Great weather, fantastic music, smiling crowds: CityFolk made Ottawa look good

Ireland’s pop-rock superstar Hozier paid his first visit to Ottawa on Saturday, and it was hard to tell who was more impressed.

Fans were impressed because the singer-songwriter and his band put on a fantastic show, delighting every one of the approximately 10,000 filling Lansdowne Park’s Great Lawn on a warm, clear summer evening. It was the biggest crowd of this year’s edition of CityFolk, which wrapped up Sunday.

The night’s marquee artist, seemed genuinely impressed, too, saying he was struck by the beauty of the city and the warmth of the crowd. He’d spent the previous day in our city, and called it a “beautiful part of the world.”

The long-haired 28-year-old also expressed gratitude for the love of fans, and, after thousands of voices joined him to sing Someone New, acknowledged the magic in the air. “You sound amazing,” Hozier said. “I’ve never had a crowd sing like that before.”

“I haven’t felt this way in a long time,” he added a bit later, and he apologized for having taken so long to visit.

Hozier wasn’t the only artist who enjoyed his time in Ottawa. Rock legend David Byrne hit the bike trails Thursday, cycling along the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River, up to the Champlain Bridge and back, before wowing the festival audience with a brilliantly choreographed show.

Members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band were spotted hanging out downtown a day or so before their stellar performance on Wednesday. And Canada’s goth-country sweetheart, Lindi Ortega, paused to savour the landscape during her excellent set on Saturday. “Look at this beautiful sunset,” she said, prompting everyone in the crowd to glance over their shoulders at the glowing sky. “I live for these moments.”

No matter what your perspective, whether headlining artist or casual music fan, CityFolk and its free-music offshoot, Marvest, made Ottawa look good.

For starters, the weather was ideal, a late-summer blast of heat that provided plenty of sunshine and zero rain for the duration of the five-day event. Secondly, the main site worked well, with one outdoor stage and one inside in the Aberdeen Pavilion, the Cattle Castle transformed by curtains into a black box.

With lawn chairs relegated to certain sections of the grounds, there were few, if any, conflicts in the audience. The smiling crowd was made up of people of all ages, from families with young children to elders of the folk scene.

Most importantly, of course, the music was fantastic, with multiple standout performances. At press time Sunday (before the Decemberists’ fans showed up) the three best-attended shows were Hozier, Byrne, and Tedeschi-Trucks. All three were amazing shows.

Early-evening main-stage performances were no less inspired. Highlights included singer-songwriter-bandleader Ani DiFranco, Icelandic rockers Kaleo, Texan roots-rocker Steve Earle and The Dukes, vintage Canadian rockers 54-40 and Barney Bentall, Saskatchewan alt-country hero Colter Wall and the full-band configuration of Toronto’s Whitehorse.

Even the difficult Aberdeen Pavilion finally became a decent music venue thanks to that black-box treatment and a versatile seating plan. The rows of chairs seemed to encourage folks to sit down and listen to someone like folk legend Janis Ian or blues stalwart Chris Smither or fast-rising Canadian singer-songwriter William Prince, but also to stand up and rock out with old faves Skydiggers, who attracted the Pavilion’s biggest, sweatiest crowd.

Another indoor highlight was the fiery and authentic Texas country blues-rock set performed Saturday night by Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, backed by The Guilty Ones, with master drummer Liza Pankratz.

This year’s festival also celebrated the 25th anniversary of its roots as the Ottawa Folk Festival, with several events that allowed folkies to reflect on the event’s 1994 origin. Sunday’s founders’ forum featured members of the original organizing committee, including Max Wallace, Chris White and Pam Marjerrison, along with current executive director Mark Monahan, who’s also boss of Bluesfest.

When asked why keep a festival running when times were tough, as they were in the early days for both folk fest and Bluesfest, Monahan spoke about connections.

“Over the years, people approach me about how the festival changed things for them or how they met someone, maybe a spouse or neighbour or friend,” he said. “The festivals bring people together. Whether it’s volunteers, organizers or performers, that’s why we do it. It’s a way to bring the community together.”

Good work, founders, past and present. Can’t wait until next summer.

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