The first Ottawa Folk Music festival took place 25 years ago on Victoria Island. On the lineup Aug. 28, 1994 were a couple of Ottawa singer-songwriters, Valdy and David Wiffen.
The event moved to Britannia Park the next year and carried on there until 2011 when it moved to Hogs Back Park. The old festival had run into financial difficulty and the new location was chosen by the festival’s new management team led by Mark Monahan of RBC Ottawa Bluesfest and new ambition, bringing in some major headliners such as Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few.
The ambition started to be realized with a move to the rejuvenated Lansdowne Park, a rebranding to CityFolk and the creation of a festival within the festival called Marvest which has brought local musicians into unusual venues in the Glebe.
This ambition continues Sept. 12 to 15 with a lineup that is eclectic in its makeup. Included in the list are Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, Steve Earle and The Dukes,Hozier, Lindi Ortega, Whitehorse, Ben Caplan, Skydiggers, JUNO winners MonkeyJunk, ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter Janis Ian, Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, Tedeschi Trucks Band and The Decembrists in .
This mix of nostalgia with current acts works, Monahan says.
One act he’s excited about is David Byrne. “It’s nice to get him on a cycle when he is doing a lot of Talking Heads music.” That should appeal to fans.
Another unique event will be a tribute concert for the founder of The Byrds, Gene Clark, who died in 1991. The idea for the show came from Frank Magazine founder Michael Bate who is a huge Gene Clark fan, Monahan said. The show will feature people such as Skydiggers, Kelly Prescott Whitney Roe and Kai Clark, the singer’s son, who is a musician in his own right.
Then there is Steve Earle and The Dukes who will be reliving the seminal album Copperhead Road which, gulp, is now 30 years old.
The modern wave of folk is represented by the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier whose anthemic Take Me the the Church has been a massive worldwide hit.
The lineup at the festival always tests the limits of what the words folk music mean. But for Monahan that’s just fine.
“If you look at this lineup, there is nothing here that you aren’t going to enjoy. That’s really the goal when we sit down to draw it up. Who can we get that will have a certain authenticity so that the music fan can go any night and find something special that wouldn’t play Ottawa normally.”
The festival business is all about presenting something that stands out. As more and more festivals pop up they look the same, he says.
“So how are we going to be better than the other guy.” For Bluesfest, Monahan said, the key has been community development through such things as Blues in the Schools, a musical education program that takes place each year in Ottawa schools. Another element that has been vital is a strong volunteer base of about 3,500 people who act as a word of mouth force for the festivals.
This year’s Marvest lineup is still being sorted out, Monahan said, and will be announced in due course. There may also be some additions to the already packed lineup on the stages at Lansdowne.
He said that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of local bands seeking a spot with festival organizers.
Monahan said the Ottawa music scene has expanded, as exemplified by the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition and the commitment of City Hall to fund a music industry strategy. These developments are accelerating the development of local music.
These days, the festival organizers are getting 400 to 500 submissions a year from local artists looking for a performance slot at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest or at Marvest. That’s doubled in eight years.
In the very early days of Bluesfest, Monahan said, a lot of the local submissions were coming from cover bands. That has changed as well. Local acts today are writing and performing their own music, he said.
“We now expect submissions from teenagers who are writing their own music,” he said. And it’s good.
“One thing that is interesting,” he said, “is that when we started in the festival business, there weren’t any fall festivals. Now there are a lot in the fall both in Canada and south of the border.” The proliferation of fall events is making artists more available during the fall, he added.
There are also more opportunities to expand programming outside the summer and fall festivals. The series of concerts known as the Festival of Small Halls is bringing artists into smaller venues in towns such as Perth and other locations across Eastern Ontario. Small Halls has even partnered with NAC Presents to bring Matt Anderson into the National Arts Centre for a Christmas show this coming December.
Moving to Lansdowne, he says, has helped solidify the idea of a major fall event such as CityFolk in Ottawa, something that was accelerated by the departure of the Ottawa Exhibition from the park.
CityFolk so far
Nick Murphy (Chet Faker)
Belle and Sebastian
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Steve Earle & The Dukes
Trampled By Turtles
Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Gene Clark Tribute
This year’s event marks 25 years since CityFolk’s original incarnation—the Ottawa Folk Festival—was launched. CityFolk will recognize the milestone by working with past stakeholders, volunteers and board members to showcase classic photos from days gone by, along with other memorabilia and conversations that chronicle the rich history of the Ottawa Folk Festival. Performances by past Folk Fest alumni will also be featured.
A limited amount of discounted tickets are on sale start at 10 a.m. on May 24. The regular sale begins at noon on May 25. For more information: cityfolkfestival.com.