Opening Night at Ottawa Folkfest with Blues Traveler and Foster the People

Photos: Mike Bouchard

Words: Jay McConnery

Opening night at Hog’s Back packed in an impressive horde of smiling music-lovers, and presented an unintentionally perfect microcosmic encapsulation of the Ottawa Folk Fest through music, weather and spirit. The night began warm, with wisps of humidity retreating from the chilly breeze, as a late summer storm slowly rolled in, eventually soaking revellers who seemed not to care in the least. It was fun becoming re-acquainted with the digs, watching patrons explore the comfortable family-friendly site, which boasts a fantastic ‘free-zone’ including vendors, concessions, live stages, as well as an awesome craft beer area. Guests without passes can visit, explore and enjoy complimentary music, accessing some great artisans and informative booths- providing reminiscence of the previous site at Britannia, and the festival’s social community origins. The ‘ticket’ side is fenced in (with a fairly small check point) and includes several stages on the comfortable grass-y pitch extending between Heron and Hog’s Back, dotted with vendors, concessions and beards. I managed to catch the last few songs of M. Ward’s set- and didn’t get an opportunity to find a desirable spot. However, tonight I was able to catch aesthetically polar opposites (which both somehow fit tidily in the new direction of Folk Fest), beginning with the comfortably paunchy jam legends Blues Traveler, and later the slick manicured and somewhat vacuous pop of Foster the People.

John Popper, love him or hate him, is an icon- a truly original voice, one which is immediately recognizable through either his unique vocals or ridiculously gifted harp playing. The band looked like they may’ve just burned one backstage, but still emerged musically focused, determined to improvise and playfully interact with their crowd and their music. Though a little older and more cock-eyed than their last visit to town, they meandered through an entertaining set which built in tandem with the improving FOH sound. Its interesting to recall this band’s peers and look back over Blues Traveler’s long and impressive pedigree. This band successfully rode the crest of the early 90s jam-band heyday and have remained relevant on a mass scale by writing a bunch of great songs, which even got my sandalled toes twitching in time. It’s hard to argue with ‘Runaround’ or ‘But, Anyway’- as pop gold, and timeless. By the end of the set, I think everyone agreed it had been a treat, as they sandwiched the setlist with ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’. I noticed their music inspires a certain kind of dance which is somewhere between a lunge and a controlled collapse. This move can be done individually or with a group, and is somewhat akin to scooping invisible matter with one’s groin.

The group around the MainStage was crammed for FtP, Foster himself a modern icon- though  of protools and DIY initiative. Known for the hits ‘Pumped up Kicks’ and ‘Coming of Age’ this L.A. (Boy?) band was high on production but seemed to rely on the placement of their singles to retain the audience. And though their hits are undeniably good- the performance seemed a little juvenile. I thought there were certainly some moments of interest, but didn't identify for the most part with the music or vocals, finding it difficult to tell if the band uses backing tracks. It’s certain there won’t be any backing tracks for the ‘Noisy Locomotives’ Thursday night, who perform along with Lorde and Serena Ryder.