The Strumbellas headlined the first night of City Folk. Photo: Parker Townes/Fulcrum
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First night of CityFolk brings edgy country, gentle folk, Southern rock and folk-pop

A woman behind me at the Lucinda Williams concert said that CityFolk Festival was a Bluesfest that hadn’t lost its way — a festival that remained true to its title and original mission statement. Given the opening day of the downtown folk festival in Lansdowne Park, it’s hard to disagree. The first day of CityFolk was heavy on rough-and-tumble outlaw country, harmonious folk, and edgy “hard roots” music. And the Strumbellas who, despite being headliners, were the odd ones out.

CityFolk is a cultural institution in Ottawa now in its 25th year. While in recent years it has diverged from a strictly folk repertoire, the festival still largely presents roots, Americana and bluesy music. To borrow from another modern country superstar, Orville Peck kicked off the show at the golden hour — seriously, he probably needed a pair of sunglasses. Peck set a high bar as the festival’s first act. Having only released his first album earlier this year, Peck has shot up through the ranks of Canada’s and country music’s hottest new acts. While Peck’s prodigious talent merits his success — the trained baritone voice, the yearning lyrics, the faithfulness to yet subversion of classic country — he undoubtedly also touches into the summer’s strange yeehaw zeitgeist. The New Yorker called him “the masked man our yeehaw moment deserves” and Billboard said he’s a “gay crooner revitalizing classic country’s spirit.”

Orville Peck has been gaining popularity for his classic country sound and queer country aesthetic. Photo: Parker Townes/Fulcrum

If non-country fans have by and large turned against bro-country and the slick Nashville sound, they have turned to Orville Peck in the same cultural wave that placed “Old Town Road” on the top of the Hot 100 for an unprecedented 17 weeks. The fact that both Lil Nas X and Orville Peck are openly gay men just gives further hope for the future of country music.

Peck’s sound reaches through the history of country music. It is classic but not necessarily nostalgic — as a gay, masked, ex-punk rocker, what is there to be beholden to? Peck wouldn’t have had a place in the country scene of the 1950s that he references, so he twists that classic music into something where he can belong. Yearning ballads about gay love instead of pick-up trucks, for instance (torch songs are definitely Peck’s bread-and-butter). Or slow-burners about the big sky and rodeo queens, with nary a moment of toxic masculinity in sight.

The classic country vibes continued with the legendary Lucinda Williams, who has been recording music for over forty years. Her commercial breakthrough came with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and her sound on the City Stage reflected country’s sound in the ’90s. It took a song or two for Williams to find her footing, but the captive audience was with her from the start. Williams represents a rough-and-tumble version of country far removed from what’s on the radio today.

Lucinda Williams had her breakthrough in the late 1990s. Photo: Parker Townes/Fulcrum

On the RavenLaw Stage in the Aberdeen Pavilion, the evening started on a quieter note, with the gentle harmonies of Newfoundland folk trio The Once. The band recently scored the play Between Breaths about pioneer whale rescuer Dr. Jon Lien and they brought that same quiet beauty to City Folk. Undoubtedly the folksiest of Thursday’s acts, The Once makes music that you just want to sit and take in. On the other side of the spectrum was the hard roots rock of Larkin Poe fronted by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell. The two complimented Williams on the stage outside with their gritty Southern rock and roll combining distorted guitar riffs, lap steel, and menacing banjo licks. Southern rock is alive and well with this duo.

The Strumbellas took the stage as the headliners of CityFolk’s first day, and despite being a Thursday the crowd was out in full force, stretching out across the field. The Strumbellas proved themselves to be products of that 2010 upswing in palatable folk-pop as exemplified by Mumford and Son’s first two albums. The band is good but not pushing any boundaries and compared with the outlaw country vibes from the rest of the night they definitely stood out as a little more beholden to the mainstream, or at least the indie mainstream. Nevertheless, they put on a good show that was sure to please the hundreds of Strumbellas fans out there.

The Strumbellas closed out the first night of City Folk. Photo Parker Townes/Fulcrum

If the first evening of CityFolk is anything to go on, the festival will be a huge success this year.