Day 5 of 5 of Ottawa CityFolk: Hozier, X-Ambassadors, and Julian Taylor

[A final report on the festival from Ross MacDonald. – AC]

It was yet another beautiful night in Ottawa as the final day of Ottawa CityFolk Festival began on the ‘Great Lawn at Lansdowne’. The evening began with Toronto-based singer/songwriter Julian Taylor.

Taylor has been at his craft for over 25 years creating meaningful socially-conscious songs that touch on issues like racism, mistreatment of our indigenous people, and mental health issues. Taylor, who is of mixed African-Canadian and Mohawk descent, connects to his audience with raw heart-felt emotion both through his words and songs.

Taylor begins the show by telling the crowd that he just got back from Nashville and was glad to be home. “What a beautiful night for the last day of the festival” he proclaimed as the warm evening sun began to settle in front of the stage. His set started with the upbeat song ‘Back Again’ about going back home.

Taylor speaks of George Floyd and the discovery of indigenous burial grounds at residential schools as the inspiration for ‘S.E.E.D.S’ featuring the defiant chorus “They tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” He dedicated his song ‘Human Race’ to his sister who struggles with mental health issues.

Behind Julan on the drums was Jeremy Elliott, longtime friend and bandmate of Julian since their days together in Staggered Crossing. Jeremy was like a metronome, laying down the groove on every song. The funky groovy ‘Bobbi Champagne’ and ‘Just A Little Bit’ had everyone singing and dancing under the warm sun. It had all the right feels.

Rounding out Julian’s band were David Engle on keys and Jarrod Ross on bass, both of which played in the Julian Taylor band. Having three friends on stage with Julian, who have played together for so long, is why their set sounded so tight.

Julian also made a shoutout to Ottawa’s local alt-rock station Live 88.5 and their music director DJ Noah. Julian Taylor has been getting steady airplay on the station throughout his career. He then broke into ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and when he hit the high notes, the crowd gasped and went wild.

A young couple named Meagan and Connor – who knew every word to every song – said they have been fans for about six years and are huge fans. “He’s a Toronto boy who sings about Canada and important social issues that resonate with us. His music is upbeat and hopeful. We just love him!”

The set concluded with Taylor saying, “Thanks Folkfest for letting me play here. I’ve always wanted to play this festival. Love to be back.”

I have a feeling Julian Taylor will be invited back anytime!

Next up was the American pop/rock band from Ithaca, New York: X Ambassadors. Lead singer Sam Harris was a fireball of energy as he took the stage at precisely 7:20pm. He never stopped moving and dancing for the next 75 minutes energizing the crowd. Their set started off with their signature song ‘Renegades’ from their debut album ‘VHS’. Strumming his acoustic guitar and asking the crowd to “run away with me,” the band had the place jumping right from the start.

Harris introduced the next song as a “wholesome song about your best friend” called ‘Friend for Life’. This was followed by a collab he did with Canadian artist grandson and American singer K.Flay called ‘Zen’. The post-Covid song was described by Harris as being “about the unease we’re all feeling these days… feeling like we’re all fucking crazy!”

“This is one gorgeous crowd tonight” Harris proclaimed as he launched into ‘Gorgeous’. Other songs included ‘Undeniable’ and ‘Hey CHILD’ that was dedicated to his mom who was in attendance.

Drummer Adam Levin and bassist/Guitarist Russ Flynn laid down the booming beats all night long as Sam’s brother and keyboardist, Casey Harris, pounded the keys and was featured on many solo spots. 

The show ended with Flynn’s searing guitar lead, that featured some Eddie Van Halen influenced two-hand tapping, on the song ‘Jungle’. There was definitely no shortage of energy as the X Ambassadors primed the crowd for the final day headliner.

My son’s girlfriend Theresa – a huge Hozier fan – told me that Hozier will draw the biggest crowd at CityFolk this year. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. By the time the X Ambassadors left the stage, I could not believe how much the crowd had swelled. The patrons were packed in right up to the fencing for the ‘lawn chair’ area of the field with even more people streaming in. I am used to seeing these types of crowds at Bluesfest but certainly not at Folkfest!

What was all this commotion about? The headliner was Irish musician, singer, and songwriter Hosier. His international breakthrough hit in 2013, ‘Take Me to Church’, catapulted him to overnight fame. Ten years later Hozier is filling stadiums – and fields – around the world with his socially conscious songwriting fused with a unique blend of folk, soul and blues.

The show began with a flood of blue LED lighting as he opened with ‘De Selby (Part 1)’ and ‘De Selby (Part 2)’ from his recent album ‘Unreal Unearth’. As the song finished, he greeted his adoring fans with “Hello City Folk Festival. You look well. You look healthy.” This was followed up by fan favourites ‘Jackie and Wilson’, ‘From Eden’ and ‘Cherry Wine’ – a song about domestic abuse. The first half of his set featured six songs from his new album.

He spoke about ‘I, Carrion’, a song he wrote about “the mythical Icarus who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings and what his first thoughts were like after falling to his death.” The song featured a haunting cello solo from Larissa Maestro. His touring band featured Ryan Connors on keyboard, Kellen Wenrich on guitar, Alex Ryan on bass, and Melissa McMillan, Kristen Rogers, Joy Morales, and Maestro on vocals/keyboards and percussion. Maestro had several solo spots where her soaring vocals garnered great response from fans.

There was plenty of audience interaction between Hozier and the crowd. One enthusiastic female fan in the front row asked him what the name of his keyboardist was. Hozier obliged and told her his name was Ryan. He then jokingly said that “I’m an encyclopedia of names. I know Terry. I know Frank. And I know Francesca!” which was the perfect introduction to his new song ‘Francesca’.

There was a moment in the show when Hozier asked his band to stop playing as he spotted what looked to be a fan who had fainted. He waited for the Folkfest medics to make sure that individual was taken care of before finishing the song. You can tell that Hozier is a nice guy who is cut from the same cloth as Dave Grohl – a superstar who will take the time to look after his fans and their well-being.

The highlight of the show came with his soulful performance of ‘Take Me to Church’ that had everybody standing, swaying, and singing along. It was truly a magical moment as his booming voice rang out that powerful chorus through the cool evening air over a sea of cellphone LED lights.

As his three-song encore featuring ‘Unknown/Nth’, ‘First Light’ and ‘Work Song’ ended, there was no doubt in anyone’s minds why Hozier has become a headlining superstar that will be filling stadiums for years to come.

Kudos to the most beautiful weather an outdoor music festival organizer could ever hope and dream of. Every single day of the festival was absolutely perfect. And a shout-out to the festival’s unofficial hype-man: local musician Mike Lalonde, aka bubble-boy, brought his bubble gun to the main stage every day to add a little fun and flair. At one point Max from the Arkells grabbed Mike’s bubble gun and took it through the crowd. It was a perfect way to end the summer in Ottawa.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38156 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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