That’s a wrap, folks! Ottawa CityFolk felt like it took forever to get here, and then was over in a flash. I’m still busy processing a lot of what I heard. I have many new artists to properly delve into, many new names on my musical radar. Covering this festival has been my absolute pleasure, and it is with a smile on my face that I write this final report. I’ll start by talking a bit about the festival grounds and then we’ll get into my favourite sets of the festival.
The Venue: A-
Wow…the improvement of CityFolk’s use of Lansdowne Park over last year is nothing short of remarkable. Last year I gave the venue a measly C+ with the hopes that the mistakes made would be obvious and that the CityFolk organizers would make some drastic changes. Done and done!
The largest issue last year was mobility. The main festival grounds and the stage in the Horticulture Building were separated, and moving between them was unnecessarily cumbersome. The result was that everyone stayed in the main area, which was small to begin with. This year, the gated CityFolk area extended out to include the Aberdeen Pavilion, the Horticulture Building, and everything in between. Not only was movement between stages effortless, people just had more space to walk around. Everything was less congested and felt a whole lot more free.
The second huge improvement was the addition of the stage in the Aberdeen Pavilion. I did not know what to expect from this area, since the building is huge and cavernous, and last year’s free stage there was a small riser in the corner. This year, they curtained off a good portion of the building to create a proper, insulated stage with spectacular sound. The rest of the pavilion played host to various craft shops and vendors. This stage gave the festival-goers another great alternative to the main stage, particularly during Saturday’s rain.
My one and only complaint about Lansdowne was that the sound in the Horticulture Building leaves something to be desired. It wasn’t quite as bad as last year, when I had to leave some sets that I was looking forward to because it was impossible to hear anything, but I would love it if they did something to clarify the sound in that room.
The Music: B-
This year’s CityFolk may not have had the stacked from top to bottom lineup that they had last year, but man was there ever some great music. When the lineup was initially released, I got a lot of indifference from those who might have been interested. I certainly felt it as well, as there were many artists that were unknown to me. Most of my favourites listed were artists I had seen before. If I have learned one thing this year, it’s that an unfamiliar lineup is not a negative, it’s an opportunity for discovery.
That being said, even with some fantastic new discoveries, we didn’t have quite the group that I was hoping for. This was particularly due to a poor crop of headliners. While the undercard had plenty to be excited about, the headliners were a list of artists who happen to have a popular single or two, not musicians with the cemented legacy of Wilco or Van Morrison. There were zero headliners who inspired me to stick around for the whole set, but fortunately there were good alternatives elsewhere.
Regardless there were far more than five names that deserve special attention, and I have been talking about them a bit in my recaps, but I have to make a list. Here it is, my five favourite indie sets from Ottawa CityFolk 2016:
I don’t know if I have ever seen a group of four musicians who melded together in a way that they are essentially indistinguishable. This band of folk songsters crowded around a single microphone and became one. Their harmonized voices were so precise that I honestly could’t tell which voice belonged to each person. They may have had different instruments in their hands, but their playing felt inseparable. Music poured out of them like a crisp, cold spring through the mountains. Not only were they exceptionally talented, but they had the most creative band introduction of the members of the band that I had ever heard. With a matter-of-fact tone, one member found a roundabout way to associate every member with the city of Ottawa, and it was rather charming.
4. Jim Bryson
It makes me very happy to include a local artist on this list. Jim Bryson’s set was full of well-crafted, thoughtful, poetic songs that seemed to roll along with ease, smoothly rising and falling with each story that Bryson told. Each folk-rock song allowed me to just sink into a groove and float with the laid back but energetic music. His self-deprecating, sarcastic banter between songs was endearing, adding a very friendly element to his whole persona. Witty banter is an aspect of folk music that not all artists use, but it can be a great enhancer of a performance. It certainly did in this case.
3. Dan Mangan
Dan Mangan ditched his band in favour of commanding the Ottawa CityFolk crowd with just his voice and a guitar. His voice carried so powerfully that the surrounding area couldn’t absorb the sound, sending the peak moments of his singing in a surging echo back to the audience. His songs are masterfully crafted, he has a captivating rapport with the audience, and with that echo he had the spirits of CityFolk on his side. I’ll be seeing him again whenever I get the chance.
2. Plants and Animals
I was so excited to finally see the songs from Waltzed in From the Rumbling performed live now that I actually am familiar with them, and they did not disappoint. I’ve written about Plants and Animals live shows plenty of times around here, so I won’t go too far into it, but the passion and excitement in this band just pours out of them into the audience. Hearing the many changes being executed perfectly in “We Were One”, an extended instrumental segment in “No Worries Gonna Find Us”, or praying for an encore and getting “Je Voulais te Dire” are all examples of phenomenal moments in a great performance.
1. Guided by Voices
I don’t think this was a set that was particularly attractive to a large amount of the festival crowd, but for me this show was absolutely transcendental. After hearing about Guided by Voices for years, then finally getting a little bit of familiarity with them, I knew I was in for a good show. Little did I know, this set was going to blow my brain out and leave my ears ringing for days.
The music of Guided by Voices seemed to come in three layers. The first is the wall of distortion and noise. The front line of pure, raw energy that draws out the primal emotion living within us. The second is the vocal melodies and the lyrics. At times Robert Pollard charmed me with a pop melody that would refuse to leave my head. At times the perspective in his words make me feel like I’m seeing something I’ve never seen before. Sometimes he did away with all that and joined in with the mess of cacophonous punk.
The third layer is the most buried. It is the deft interplay between the members of the band that is so cleverly disguised by layer one. It’s easy not to notice the unique harmonies between guitars. It’s easy to lose the quick accents in the drums when the music moves at such a fast pace. It’s easy to miss things when the songs seem to end before they even begin. But when these elements are heard, they take the music to a whole other dimension. Throughout this set, I felt like I was in this other dimension, hearing things with a brand new set of ears that were about to be destroyed due to unhealthy sound levels. Pure brilliance.
Non-Indie Honourable Mention and Surprise of the Festival Goes to…
Marlon Williams, with a voice that was at times wistful, at times dark and creepy, and at times energetic and fun. His band was as tight as they come, playing off the dynamic frontman at every turn. I was astounded by the vocal control that Williams head, bending and twisting his tone and delivery to perfectly match whatever feeling he was trying to convey. This guy completely won me over, and would be slotted at #2 in the list above if he weren’t on a major record label.
There you have it folks, the final recap of Ottawa CityFolk 2016. It’s been so much fun, and I cannot wait to do it all again next year. The last thing I will post about CityFolk will be a whole pile of photos that I took over the weekend. Keep an eye out!