Featuring: Ben Harper, Mirel Wagner, Matthew Good, Matt Mays and Danny Michel
Thursday nightThe Ben Harper who rocked Bluesfest a couple of years ago with his Relentless 7 band returned to his acoustic roots with a wonderful solo performance at the Ottawa Folk Festival on Thursday.
The American roots-rock hero, known for his talent on guitar, chose to begin the concert on vibraphone, a xylophone-like instrument with a mellow tone. With his soulful voice echoing the sustain of the vibes, Harper eased into the show with a pair of covers. Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man slid into Pearl Jam’s Indifference before Harper settled down with his trusty lap steel.
The vast crowd, revved up by bracing sets from Matt Good and Matt Mays, was restless at first, but stuck with him, delighted to hear the familiar strains of Burn One Down. From there, it was a journey through folk, blues and pop on a range of instruments, including piano, ukulele and guitars, both electric and acoustic.
“Thank you guys for keeping folk music alive,” a gracious Harper said at one point, thankful for the attention of the audience.
Clad in white, with a wide-brimmed white hat, the consummate musician breezed through a low-key but well-paced setlist that included crowd favourites such as Diamonds on the Inside, Masterpiece and a show-stopping cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that was inspired by, and dedicated to, the late Jeff Buckley.
A visibly nervous Mirel Wagner made her Ottawa debut under trying circumstances Thursday night. The singer-songwriter who was born in Ethiopia but raised in Finland appeared on the Tartan Homes stage at the same time that Canadian rocker Matthew Good performed a stone’s throw behind her on the Ravenlaw Stage.
Although both artists played solo, Good had the advantage of his siren-like voice and huge audience of vocal fans. Just a few dozen people took a chance on Wagner and her quiet songs of death and despair.
Despite the challenges, Wagner kept her voice steady and her guitar work in tune. In another setting, it might have been a riveting performance, but the slow pace and often creepy lyrics of her songs were at odds with the party atmosphere throughout the rest of the site.
Earlier in the evening, Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Matt Mays gave a powerful performance on the main stage, serving notice that he’s still a vital force on the Canadian music scene. His first album in several years, Coyote, was released this week, and Friday’s show was one of the inaugural performances featuring his new material and new band members.
The new disc, by the way, is terrific, a throwback to his early, guitar-laden material, with more than a hint of self-discovery. Written as Mays roamed around the world and reflected on his calling, the songwriting is some of his best, as demonstrated in the new songs he performed on Friday. An early highlight was the the dynamic first single, Take it On Faith, a thick slab of roots-rock inspiration.
Happily, the 33-year-old Mays was not tempted to shun his early songs. Familiar material like Travellin’, City of Lakes and Cocaine Cowgirl were performed with all the fire of the old days as Mays dug into his guitar, sang his heart out raising his straw hat to the heavens, while his band cranked it out with plenty of passion. As far as comebacks go, it was a triumphant appearance.
After an arduous journey to get to Ottawa from Nova Scotia, singer-songwriter Danny Michel was delighted to be one of the first artists at this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival. “I used to live here, and I recognize a lot of faces,” he said, beaming. “My heart is so full of love tonight.”
He’s another Canadian artist with an intriguing new album to promote, this one recorded in Belize with musicians from the Garifuna collective. Judging by the new songs he played, the adventure has infused Michel’s crisp, melodic songs with a delicious rhythmic crunch. Although the album is not officially released until Sept. 18, he had copies with him that he was more than willing to leak to anyone who wanted to buy it at the merchandise tent.
Michel is also performing at the Black Sheep Inn Friday night and will be back at the festival on Saturday for a workshop with U.S. singer-songwriter LP and Ottawa Valley troubadour Brock Zeman.