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Gearing up for Westfest

Ashley MacIsaac, A Tribe Called Red to play 11th annual free music festival in Westboro Village

A Tribe Called Red will perform at the 2014 Westfest. Credit: WestFest

It’s hard to believe that in just three months the streets of Westboro will be filled with people in shorts and T-shirts enjoying an outdoor music festival. But spring has to come sometime, and now there’s something to look forward to as we slog our way through this long, cold and apparently endless winter. Westfest is back for its 11th season in Ottawa with a lineup that includes bluesy grooves, aboriginal sounds and Juno nominees. From Friday, June 13 to Sunday, June 15, Westboro Village will come alive as big-name acts rock the Domicile Main Stage.

Westfest began in 2004 when founder and artistic director Elaina Martin teamed up with Christine Leadman, who was heading the Westboro Village BIA, to breathe life into what was then a struggling area. Martin had been producing the Rock City Women’s Festival in Wakefield; when she had to stop because of lack of funds, she teamed up with Leadman, bringing her skills as an event organizer and a champion of local music back to Ottawa. The first year drew 5,000 visitors to the main stage, and by 2007, the numbers had swelled to 20,000.

“Because of Elaina’s passion and her commitment and her love of music in Canada and this community, we have one of the greatest free festivals that you will find, not just anywhere in Ottawa, but anywhere in Canada,” said Mayor Jim Watson, speaking at the festival launch on March 13.  

In addition to musical acts, the three-day festival features local merchants and craft food trucks, giving visitors a taste of what Westboro Village has to offer. But it’s undeniably the music that is the main draw, and 2014 promises not to disappoint. Headlining the main stage on Friday is George Leach, a Sta’atl’imx from Lilooet, British Columbia, who plays a double-neck Gibson guitar. Leach’s sound is gritty and edgy with notes of blues and classic rock. His sophomore album, Surrender, is up for a Juno.

Following Leach as headliner on Saturday is acclaimed Cape-Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, whose ingenious blend of traditional fiddle with rock, pop and electronic influences brought Celtic music to a whole new audience.

The highlight of this year’s local lineup is electronic DJ trio A Tribe Called Red, which will headline the stage on Sunday. The trio’s sound, dubbed “electric pow wow,” is a blend of traditional aboriginal vocals and drumming with electronic beats that must be experienced to be believed. The group’s very first gig was at Westfest in 2007, and they have since morphed into a Juno and Polaris Prize–nominated cultural phenomenon. 

Rounding out the local lineup is some fantastic Ottawa talent, including Pony Girl, Brock Zeman, Matthew James Weiler and nine-member retro-electro tour-de-force The Peptides. The 2014 lineup also features a great showing from queer musicians, including MacIsaac and soulful Mohawk crooner Shawnee. “The queer community is always more than welcome, more than invited,” Martin says. “[It’s always] a safe space here at Westfest under my guardianship, so I’d like everyone to come out.”