleed from other stages, particularly it seems from the very loud Belle Game playing on the CUPE stage, hampered the concentration of both the artists and many in the audience, for much of the tribute.
The timing of the tribute to Chopper was an example of having to choose which stage to be at as there were a couple of other worthy events going on at the same time – a workshop performance and interview with singer-songwriter-astronaut Chris Hadfield and a full band concert by Tift Merritt – that I would have liked to have been at. Both, I'm told, were very good.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Ottawa Folk Festival – Friday, September 6

Emmylou Harris, bassist Byron House & Rodney Crowell.

After missing the first two nights of the 2013 Ottawa Folk Festival (I was with family in Montreal for the Jewish New Year), I returned to Ottawa last night for a great night at the Tartan Homes Stage at the north end of Hog’s Back Park that was capped off by a fabulous 90-minute set by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell and their very hot Glory Band.

As I’ve been saying since 2011 when the Ottawa Folk Festival became part of the Bluesfest operation – truth be told, in taking over the folk festival, Bluesfest saved it from financial ruin – there were two very different festivals taking place last night on the grounds of Hog’s Back Park. There was a real folk festival at one end of the site – attended by a strong folk festival audience, the folks who turned out year after year at Britannia Park – and a big, very young audience at the south end of the site for a hip hop festival. Judging by all the university-age kids streaming into Hog’s Back Park and passing right by Emmylou and Rodney and by all of us folkies streaming out of the park to the sounds of hip hop headliner Kendrick Lamar who started just as Emmylou and Rodney finished, it was, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling, a night when folk was folk and hip hop was hip hop “and never the twain shall meet.”

I’ve seen Emmylou Harris in a bunch of different settings over the years but last night’s show took me back to my first Emmylou concert sometime in mid-1970s when Rodney Crowell, an excellent singer-songwriter in his own right, was playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony in her Hot Band – a group dedicated to moving down the musical road paved by Emmylou’s duet partner Gram Parsons in his all-too-brief career.

In fact, the set began with Emmylou singing harmony to Rodney’s lead on a couple of Parsons’ classics: “Return of the Grievous Angel,” on which Emmylou sang harmony on Parsons’ original recording, and “Wheels” from his Flying Burrito Brothers days. Later in the set they rocked out on Parsons’ “Luxury Liner,” a song from his early International Submarine Band which was the title track of one of Emmylou’s early albums.

So the spirit of Gram Parsons, who pioneered the blending of traditional country music with rock ‘n’ roll, was very much in evidence throughout the set. But, beyond the Parsons songs, there were so many other highlights.

Emmylou did a riveting version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty” and she and Rodney 
Emmylou Harris singing "Darling Kate"
combined for gorgeous duets on Townes’ “If I Needed You,” Guy Clark’s “She Ain't Goin’ Nowhere” and Rodney’s sublime “Till I Gain Control Again.”

Others of Rodney’s originals that highlighted the show were the Cajun-inspired “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”; “Rock of My Soul,” a memoir about growing up in Houston with an alcoholic father; “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” another number for the band to rock out on; and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” inspired by the seminal ‘70s novel by Tom Robbins.

Although not primarily a songwriter, Emmylou also contributed a couple of excellent originals to the set: “Red Dirt Girl,” a memoir of growing up with a best friend in Alabama; and “Darling Kate,” an elegy for her (and my) late friend, Kate McGarrigle. She movingly performed “Darling Kate” solo without the band.

Emmylou and Rodney also performed several songs from Old Yellow Moon, their recent album of duets, including the sweet title track and a terrific version of Roger Miller’s classic country shuffle, “Invitation to the Blues.”

Beth Orton
Earlier in the evening there were fine sets by British singer-songwriter Beth Orton and Ottawa favourite Amanda Rheaume.

Unfortunately, Beth, who was accompanied on guitar, fiddle and harmony vocals on many of her songs by her husband, the American singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, had to contend with the highly distracting sound bleed from hip hop artist Shad playing at the other end of the park. To a solid round of applause, Beth spoke out critically about scheduling hip hop at the folk festival – particularly in a way that takes away from a much quieter “folk” performance.

But, Beth did rise above the distractions and turned in a set of melodic contemplative songs that won over the audience.

The evening began with a solid set by Amanda that included many of the songs from Keep a Fire, her
Amanda Rheaume
new album, which explores her family roots and history.

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--Mike Regenstreif