Bon Iver and Dan Mangan offer heartwarming performances to close out festival
Adam Feibel | Fulcrum Staff
Photo by Justin Labelle
The great thing about festivals is that you can see a large number of artists within a short period of time—a few days, or even hours—but it often comes at the expense of the overall atmosphere of each performance. That’s the trade-off: each show is much less intimate than a private gig would be. This can be even more of a drawback when you’re talking about artists like Dan Mangan and Bon Iver, whose intricate and dynamic styles flourish in an intimate setting.
Fortunately, that didn’t prove to be much of an issue for the headliners of the last two days of this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival. Vancouver’s bashful indie folk-rocker Dan Mangan headlined the full day of music Sunday, amongst other notable acts like Patrick Watson, Whitehorse, Said the Whale, and John K. Samson. Bon Iver, this year’s Grammy winner for best new artist, closed the festival Monday night, after performances by The Low Anthem, Anaïs Mitchell, and late addition Hey Rosetta! Tickets for both days were available to University of Ottawa students for half price.
The stage was set for Bon Iver, with rows upon rows of decorative lights and burlap hanging from the ceiling to reflect light. The massive crowd—the festival’s biggest at more than 12,000 people—screamed and hollered as it saw movement in the shadows of the stage, which were quite obviously just sound techs making last-minute adjustments before the band’s 9:30 p.m. set time. But at last, Justin Vernon—the founding member and face of the group—walked on and plucked those first gorgeous notes of his latest album’s opener, “Perth.”
Often referred to as great music to relax or fall asleep to (most often by those who couldn’t use the words “music” and “art” in the same sentence), Bon Iver defied its lullaby-like reputation by taking even more creative liberties with the already experimental songs from last year’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and adding full-bodied, multi-instrumental formations to Vernon’s solo work from previous releases.
Singalongs were at a high for older songs from Bon Iver’s first record, For Emma, Forever Ago, like the good but overrated “Skinny Love” and the crestfallen crescendo of “The Wolves (Act I and II).” The percussion section really shone during “Michicant” as one of the group’s two drummers boomed and snapped with improvised polyrhythms.
“So much good music here today. It’s been a pleasure and an honour,” Vernon said during one of the few times he spoke to the crowd.
Vernon commented on the chilly weather that signalled Canada’s mergence into autumn. “Let’s go skating on the river; it’s probably frozen by this time of night,” he quipped, despite hailing from Eau Claire, Wis., a small city not much further down the latitudinal scale than Ottawa.
Dan Mangan took the stage a day earlier, wearing his signature olive-green collared shirt, neatly kempt beard, and boyish grin. He and his six musical henchmen picked up their instruments and built up a wall of sound before emerging with the carefully plucked notes of “About as Helpful as You Can Be Without Being Any Help at All,” the smile-inducing introductory song to last year’s Juno Award-winning record Oh Fortune and an equally effective song to open his live show.
Luckily, weather conditions that prompted Environment Canada to issue a severe storm alert on Saturday didn’t carry over to Sunday.
“I hear the weather was nicer today than it was yesterday,” Mangan remarked. “I know it’s a little cold, but you guys are fantastic.”
In fact, the air was cool and crisp, like it was when the phenomenal Oh Fortune record came out last fall. Mangan went into a little depth about the conceptual song, “Leaves, Trees, Forest,” and called on Canadians—and Ottawans in particular—to communicate with their government about environmental issues.
“Everything is only in context to everything that’s around it,” he said about the song. “I would just suggest if we want to keep our leaves and trees and forests, maybe we should be in touch with the people who run our country,” he continued. “Maybe they should know about that stuff.”
Mangan connected with his fans—something that’s often sacrificed when an artist’s audience reaches the mark of 4,000 or so, as it did Sunday—by responding to their own words and actions. Mangan told a fan, “I could beat the crap out of Chuck Norris,” after he or she presumably suggested his rugged look resembled that of the renowned badass.
Crowd participation during the band’s extended version of “Robots” was heartwarming enough after multiple repetitions of “Robots need love too / They want to be loved by you.” But then Mangan brought a handful of fans in robot helmets onstage to dance along, and flung himself into the arms of the rest of them. (Tip: next time you’re at a Dan Mangan show, dress like a robot.)
The 29-year-old’s vocal talent really came through on his solo, “Basket,” and the cold air only partially contributed to the chills felt during “Regarding Death and Dying” and his finale, “Jeopardy.”
Dan Mangan has had a great year. The success of his third studio album catapulted him to the top of the Canadian indie-music tree, and his performance at Hog’s Back Falls housed more than four times as many people as his last Ottawa gig at the Bronson Centre. And with his shy and modest nature, he expressed it in his own words.
“This is really cool,” he said. “It’s really cool to be me right now.”