by Michael Thomas
Every year, the biggest enemy of the Bloor Ossington Folk Festival rears its ugly head. Rain. At least three years in a row including this one, rain has thrown a wrench in the festival’s plans. But it never prevents the festival from being a fantastic outdoor event that feels like it shouldn’t be free of charge, given all the talent.
I started off with Tokka, an instrumental duo that combines violin, percussion and electronics. The first few songs were an introduction—just the violin and drums—but the songs took on new dimensions as the electronics came in. The violin itself was sometimes manipulated for extra effect, letting the expansive songs cross genres.
Port Greville, NS’s Construction & Destruction were up next. The duo specializes in a hard-to-categorize rock style accented by Colleen Collins’ dramatic vocals. Collins and David Trenaman moved around bass, drums and guitar to keep things fresh. It was a pleasure to hear songs like “Black Dirt” live, as the grungy guitars pierced the afternoon sky.
At this point, the rain came, temporarily shutting down the main stage. So half an hour early, we got Weird Lines, fronted by the twin vocals of Julie Doiron and Christopher Leigh McLaughlin. The band (also featuring Jon McKiel among others) serenaded the crowd with sweet, summery pop songs (including one literally called “Twin Summers,”), made all the more sweet with the two sets of vocals. If that wasn’t enough, Doiron continued her reign as the queen of lovingly awkward stage banter, including telling McLaughlin, “You have a head.”
The rain had stopped after Weird Lines finished, so the delayed Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble finally got their turn next. The Toronto 10-piece celebrated the music of Africa with four extended, joyous songs with a heaping helping of percussion and horns. The songs were technically impressive and also got people dancing. By the fourth song, Foly Kolade had gotten enough people grooving that he got the hillside audience members to wave their arms back and forth and even sing along.
Sandro Perri was up next, and if you’ve seen him live you’ll know he almost never does two shows in the same way. In this iteration, he had five backing members including co-conspirator Mike Smith and the wonderful Blake Howard on Drums. With a flutist and horn player on hand, his already thoughtful songs like “Forgot about the Rain” got special touches. He ended with “Wolfman,” which was an odyssey of a song as it went through various melodies and lyrical phrases.
My final act for the day was The Holy Gasp, which is always a good time. The five-piece wasted no time as they launched into “The Man Ain’t Groovy” before running with songs like “A Daily Affirmation” and “Stomp Out the Man,” with an added repetition of the line “Fuck you, Stephen Harper!” given the current election climate. As always, Benjamin Hackman was every bit the engaging front man as he strutted across the stage or smacked the hell out of his congas.
No rain! It was all good as Nick Ferrio (and his feelings) took to the stage. Though he’s known for his folk and roots music (one of the four musicians on stage was on pedal steel) he certainly didn’t stick to the genre throughout, venturing more into rock territory and even playing a new song that sounded like a funk number. As he got deep into his last song, he pulled a classic rock move and strummed his guitar face-to-face with Darren Browne, who was filling in on bass.
Shi Wisdom gave some space for contemplation with their three-piece vocals complemented by electronic backing tracks. The lyrics touched on personal problems and philosophy, while the vocalists moved in near-perfect synchronicity. Their R&B stylings were a great soundtrack for the mid-afternoon.
Halifax’s Walrus, as usual, tore it up. Their loud, psychedelic rock is always a pleasure and often a surprise—the band at one point was playing a slower-paced song before spontaneously bursting into double time (maybe even triple time). The dual vocals from Chris Murphy and Justin McGrath add that extra bit of sweetness.
While Walrus didn’t talk much between the songs (why break the momentum?), Lindy Vopnfjord’s talking between songs helped bring more context to his soft folk songs. His songs were inspired by anything from a dream he had about a poet he lived near; a woman from North Korea’s reunion with her South Korean family; a professor who studies education in the impoverished; and many more. It’s one thing to hear a song with beautiful lyrics, but it’s another to know what they’re about. Vopnfjord’s composure was especially impressive given that he welcomed a new son just two days ago.
“Heavy rock with pretty harmonies” band Overnight was next, and their self-description was pretty spot-on. Carla and Lynette Gillis and Caitlin Dacey all provided vocals over the mix of guitars, drums and organ for a busy and powerful sound. The pop influence of the Gillis sisters’ previous band Plumtree was evident in their harmonies but the sound never veered into overtly poppy territory.
Finally, I saw Blonde Elvis, which managed to out-loud Overnight. Their off-kilter 70s-esque rock blazed by quickly, anchored by Jesse James Laderoute’s vocals, which managed to rise above it all. In between, Laderoute was his typical sarcastic self, which provided short breaks from the intensity of their performance. BOFF host Dave Bidini called them a “weird, great band” and those three words speak volumes about them.
BOFF every year proves, no matter the elements, that a good festival gels with great music. And that’s never a risk, year after year.