Yesterday was not a day for the faint of heart. Only the most stalwart audiophiles showed up early to brave the rains of Ottawa CityFolk. Well, in reality, it’s a pretty easy festival for beating rain. The two indoor stages make for a great refuge whenever the downpour gets a little too heavy. Those who did make it out were treated to what has undoubtedly been the strongest day of CityFolk so far. My only regret is having cut a few sets short, but that’s the nature of a festival with overlapping stages.
I started my day by just catching a few songs from Bitterly Healed. What I heard was patient, soulful acoustic folk that rang with a deep sadness. Their songs were beautiful, but I had to make my way to the main stage for Dan Mangan. He stood on his own, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a microphone, ready to deliver a powerful performance that would win over nearly every member of the modestly-sized crowd. His storytelling songs were carried effortlessly by a voice with such strength that it echoed off the stadium behind the festival grounds. That echo, although unintended, gave Dan Mangan’s songs an ethereal quality that cannot quite be replicated simply with effects.
Next up was a beloved Canadian entertainer known as Fred Penner. His voice ringing sweetly as it always has, he delighted audience members of all ages. I could not help but grin as an ever-growing horde of children at the front of the crowd danced without inhibition, forming an impromptu conga line of pure joy.
I caught pieces of The New Pornographers and Hadrian’s Wall, but ultimately I had to make a critical run to Kettleman’s before Basia Bulat’s set. Basia Bulat was trying out the new, more indie-pop oriented style of her most recent album. She performed in a quartet for most of the show, making sure to take time for a few solo acoustic songs. I did miss the unique tones of the plethora of folk instruments that she has mastered, but it is always interesting to see an artist go in a new direction.
Moving back to the BMO stage, I figured I would try out the first half of Marlon Williams’ set. Little did I know that by the halfway mark I would be completely transfixed by his music. He had a voice of liquid gold and was backed by a band of incredibly tight musicians with the most precise harmonies. Whether it was bluegrass, classic country, rockabilly, or southern folk, this band pulled it off beautifully. Without a doubt, this was one of the best sets of the festival and a complete surprise.
Finally, it was time for Hat Fitz and Cara, a dynamic folk-blues duo hailing from Australia and Ireland, respectively. I only caught the last few songs of their set, but what I heard was some raw and sloppy but unique blues guitar playing from a man who looks like he belongs in a classic Western movie and a woman with a big voice full of character and a mean pair of hands flying all over a washboard.
After hearing a bastardized mashup of Paul Simon’s classic “You Can Call Me Al” and the insipid “Cheerleader” from Vance Joy, I was content with my choice to skip him. I would have like to hear John Moreland, but instead I went down to Irene’s to check out the Marvest scene. After a long day of standing it was nice to see this side of the festival and to sit in a bar with a delicious Beau’s Nordic Pale Ale, although we couldn’t really hear the band from the back. Overall, it was a phenomenal day for Ottawa CityFolk.
I’ll have photos from a bunch of these shows up in the next few days, and after Sunday’s action, I’ll have a definitive report on CityFolk as a whole.