Elephant Revival, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Blue Rodeo at Ottawa Folkfest

Photos: Mike Bouchard

Words: Jay McConnery

Cold as Folk Fest continued Saturday with another diverse line-up of exceptional talent and somewhat uncomfortable muddy, toe-freezing weather. The craft beer tent kept things toasty, as well as it's patron's insides tingly with tasty sample-beers and east coast revelry, but elsewhere on the site, crowds were left to huddle en masse and stay warm by jostling as much as possible. After a day of cold torrential rain, navigation on Saturday was a mucky challenge, but enthusiastic audiences kept the mood jovial and tolerable. As I entered, Seasick Steve entertained the main-stage area with a series of unique, hand-altered instruments set to thunderous bluesy back beat. After some wandering, I settled in to check out Elephant Revival on the Hill Stage. They are an eclectic folk grass group from Colorado with a phenomenally unique sound, marked by soaring harmonies, an electric guit-banjo and subtle washboard percussion. This was clearly a special opportunity to see this group on such a small, intimate stage- and the faces of the musicians suggested it was one they were enjoying as much as the audience. Lead female vocalist Bonnie Paine sounds like a cross between Edie Brickell and Sarah Harmer – charming my long johns partially off with her toothsome timbre, and Bridget Law entranced with her quick fiddle work and toothy grin. From here, I jockeyed for position at the Ravenlaw stage for Neutral Milk Hotel, along with a swath of dedicated fans and curious onlookers. In advance, spoken word poet Mustafa presented some interactive pieces both creative and thought provoking. Perhaps not a popular choice for those with four or more drinks in their system, but I felt his brief slam drew the audience into a reflective mode and propelled the NMH performance even further. 

Bearded Jeff Magnum emerged to begin the set alone. He picked up a beaten-up hollow body jazz box and began with a track from Ferris wheel on Fire, 'I will bury you in time' and then 'Holland, 1945.' Regardless of one's familiarity with the singer (or band), it's impossible to not be drawn to Magnum's iconic delivery or his challenging, enigmatic lyrics- some of which paint immediate pictures in the listener's mind, and others of which are left to stew in a discomforting heap, somewhere in the upper intestine or esophagus. He was soon joined by the line-up which produced the group's legendary 'Aeroplane over the Sea,' and the band delivered a zealous reproduction of much of this classic material, manipulating the ebb and flow of their presentation with skill. The band employed an endless array of instruments and tools, as Cardigan wearing multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster shifted between bass, percussion, musical saw and keyboards where appropriate. I was definitely reminded how much I enjoyed this music, and plan to re-visit the recordings, um, now. The only draw back were the choruses of fanboys singing at the top of their lungs- but of course it's fun to feel like you are in your favourite band.

After some recalibration, Blue Rodeo took the stage to blast through their ridiculous catalogue of hits with skill and professionalism otherwise unmatched. The sound for their set was fat and pristine, and although its not always cool to admit- I love Blue Rodeo. I really think they are arguably THE quintessential Canadian band, in theme, lyric and tone and in many ways narrative, having spent their early days slugging it out unsuccessfully in the US market. I laughed with a colleague earlier in the day that their low end authority, bassist Bazil Donovan, was genuinely born to play the instrument, or at least, born with the name of a bass player and realized at some point he had no choice. Cuddy and Keelor are so distinctly complimentary and oppositional as the central yin and yang of the group, it'll be hard to deny somewhere in the future that they aren't Canada's imperfect equivalent of a Lennon-McCartney, perfect storm partnership. The guitar work of Colin Cripps is tasty enough to keep the gear hounds interested, and the pedal steel and keyboard work finish a masterwork in rock performance. After seeing this band a dozen times, and never really going into it, I thought I should this time.