By Peter Cech
The weekend lineup at Ottawa Folkfest delivered on its promise of a wide variety of musical styles. The Friday lineup kicked off in style with local sensation Amanda Rheaume, followed by Shad, Beth Orton, Matt Anderson, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Tall Trees, Robyn Hitchcock, The Dusty Drifters, and culminated with the hotly anticipated performance of socal hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar. Yes, you read that correctly, Kendrick Lamar was the headline act on Friday’s lineup at Ottawa Folkfest. The event organizers promised a diverse lineup, and they certainly delivered on this night.
The set-up of the free stage was certainly nicely done. The spectators had plenty of space to perch alongside the hill with a great view of the performance, and the sound carried beautifully across the crowd. The choice of food options on this side of the fence was also plentiful. Dancing like crazy was the choice of some concert-goers on this side to help keep warm when the sun went down.
The Tartan stage hosted Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell. Even at 66, the energy coming from this woman on stage is incredible, let alone her powerful voice. Their performance included many favourites, including Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” There was some distraction from the spectators near the back of the crowd during the performance, as first aid responders, police, and paramedics spent some time aiding a man who was attending the concert with his family and had certainly seen better days. It is a good thing that after some time helping him, they were able to help him hobble out through the crowd, as getting a gurney in there, let alone an ambulance, would have been near impossible on the slope of the hill with the crowds.
It is safe to say that the late Friday night crowd was not your typical laid-back Folkfest type of crowd – it was quite the opposite in fact. They were there to see one artist in particular, and that was Kendrick Lamar. DJ Noah of Live 88.5 was on stage to introduce Kendrick in a bright orange prison style jumpsuit, and the crowd loved it. From the first song to the last, the crowd needed little encouragement from Kendrick to whip them into a raucous and boisterous state. Kendrick delivered an energetic and powerful performance, albeit a tad short on time. The crowd was more than happy to go along with any of his requests to sing, clap, curse, finger snap or raise their arms. The crowd’s continual participation throughout the set was definitely a great visual. Kendrick’s set included songs from both of his studio albums, Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The band behind Kendrick was equally as entertaining, and better than I was expecting for an artist of this genre. It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar has a strong fan base in the city of Ottawa. You could make the case that Kendrick Lamar’s performance was the highlight of the night, and I would generally agree with you. But for me, the highlight of the night was watching the wannabe Ottawa “gangstas” pile into mom and dad’s minivan to take them back to the suburbs. That sight alone was worth the price of admission.
Sunday was certainly a show not to miss. Carolina Chocolate Drops performed on the CUPE Stage, and combined dance with their lively string performance. The voice on the lead singer, Rhiannon Giddens, was powerful and warm. She belted out a beautiful and energetic Celtic song, which picked up in speed as it went on. Her bare, dancing feet moved on stage as if it was so natural to her, and as though she as feeling the music through her shoeless soles. They certainly had big shoes to fill, playing right before Gordon Lightfoot on the adjacent stage.
Then there was Gordon. He came out on the Ravenlaw stage with his band in a bright red, cropped velvet blazer. It was certainly clearly visible from anywhere in the crowd. Gordon made every effort to engage the crowd in between songs. He even had time to confirm that the rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated. This was a very different crowd from the Kendrick Lamar show Friday night. The audience was laid-back, yet very excited to see him. The majority of the spectators were seated in rather tightly-packed rows of camping chairs. The crowd was overall an older group, who likely listened to Gordon during their glory days. They swayed to the music, and let out the odd hoot or call when he began singing one of their favourite tunes, but other than that it was rather mellow. Gordon did not disappoint, playing all of his best material including “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” and “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” At 74 years old, Gordon Lightfoot continues to wow with his great lyrics and his charismatic delivery. Despite being a last-minute replacement filling in for Neil Young who had to cancel his appearance Gordon played second fiddle to no one.
The 2013 edition of Folkfest showed that the festival is only just beginning to hit its stride. The right combination of artists and a great venue made for a great event. I can’t wait to see what new adventures in folk the organizers have in store for us in 2014.