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Ottawa Folk Fest- Day 4: Chris Hadfield, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Sheepdogs, and The Avett Brothers

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Chris Hadfield- Slackwater Stage
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The evening portion of Saturday’s Folk Fest kicked off with a free performance and interview with astronaut, social media superstar, and galactic singer/songwriter Commander Chris Hadfield. Admittedly, I am a huge Hadfield fan (the guy riffs in outer space. What’s not to love?), and was super excited to see him play some personal tunes in such an intimate setting. The performance had a unique, family atmosphere; Chris’ own brother joined him for the set, and the stage was surrounded by tiny superfans (one kid even sported a Hadfield-esque fake moustache!). The music was definitely solid and meaningful, but host Danny Michel kinda fell flat on stage as “interviewer”–he wouldn’t take questions from even the most eager adults, only asking kids, and jumbled around a bit with his own queries. To his credit, Hadfield’s answers and music were incredibly informed and inspiring, and hearing a Canadian hero sit and jam out the blues with his brother was definitely a heartwarming musical experience.
Carolina Chocolate Drops- Tartan Homes Stage
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I was first introduced to the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the PBS Documentary “Give Me the Banjo.” The film, which traces the African American roots of the quintessential Americana instrument, features Chocolate Drops member Rhinnon Gibbons speaking passionately about the power and history of good ol’ banjo music: “The cultural richness of it, the historical richness of it, and the music itself fills a hole.” As live performers, it’s clear that this band takes their hole-filling, banjo-representing responsibility seriously–in a fun way, of course (how could banjo picking not be fun?). Interspersing their musical acts with trivia and historical tidbits, the Chocolate Drops got the crowd on their feet for old tune after old tune. Gibbons even chose to switch the slow song on their original set list with a groovy Ethel Waters cover, matching the vibe of an upbeat audience. This ability to connect was the true magic of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; they had incredible connection with the crowd, with each other, with the legacy of their craft…and, of course, with their amazing folk instruments (including the fiddle, the bones, and several lovely banjos).

The Sheepdogs- RavenLaw Stage
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If crowd size and energy are any indication, there are a lot of Sheepdogs fans in Ottawa.  Those who came out to hear some of their favourite songs played in a cool venue likely left Saturday’s show more than satisfied. Anyone who wanted much more than that, however, was pretty much out of luck.The Sheepdogs offered no more or less than a carbon copy of my favourite Sheepdogs mp3s, with very little audience interaction and energy mostly limited to intense onstage head-banging. I was excited when frontman Ewan Currie’s brother, Shamus, took center stage to play some trombone…but he didn’t really rock it, just threw out a couple loops before picking up a tambourine and tapping through the song. The boys sounded good, no doubt, but bottom line: if awesome hair is the highlight of a concert, the show was probably a little stale.
The Avett Brothers- CUPE-SCFP Stage
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Marked by a well-appreciated double encore, the Avett Brothers set was solid from front to back. The band pushed out their first song with massive energy and kept it going for their whole 90 minute performance. As rain poured down on Hog’s Back Park, the undeterred crowd didn’t hesitate to join Scott Avett in jumping up and down, or chant lyrics along with his brother Seth.  And why would they? The Avett Brothers’ lyrics, full of subtle storytelling and deep themes of spirituality and relationship, mix with their unique sound to make a product so good even Bob Dylan has thrown the band props. The on-stage energy and the artful combination of banjo, guitar, cello, and double bass made all four members really special to see live–and hey, who doesn’t love a little dancing in the rain?

Review by Shauna Vert
Photos by Judi Zienchuk
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