Singer-songwriter-environmentalist Jack Johnson strummed his acoustic guitar, banned plastic water bottles and created a delightfully mellow vibe in front of a huge crowd at CityFolk on Thursday.
Come to think of it, the atmosphere was not unlike the folk festival of days gone by, with music fans of all ages grooving to the gentle melodies concocted by Johnson and his three bandmates on the main stage.
What’s more, not a plastic bottle of water was in sight, in accordance with Johnson’s request for the event to refrain from selling the ecologically disruptive containers during his visit. Folks were able to bring their own bottles to fill on site.
Dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, the 42-year-old Johnson eased into the show with one of his big hits, Sitting, Waiting, Wishing, followed by the breezy You and Your Heart, and the fluid Flake, from his 2001 album, Brushfire Fairytales.
“It’s really nice to finally be here,” the barefoot singer said, later remarking that the weather was warmer than California. “I was expecting to put shoes on.”
Also from his ’01 album came Inaudible Melodies, before Johnson decided it was time to play the lilting Upside Down, from the Curious George soundtrack, in case any little ones in the crowd were getting sleepy.
In truth, it would have been difficult to nap, no matter how drowsy one was. Johnson was able to maintain attention with the simple beauty of his melodies, his down-to-earth personality and the stellar musicianship of his band. It was a great show, even if it was more than a decade overdue.
Despite the fact that there’s one less stage at this year’s CityFolk, on Thursday it quickly became obvious that cutbacks have not affected the talent budget. (The programming budget was actually increased by 50 per cent, organizers noted, and the festival was expanded by one day to become a four-day event this year.)
Proof of a talent budget well spent came in the early evening hours before Johnson took the stage when two highly regarded, fast-rising U.S. bands — Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and Family Crest — wowed the crowd with an impressive showing of big-band power.
Backed by a seven-piece lineup that included a horn section and keyboards, as well as guitar, bass and drums, the bushy-bearded Rateliff delivered a show that was impossible to resist. The horns and organ gave the music an unapologetic retro groove, while his luscious rasp of a voice seemed to draw the crowd closer. Musically, the Missouri-raised Rateliff, who’s 38, could rub shoulders with greats like Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen.
The knockout set, evidently their first in Ottawa, drew from the band’s breakthrough self-titled 2015 album, touching on groove-driven highlights such as I Need Never Get Old, Howling at Nothing and Wasting Time. The tune that set the crowd on fire, naturally, was their gospel-drenched breakthrough, S.O.B., with its urgent chorus and foot-stomping rhythm.
San Francisco’s Family Crest was another band with an extended lineup, featuring musicians on trombone, violin, cello and more. They created an orchestral, yet still rock ‘n’ roll backdrop for the incredibly spine-tingling voice of singer Liam McCormick. Highlights of their soaring set included the anthemic Sparks and the goosebump-inducing closing number, As We Move Forward, with a timely reminder that we’re all in this life together.
The festival continues until Sunday, with a Friday bill that features Amanda Marshall, Broken Social Scene, Son Little, a tribute to Jesse Winchester and more.
For details, go to cityfolkfestival.com.