Folkfest Day 3: Lee Fields & the Expressions, Pony Girl & The National
Seven is just a number. It’s really only one more than six, two less than nine. It’s also a mystical number, sometimes considered holy. Even if you’re not spiritual you can agree that it’s prime, and that in art or composition it’s esthetically pleasing. Last night, the three sets that made my night at the Ottawa Folkfest were each presented by seven artists on stage, almost always three musicians on each side of a vocal frontman.
Lee Fields & The Expressions bringing their A game to the Eh! Stage at Ottawa’s Folkfest, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo: Joseph Mathieu
It began with Lee Fields and his backing band The Expressions (seven), a soulman from the late 60s with the young Truth & Sould Records’ house band from Williamsburg, New York. We walked up to his song “Ladies,” which showcases Fields’ adoration for all womankind. “Ladies! Beautiful ladies! Hey girl, what’s your name? Oh wow, you look so nice. I know your man is satisfied!” Lyrics coming from just anyone could come off as egotistical but from the soulful smile of Mr. Fields exudes his genuine appreciation of the women he meets.
His love for “short ones, tall ones, big ones, small ones,” is as evident as his grief in singing songs from his latest album, his fifth with the Expressions, Emma Jean. Named after his deceased mother, the album covers a wide range of emotion that certain artists can’t harness over their entire careers. He mentioned that he considered this album a whole mess of flowers for his mother, each song a bouquet for Emma Jean. “It Still Gets Me Down” and “Just Can’t Win” were as genuine as the Expressions backing him were expressionless. Perhaps their listless behaviour was to accentuate the passion in Lee Fields, as their languid side-step constrasted their leader’s sass.
“Ottawa, I love you!” he cried as his band side-stepped. His jet black hair might not have been authentic but this 63-year-old’s affection for music lovers was as honest as the day is long.
Yolande Laroche & Pascal Huot of Ottawa’s Pony Girl on the Hill Stage at Ottawa’s Folkfest, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo: Joseph Mathieu
The seven musicians that are Pony Girl started 20 minutes late, presumably because they’d just fallen out of a tour van fresh from St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, where they’d played on Wednesday. Despite this intense day trip at the end of an extensive two-week tour, the local collective still wowed the patrons of the Hill Stage last night. They were the second set on the stage’s local bill, coinciding with J. Cole on the Ravenlaw Stage, which they were sad to miss. They played several new songs from their upcoming sophomore LP called Foreign Life, and demonstrated just how creative their composition will continue to be. The 2014 winter addition of Mitch Cousineau on organ & piano is a boon to their sound.
I don’t want to be accused of beating a dead horse (let alone a healthy pony) but the septet once again showed us how they are more than the sum of its parts. Take Pascal Huot for example. He is the soft-spoken frontman who guides us through their set, and he is also one fourth of the singing quartet, one third of their guitar trio, and at least half of their synth duo. Impressively enough, the other sample-wielder is their drummer Jeff Kingsbury. All these fractions amount to a whole that seems to expand the more you look at it. Their vibrations present a mosaic that’s just beautiful.
“Sleeptalk” had the crowd take up a double clap at the second tempo change near the end of the six-minute song, and the band sustained it longer than usual. The swaying necks of the stringed-instruments showed us in old & new songs just how danceable their beats are. It was, as always, a stirring performance. “Hey guys, whether you are a concert-goer, a photographer or a fellow musician, keep doing what you’re doing,” said Huot. “Remember that you are the scene.” We feel the same way. It takes a lot of little things to make a big thing, doesn’t it?
The National’s Matt Berninger on stage in front of thousands, alone with his demons. Photo: Mark Horton, Ottawa Folk Festival Press Images
Afterwards, we elbowed our way to the Eh! Stage to get as close as we could. When the lights finally flashed and turned, and the sound system took on that crunch it gets when the band approaches, “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors calmly ushered in two sets of brothers, a lead singer and their back-up brass (seven). The slow realization among the crowd that The National had just taken the stage caused a dull roar to grow and grow. They opened with “Don’t Swallow The Cap” off their 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, a song that references two albums that allegedly make singer-songwriter Matt Berninger cry: Let It Be and Nevermind. Along with the sound of rain at the start of “Riders” and Jim Morrison’s lyrics describing a killer on the road, his mind squirming like a toad, The National’s atmosphere descended upon Hog’s Back like a fog.
Moments before their set began, the quintessial snowy-haired sponsor came on stage to thank everyone who made the festival possible. He also shared his hopes with the crowd that these concerts were going to “make Ottawa the greatest place for live music in the summer!” An assertive plan that we should get behind! Moments later, a speaker blew out and feedback assaulted every ear present for a beadonor.ca ad featuring Hélène Campbell & Ellen DeGeneres. The will is there! Now we just have to find the way to a good sound technician.
I’ve heard it’s incredibly difficult to get terrific sound at outdoor concerts, but every artist who puts in an earpiece and wails into a mic is putting his or her ear at the mercy of the technician. It would only benefit the artists and our experience that every mic was at a reasonable volume. Not being able to hear either of the Dressner twins for the first two songs painfully reminded me of Deltron 3030’s Bluesfest show — neither Del nor the Automator’s mics were working for several songs.
A couple missed lines and an entirely absent bridge to “Squalor Victoria” indicated that Berninger might not have been too happy with the sound, but it also might have just been his sweet shine on. Was white wine the culprit of his angry sway, or was it truly those demons that he feels every time he performs his songs? Berninger is a poet with rhymes that fall plainly into the esoteric emotional kind, whose depressive content reminds one of Leonard Cohen. Despite all indication that The National is a downer, I assure you it’s not. Their amped up renditions of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Sea of Love” (music video below), were the leg-shaking anthems fans crave. Nothing can quite beat Berninger’s penchant for jumping into the crowd with his stage-anchored mic and running as far back as he can while singing “Mr. November.” Perhaps leering over the crowd like a lecher while oozing the words of “Terrible Love”?
According to one fan, the horn of Kyle Resnick was “the most epic use of trumpet since the middle ages,” at the end of “Fake Empire.” Before the song, Berninger quipped, “It’s not cold, it’s crisp!” and sipped from a plastic cup. Throughout the entire set there were moments that made us melt: one of the twins holding a guitar by the body and bouncing the headstock on the ground to play on the reverb, the other playing piano with a guitar hanging upside down on his back like a medieval weapon, and of course the epic conclusion with “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It’s a song we’ve sung at a party, in the kitchen, at 3 a.m. — and it’s one of the things we howl to get through a bad day — and when the entire crowd at Hog’s Back gets into the the song and sings every word, the silence between verses was dizzying, just beautiful. They ended on a high, just five minutes shy of 11 p.m., making us think we’d have an encore, and sadly we didn’t. Truthfully, that kind of hurt.
“Hey Joe, sorry I hurt you but they say love is a virtue, don’t they?” Well, that’s true. Thanks guys!
Ottawa Folkfest 2014: Showbox’s Top Picks
Possibly one of the sweetest spots under the protection of the National Capital Commission is Hog’s Back Park.The relaxing sight of moving water next to the walking path, however, was once a hellish working environment. The rocky falls were a considerable thorn in the sides of the Royal Engineers who built the Rideau Canal — the construction had to halt several times due to the dam collapsing. Scots, Gaels, Brits & Frenchmen camped out in the woods east of the falls as they built a weir that would officially separate the river from the canal.
Those woods are now the site of many an elementary school picnic, or a bike ride to a lecture, or just a nice stroll. It’s also going to be where Ottawa Folkfest will take place starting tomorrow, a growing tradition put on by the folks who bring us RBC Bluesfest every year, as well as the Bluesprint Series & the Bluesfest School of Music & Art (BSOMA) on Churchill Avenue.
This year’s lineup include some seriously cool acts, as well as free shows on five out of the eight stages. There will be a Craft Beer House featuring the brews of Dominion City, Beau’s, Whitewater, Mill Street & Broadhead, and free rickshaw rides! We’re stoked to see some live music and enjoy our beautiful park the way we hope our ancestral labourers did once the dam held — with late nights of merriment and dancing.
Fred Penner is possibly the most recognizable children’s entertainer for many of us. His show involved the exploration of a forest and its friends, with songs ranging from sharing to civic duty. His most hardcore joint is a shameless dirge about being stalked by a cat. It gets so desperate that someone loads a shotgun with nails & dynamite and a train is derailed on the way to the Rockies. He will play two shows in the Craft Beer House, one family show in prime time and another without that description… Will we be seeing a side of Mr. Penner that might feature some killer beats & mature material? We can’t wait to find out.
Saturday, Sept. 13 @ 4 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Craft Beer House
The Gaslight Anthem
When Bruce Springsteen wrote Darkness On the Edge of Town in 1978, he was writing about the American way of life – the way it really was. The Boss’s ability to tell stories about society, disillusion, love, and loss is what allowed the masses to take him in as one of their own. Not many songwriters have been able to approach music in this way over the years. Brian Fallon, lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem, didn’t take music lessons at a conservatory. He took lessons sitting in front of his mother’s record player listening to the stories that Springsteen told, absorbing and interpreting his words and music as a young kid growing up in New Jersey. Not only is Gaslight’s music undeniably influenced by that of Springsteen’s, but the band is also able to portray thematic elements and convey the deepest and darkest observations of American life on the individual and societal levels. Blending a bit of folk, rock, and punk, The Gaslight Anthem offers concert-goers music that is free of pretension and falsehood – what remains on stage are a group of raw, genuine reconteurs.
Sunday, Sept. 14 @ 9:30 p.m.
A big year for local band Pony Girl, who’ll play their East Coast tour’s homecoming show on Friday. Described as art-rock, their true definition would include too many words & hyphens to list here. A cosmic collaboration of professional multi-instrumentalists? Outer space comes to mind when you listen to their debut album Show Me Your Fears, and the inclusion of violin & cello on a couple tracks lend to their chamber sensibilities, not to mention the clarinet, EWI, synthesizer(s) & four vocalists. Chamber-pop? Their next album, Foreign Life, will be released in the new year and we’ll be keeping an hear out for some of their new tracks they’ve hopefully polished on the road. Soundscape smorgasbord?
Friday, Sept. 12 @ 7:30 p.m.
DJs Zattar & Memetic are going to offer a free dance party at the aptly named Craft Beer House on the first night of Folkfest. That Wednesday night might as well be called Funkfest, with their jazzy uptempo & funky electro beats. The hosts of TIMEKODE have been jivving together for nine years this November, and it’s not likely to slow down anytime soon. Get the party started!
Wednesday, Sept. 10 @ 8 p.m.
Craft Beer House
The term progressive defines the roots reggae of Messenjah as the 33-year-old collective from Kitchener, ON was the first Canadian reggae band to ever be signed to a major label. They’ve toured the world extensively, played for and in movies in Hollywood, and in 1998 they received a JUNO Award and played for Nelson Mandela at the Sky Dome. Coming out on top, they disbanded amicably that year to pursue their own interests. Just last year, their Messenjah’s Session was re-released to be followed by their 1982 debut album Rock You High re-release this year. This will all coincide with a reunion tour that’s been rumoured for a number of years, now with just as much backbeat & riddim as when they started. You’ll find in Messenjah a funky refresher at the end of the festival, once openers for The Clash now closing international festivals, always bringing the boom-bap.
Sunday, Sept. 14 @ 9:30 p.m.
Neutral Milk Hotel
This band is an enigma of sorts. Neutral Milk Hotel released two incredible albums in the late 90s – On Avery Island in 1996 and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998. This was a troubled time for music in general, with a virtual identity crisis occurring within the ranks of musicians and industry people. But Jeff Magnum and co. brought us these timeless albums that have been treasured for a decade and a half, only to splinter shortly thereafter and recede into the shadows of the 2000s. Well, they’re back. After a string of solo shows by Magnum, NMH announced a massive 130-date tour spanning over two years. With only a handful of Canadian dates, we’re lucky to have these guys come to play in Ottawa. Especially considering many of us were unsure they would ever play again, period.
Saturday, Sept. 13 @ 8:15 p.m.
Formed in 1999, The National is a band that embodies the notion that hard work pays off. After years of writing songs and playing shows, and even leaving their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio to find bigger and better things in NYC, The National found late-career fame and never gave up on their journey. Their albums often give esoteric portrayals of the spectrum of human emotion. Those who listen attentively will find layers of truth and beauty in the lyrics, the composition, and aesthetic of their music. Showgoers can expect lead singer Matt Berninger to give a manic, despondent performance that suddenly explodes with moments of fervent and expressive behaviour. Berninger is also known to break out of the confines that is the stage and jump into the loving crowd, all while singing with them and challenging the artificial boundary that exists between artist and audience.
Friday, Sept. 12 @ 9:30 p.m.
Photo Credit Heather Pollock
The Strumbellas are a band that contains the heart of the true north. Their folk roots run deep, echoing the soul and spirit of their Canadiana forefathers and foremothers. Their music can be appreciated by the old guard, those who may be less interested in modern Canadian music but are enchanted by the storytelling of Gordon Lightfoot or Joni Mitchell, and also younger audiences that are more in touch with Canadian indie in general. Their efforts have afforded them plenty of well-deserved opportunities, and they even won a Juno for their 2014 breakthrough album We Still Move on the Dance Floor in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year category. They were also long-listed for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, showing that they are in the running as one of the best bands in Canada. The Strumbellas are on our list because you just can’t go wrong – one can fall in love with the music they’ve written and they are just getting started.
Saturday, Sept. 13 @ 8:30 p.m.
Lee Fields and the Expressions
Lee Fields is a legend. He’s made music for 45 years, he’s mastered the styles of soul, funk, R&B and blues, and by all indication he’s continually evolving and coming into his own. Lee Fields and the Expressions is Fields backed by the house band of the Truth & Soul label out of Williamsburg, NY. Known as “Little JB,” you just have to listen to “Ladies” to see why — his croon and melodies remind of James Brown, his stage presence causes cold sweats. The steady lounge rhythm of the Expressions matched to Fields’ smoky voice will assuredly warm the Park on Friday night, when we’ll be able to see other artists of the day line the back stage to see a champion show us how it’s done.
Friday, Sept. 12 @ 7 p.m.
There’s something about Lucky Ron‘s act at the Laff that gets the crowd really participating in his show. It could be his take on the greats like Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley, or his insistence that he is one per cent of the show while the crowd is 99% crowd, or just the simple fact he plays rocking hillbilly music with all his heart. His tale is very much tied to the Chateau Lafayette on York Street, where he’s been playing on a weekly basis for over 15 years now. His western tunes take on a swinging rockabilly lilt and his grin is infectuous. There’s something about Lucky Ron! It’s not that he’s faster or louder than any one-man show, it’s probably not his slow wink (which can in fact melt the heart of any freshman or retiree), no it might be his genuine love of the art of talking to people while singing a ballad. He’s made many a night at the Laff memorable (he was married there too!) and he’s bound to set off the first evening chills of Thursday night as he’ll play on the Hill Stage for a free show. If only we could have a quart of 50 in hand…
Thursday, Sept. 11 @ 8 p.m.