Though it wasn’t listed in the program, a November chill showed up last night at the 14th annual Ottawa Folk Festival, along with Oh Susanna, The Foggy Hogtown Boys and highly anticipated headliner Kris Kristofferson.
“I’m much too aggressive for the West Coast,” confessed this ex-Vancouverite, who went on to prove it with a country-folk set both frank and feisty. This is a persona at once plain and edgy, with songs both painterly and bittersweet, about the imbalance of broken bonds and the struggle to make things whole. Each, even at their most placid, has country-rock leanings; what you’re left with is Sylvia Tyson fronting for The Eagles. She shone brightly through a couple of boot-stompers, then surprised with a trad-style finale, accompanied by Toronto’s Foggy Hogtown Boys (see below.) It’s twang with tang, like home-cooked chicken with kick.
The Foggy Hogtown Boys
They look like crew-cutted collegians of an old Norman Luboff Choir LP but their souls are pure shaggy-haired hillbilly. These nouveau hicks bring a clean, new luster to some well-worn bluegrass, with tight, playful harmonies, sweeter than Virginia tobacco fiddle work, and animated five string banjo. They’re good for a couple of ol’ fashioned breakneck breakdowns here and there, too. A fine, fun ensemble, bringing the bluegrass dead back to life with crowd-pleasing reverence and cheek.
The festival’s flagship act, Kris Kristofferson, rode onto the main stage like the last of the desperado-philosophers. There’s a line in his In The News, which he sung in a voice that’s grown even more brittle with age, that chronicles how “a little piece of truth and beauty dies.” That’s how it feels as Kristofferson, one of the last of the anti-establishment elder statesmen, offers up his humane, intelligent insights just a few more precious time before age (already hot on his heels – he reaches for the wrong harmonicas and lapses on lyrics) catches up to him. The well-received Kristofferson had the audience hanging on his every visible breath; at times, like during the tragic tale of Darby’s Castle, it was so quiet you could hear the crowd’s teeth chattering. Watching the man’s hold over his faithful is akin to watching Jesus pull out a guitar and harmonica instead of bread and wine at the Last Supper, and offer up his life-sustaining insights through a parable about Bobby McGee. Most of his greatest hits came out, each of them unprompted sing-a-longs, as did back catalogue gems like the Native lament Johny Lobo and a fun but sophomoric parody of Big John.