On October 1 Ottawa’s only bilingual power-folk band, Steamers, called it quits.
There was something so special about listening to the Steamers and seeing them live. They referred to themselves as a power-folk band, a style I had never heard of. The instrumentality and energy of the six-piece was something else, and I’m a sucker for a banjo and a mandolin. They perfectly mixed heavy moving lyrics with light and fun ones. On top of that they always looked like they were having a blast on stage. But what really made the band stand out, what really made me see them so many times, once more than 4 times in a month, was their bilingualism.
A lot of musicians in town speak French, but there are so few that perform in French, or at least in the venues that I regularly attend. And that’s what made this special. I didn’t need to head across the river to Hull or a cultural hub, I could see and hear francophone music in bars I already frequented and they even played one of the main stages at this year’s Ottawa Bluesfest.
It all began in 2009 when Greg Fitzpatrick, a punk rock guitarist, was given a banjo for Christmas by his wife. He then started jamming with his good friend Quin Gibson who had a bunch of songs he had been kicking around. This was followed by Greg’s drummer friend, Julien Thibaudeau, buying a fiddle to join them. You can start to see a theme forming here.
A few other members joined and left over the years and roles changed, but the trend seemed to stay the same. To join the Steamers you picked up a secondary instrument. The final additions were Greg’s sister Sarah, a pianist who picked up the bass, Garett Barr, a bass player who strapped on a guitar and Phil Castiglione, a guitarist who jumped behind the drums.
The band was originally called the Mackenzie Drinking Section as they practiced in the same jam space as the Mackenzie Rhythm Section. The band was originally intended to just be a Tuesday evening jam session, but they started writing songs and decided to play some shows and eventually recorded “The Home EP.”
After their first show, the Mackenzie Rhythm Section asked them to change their name due to confusion that led to funk fans showing up to a bluegrass concert. They changed their name to the Gatineau Steamers because a lot of their early songs made reference to Gatineau and the region. Eventually, the Gatineau portion was dropped because the members and their friends had been simply calling them The Steamers and their lyrical content had grown.
A Steamers set included countless sing-a-long opportunities, a brand of folk not seen anywhere else in the region and the family connection within the band expanded far beyond the stage making everyone in the crowd feel like a part of their eclectic family. Never was that more prevalent than when they played songs such as “All My Friends Are Here,” a song by Robots!Everywhere!, Castiglione’s solo project.
The Steamers released one album and two EPs, and leave a void that cannot just be filled by another band that sings in both languages. Their break up or break, (who actually breaks up anymore?) leaves Ottawa lacking a dynamic bilingual family and friend run folk band that could play a folk festival or a punk show without skipping a beat.
The band went out playing a show at a little known venue in Hull called Propulsion Scene in front of a small crowd made up mostly of family and friends. It was an excellent intimate show where the band played two sets full of originals and covers. They were sent off just as they started, in a small venue on the other side of the Ottawa River having drinks among friends. •