The CityFolk music festival has become an essential end-of-summer tradition for Ottawa music fans. Since re-branding the event in 2015, CityFolk has enjoyed steadily increasing audience numbers—an estimated 50,000-plus in 2019—while developing ever-growing fan loyalty.
“Thanks to the reputation we’ve established by running RBC Bluesfest, we’ve been able to land some iconic acts,” says CityFolk executive director Mark Monahan. He’s talking about previous CityFolk performances by the likes of Van Morrison, Jack Johnson, and David Byrne—all bucket list material. There’ve also been bookings of newer rising stars, including the 2019 performance by Grammy-Award winner Leon Bridges, who wowed the crowd on the penultimate night of the festival with his silky voice and top-notch band.
On the final night of CityFolk, the park was packed with fans young and old for Robert Plant and his stellar band the Sensational Space Shifters, who wrapped things up in fine style, showcasing some classic Led Zeppelin nuggets, while also featuring more recent offerings.
For the 25th anniversary—of what was once the Ottawa Folk Festival—CityFolk opened the 2018 festivities with Steve Earle, a veteran of the Americana, folk & rock scene. Paying homage to 25 years of great music, CityFolk also featured many other veteran performers, including Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame, former Talking Heads front-man David Byrne, Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmour, as well as Janis Ian. There was also a focus on some great international stars, including: Kaleo (Iceland); Hozier (Ireland); and Nick Murphy, a.k.a. Chet Faker (Australia).
Blessed with incredible weather and a top-notch lineup, CityFolk welcomed tens of thousands of music fans from Ottawa and beyond, while showcasing a beautiful festival site adjacent to the historic Rideau Canal at Lansdowne Park. All and all, the success of the 2018 event definitely bodes well for the next 25 years.
Mother Nature came through in a big way for music fans in Ottawa and beyond during CityFolk’s five-day run, in 2017. Jack Johnson—who put on a fantastic show on day-two—was heard to say that the weather was much better than he expected. “I’m always happy to be able to perform barefoot,” Johnson added with an infectious smile. His music was infectious as well, as fans sang along during the stand-out performance by Johnson and his band.
Throughout the event, a program that “kept on giving” had attendees singing the praises of acts they specifically came to see and those they discovered along the way. “I’m delighted with the way this year’s line-up was received,” says CityFolk executive and artistic director Mark Monahan. “We’re looking forward to matching this year’s success in 2018!”
On Thursday, September 15 , 2016—its second year at Lansdowne Park— CityFolk opened its four-day run on with a superb evening capped by award-winning British singer-songwriter James Bay. The following night, rising hip-hop stars Joey Bada$ and Bryson Tiller entertained a younger crowd, while seminal indie rockers Guided by Voices played for older alternative rock fans. Stalwart music fans weathered through a wet Saturday night and were rewarded with excellent sets by Basia Bulat, the New Pornographers, and Vance Joy, among others. CityFolk wrapped up on Sunday, September 18 with outstanding performances by the X-Ambassadors, Rayland Baxter and Julien Baker.
Once again, in 2016, City Folk included Marvest—a spotlight on fantastic local Ottawa artists and venues. Businesses up and down Bank Street were filled with music throughout the weekend. Overall, the neighbourhood was alive with the sounds of folk music, country, world rhythms, and rock.
In 2015, Ottawa Folk Festival organizers announced a new name, along with relocation plans for Ottawa’s long-standing folk festival. The event was re-named and re-imagined as CityFolk and was staged at Landsdowne Park. When asked why a new location, the festival’s executive and artistic director, Mark Monahan responded with a straightforward answer: “It’s more central and easier to get to,” said Monahan.
Of course there’s more to it than that, but location was arguably an important criterion. “Our decision was also influenced by the fact that it’s a beautiful new facility—situated downtown with the canal running alongside it—and it offers all kinds of options and infrastructure for staging the event.”
Regarding the new moniker, Monahan had this to say: “The event has evolved in several ways since 2011—especially the programming. With the move to Landsdowne we felt that the timing was perfect for a fresh approach to branding the festival moving forward; one that reflects its musical evolution. Since we’re moving to the heart of the city, and we want all music fans in Ottawa to feel a kinship with the festival, we felt CityFolk would resonate with them.”
The line-up for 2015 had folks standing up and taking notice as well. Featured acts included: Van Morrison, The Avett Brothers, Wilco, Of Monsters and Men, UB40, The Sheepdogs, Patrick Watson, Walk Off The Earth, Elle King, and Lucinda Williams, just to mention a few.
Also new in 2015 was the introduction of Marvest, a harvest of music, food and beverages, with a local flavour. Marvest is a free event, staged as part of CityFolk. The event offered more than 60 free performances at the Aberdeen Pavilion and throughout various businesses in the Glebe.
2014 - The Great Escape
The 2014 edition of the Ottawa Folk Festival (now known as CityFolk) proved once again that a few good ideas, under the right management, can go a long way to achieving success. It’s true the festival industry has flourished in the last decade, with a lot of promoters throwing their hats in the ring, but it takes more than a large field and bunch of bands to succeed. Yes, the line-up is crucial — it has to have wide appeal and include name recognition, but there’s more to it than that. And yes, location is important—it has to be accessible, but there are other key pieces to the puzzle.
“We decided to offer a more unique overall experience to our patrons in 2014,” said the festival’s artistic director Mark Monahan. “The line-up came together nicely and seemed to resonate with music fans, but I feel what set us apart was the free programming, which was extremely popular. “The response was great,” added Monahan. Festival organizers also introduced a Food Truck Rally, a more interactive approach to workshop ‘sessions’ with some real star power, and brought back their popular KIDSZONE, all free to the general public.
Ultimately, more than 50,000 people showed up to enjoy some great late-summer festival activities and stellar music performances with stand-out sets by Foster the People, Lorde, Serena Ryder, The National, Blue Rodeo, Joss Stone, and even the Wiggles and Fred Penner to make it truly family friendly.
“It was a lot of fun, but I have to admit it’ll be nice of take a couple of days off before we start working on next year’s festival,” said Monahan. And likely, to start cooking up a few more novel approaches to staging one of Ottawa’s most popular events.
2013 - Adventures in Folkland
The Ottawa Folk Festival (now known as CityFolk) wrapped up its five-day run in 2013, with concerts by the Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot and reggae trailblazers The Wailers. The festival attracted close to 50,000 patrons for the event by highlighting a wide range of music: from the godmother of punk Patti Smith to the newest hip hop sensation Kendrick Lamar; and from the quirky rhythms of Vampire Weekend to a jaw-dropping set by American roots-rockers The Avett Brothers.
“It’s especially rewarding to bring acts like Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar and The Avett Brothers to Ottawa for the first time,” said executive and artistic director Mark Monahan, “and then see huge audiences singing along enthusiastically to their songs. It’s why we create these festivals – to connect people through the music!”
Other Folk Festival highlights included a special afternoon appearance by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who shared stories and played music with singer-songwriter Danny Michel. And nobody will soon forget the stunning set by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. “When Emmylou took the stage completely solo to pay tribute to Kate McGarrigle with her song “Darlin’ Kate” you could have heard a pin drop,” adds Monahan, noting this personal highlight.
In recognition of its ability to connect people and deliver these kinds of special moments, CityFolk has been designated as one of the American Bus Association’s Top 100 Events in North America. According to the Association, CityFolk is now on one of the most sought-after lists by travel professionals, motor-coach operators and the general public. The list highlights the top fairs, festivals, parades, exhibits, theatres and shows across the U.S. and Canada.”
2012 - Freewheelin'
The 2012 edition of the Ottawa Folk Festival (now known as CityFolk) attracted unprecedented attendance numbers, with 25 to 30 thousand music fans showing up for the five-day event, doubling the previous year’s audience. This does not include the free programming, where estimates ranged from four to five thousand attendees. The event was staged at the newly re-configured site at Hog’s Back Park.
“The combination of free programming plus the major acts we brought in resulted in a very successful year,” says Mark Monahan, the festival’s executive director and head of programming. “Fans really enjoyed the changes we made to the festival site, so we hope to continue to improve and to build on this success.”
Featured acts in 2012 included Lindsey Buckingham, Great Big Sea, Kathleen Edwards, Patrick Watson, and Dan Mangan, with multi-Grammy winner Bon Iver wrapping up the festivities.
2011 - Meet the Folkers!
Major Moves and Changes
Music fans in attendance for the 2011 festival experienced many changes, along with a reassuring number of familiar elements. In the fall of 2010, the Board of the Ottawa Folk Festival realized that, faced with a high debt load accrued over several years, exacerbated by the torrential rains of the final day of the 2010 Festival, they would gratefully accept the offer by RBC Bluesfest organizers to take over management of the Ottawa Folk Festival (now known as CityFolk), under the supervision and artistic guidance of Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan.
The second major change for the festival was its relocation to Hog’s Back Park at Heron Road and Riverside Drive. The new park was chosen not only for its natural beauty but also for its more central location, readily accessible bike paths, public transit and parking.
The festival also expanded to a four-day format. With an increased artistic budget, the resulting line-up was outstanding and featured a wide variety of stellar Canadian and international artists. The central location (near Carleton University) and more inclusive programming attracted new and younger audiences. But also present were familiar elements of years past such as daytime workshops and the popular mixing and mingling of artists and styles; small stages where roots and acoustic acts drew intimate audiences; kid-friendly music and crafts; and the long-standing commitment to the environment and progressive educational and community activities.