|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.
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
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.
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.