• By: Keith Whittier

Ottawa’s Grassroots Festival Keeps Growing

Ottawa Life’s Festival City Series is back! We'll provide a unique look at some of your favourite events.
We’ll go beyond the music with artist interviews, volunteer profiles, concert reviews and spotlights on
the tastes, sights and sounds of the festival season. 

Your city! Your festivals!
Like a good sunscreen, Ottawa Life has you covered.

I know, you’re probably thinking that Festival Season really crashes the capital when the first burst of tulips start appearing in flower beds across the city but there’s a different kind of splendor in the grass that starts a few weeks before.

Now in its 6th year, The Ottawa Grassroots Festival sprouted back in 2012 when founder Bob Nesbitt noticed the popularity of other city festivals. It’s not like he only had a handful of examples, either. The city was booming with festivals featuring everything from porch music to deserts.

A lifelong lover of folk music who watched the Folk Festival become CityFolk –a series of concerts edging further away from its original musical intentions– Nesbitt decided to present something a little more grassroots which, conveniently enough, was a great name for his new fest on the block (or Legion Hall or, nowadays, church).

Nesbitt says the festival isn't trying to compete with the others or be as big. To him, the once one day, now four day, festival wasn’t going to be about high priced tickets and endless beer lines. Nesbitt’s vision saw more inclusiveness for families, Francophones and would give emerging artists a bigger spotlight as opposed to bringing in a lineup made mainly of bigger names.

Their mission statement has remained pretty well the same since day one, telling of how the festival is “a non-profit, community-based, volunteer-run organization dedicated to cultivating community at the local level through a vibrant annual festival of concerts and participatory workshops.” The aim is tocultivate community. Anyone who has attended can attest to the exceptionally friendly vibe this festival has washing warmly over you around every corner. It’s like the Aunt you haven’t seen in five years visiting for the holidays and ensuring you get every ounce of tender squeezes you have coming to you.  At Grassroots, you feel the love!

Last year I wrote that Nesbitt’s garden was sure to “sprout even bigger next spring” and a look at the lineup shows the prediction would not be proved inaccurate.

While still staying true to the roots of things, Nesbitt and crew brought out a well established –and, dare we say, legendary– talent to this year’s fest. Canadian folk/roots icon Ken Whitely (along with The Beulah Band) headlines Saturday night (April 22).

His accolades read like a Mensa member’s report card.

Whitley, who jokes how he never went to University but, instead, spent his time at folk festivals, has received Juno and Grammy nominations, a Genie, a Canadian Folk Music Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Music Ontario.

“It’s an honour to have one of Canada’s most respected roots musicians headline for us in 2017,” says Nesbitt. “He’s energetic, funny and you’ll love how he gets his audience participating in humorous ways.”

Be sure to catch up incoming singer Malak at 7:50. Her voice, like ice on fire, transfixes you the moment you hear it. Drawing from her multicultural background, she possesses a musical maturity, blending various styles into a unique electro-pop cocktail.

Speaking of going big, Friday night will fill the stage with the 100+, all female Ottawa choir Shout Sister! The group, a popular part of the festivals daytime programming in the past, earned its top billing by packing the crowds in for their performances. Their range is extraordinary covering Motown hits, bluesy numbers and even tossing in a bit of country. They share the night with Durham County Poets as well as the One World Choir. This non-auditioned group, lead by Chris MacLean,  is made up of refugee and immigrant singers and feature songs culled from “many spiritual, cultural and musical traditions.”

Back again, of course, is the Franco Night MC’d by Ottawa Life’s and CHUO’s Anne-Marie Brugger. The Thursday, April 20th programming features acoustic folk duo Geneviève RB & Alain Barbeau and a trio of female Franco folk singers. One half of Scarlett Jane, Cindy Doire takes the stage with prairie songstress Anique Grange and Stingray Music Songs from the Heart winner Mélanie Brulée.

If you want an overview of the all the headliners in one sitting, Saturday’s Headliner Song Circle (moderated by Mike Regenstreif) is where you’re going to want to plant yourself.

Free daytime programming over the weekend includes workshops where you can learn how to build instruments and then a band to play them in, a Twenty-five Years of Great Canadian Song-Along, and performances by Jill Zmud, Vince Halfhide and Julie Corrigan. Families with wee ones will want to take in the Songs for Families sing-along with Chris White and guests. The always engaging Kristine St Pierre who will be doing a special performance for toddlers and babies.

The Ottawa Grassroots Festival runs between April 20-23 inside The Southminister United Church (15 Aylmer). Tickets are on sale now.