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

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