(Disclaimer- as I sit and write this I am at work, extremely hungover and with a full plate of work today- I have not hung on every word, referred to google, a thesaurus or anything other than my chicken scratch from last night for reference materials. I apologize in advance for any misreporting and for the use of many mono syllabic adjectives……)
By Sean Taylor
Thanks to an early press time at my day job- I was able to hit Lebreton Flats just after 6 pm with a few cold beers already in my stomach- eager and excited to finally hear and see what all of the "Islands" fuss is all about. Over the past year it seems that I’ve heard this act hyped and mentioned from the furthest reaches of my social scene - from lawyers to lackies- they all seem to love it. Well, I am not sure if it was the confusing schedule listing for Island/ Woodhands, the 6:30 PM start, or the new wave attire (as Craig Finn says “At least in dying, you don’t have to deal with new wave for a second time.”)- but this set just didn’t seem to be what I was expecting, wanted or needed. The white and turquoise get ups that took the stage should have given me the hint I needed that this was going to be more poppy than I can take. The light airy music wasn’t bad- it was just background music for a cruise ship afternoon of shuffleboard. Skip.
Feeling a bit disenchanted about the flop that was Islands, I took a stroll over to the Claridge Homes stage to see The Gories. While Bluesfest may be one of the biggest and best festivals in North America, it baffles me that the occasional act like this manages to snake their way amongst the mostly quality lineup. I was only able to listen to two songs- both of which were basically rip offs of BAD Canadian blues (the first was David Wilcox’s “The Bearcat” with different lyrics, the second was a BTO knock off that would have made those Oakley vendors in NYC proud). Skip.
Oh well, 0 for 2
Knowing that Old Crow and Derek Trucks were still to come was more than enough to keep me moving through the crowd, finding friends and of course emptying a plastic cup or two.
It was almost 7pm to the second when Old Crow Medicine Show took to the cavernous MBNA stage. It was quite a contrast to Tuesdays Arcade Fire performance to see this group of bluegrass musicians huddled together at center stage, instead of the huge area being utilized by instruments, band members and lighting rigs. In true bluegrass style OCMS play with no percussion, instead relying on their incredible finger picking and vocal harmonies to fill the air. And fill the air they did! From the opener of “Hard to Love” the crowd and Old Crow kicked it up hoedown style.
While the crowd wasn’t huge, they were very attentive- and thunderous applause followed every number, especially after the 4th song, an instrumental number that gave each member of the band a little solo time, letting the crowd in on just how great these guys are at what they do. I was lucky enough to watch the next two songs from the side of the stage- but found myself actually watching the crowd’s reaction to his band more than the band actually playing. The set was strong as hell, and by the time they hit the final couple of numbers the whole crowd was hootin and hollerin for more. What followed was pretty special IMO- they played a pretty impressive version of Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds”- followed up by a double speed bluegrass instrumental, then a great rendition of CC Rider. Wrapping up with the Wagon Wheel that we all know and love- the crowd went nuts and it felt like a giant kitchen party for a stretch.
Having recently seen a two set extravaganza from The Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band at Mountain Jam in Hunter, NY- I was stoked to head directly to the Hard Rock Stage and get some prime real estate- but I detoured to see what Woodhands was sounding like over at the Subway Stage. I’ve seen Woodhands before and this was nothing different- kind of melding of the sounds of Beck and The New Deal is what I heard. This is an act that kills in small clubs but it seemed to also translate well to the open air enviro of Bluesfest.
When I arrived at the Hard Rock Stage- New Brunswick’s Matt Anderson was wrapping up his set of standard grizzly blues on his acoustic. Matt is a very talented blues guitarist, who I have seen in a variety of venues and he always puts on a good show- although I don’t know if I have ever seen him engage the audience much.
This would be a welcomed addition to his performances as I do find they tend to feel a bit longer than they actually are. Obviously the crowd last night could have cared less, as he walked off the stage to a standing ovation (I even some lawnchair nation members stand up!).
After all of the hors d’ouvres it was time for the main course- as I found myself down front on Derek’s side as the DTSTB was warmly welcomed by the audience. It was less than 3 weeks ago that many of us had the good fortune to see Oteil perform at the Jazz Festival- and here was that big smile once again gracing a stage in the nations capital. From the start the band highlighted Susan’s strong vocals on the opener of “Love Has Something to Say” while the rhythm section pounded like Muscle Shoals behind her. When I saw this band at Mountain Jam, I thought several times that it seemed like Derek was intentionally taking a back seat and allowing the band to do what it does best- and he didn’t over play anything, infact I was caught longing for more fiery solos from our young slide guitar hero.
Derek’s playing is all about feel and groove rather than flash, but when he does take the spotlight- it is nothing short of mesmerizing. Derek has a very unique ability to make the extraordinary seem so simple and effortless- and I know that others felt the same way as I glanced around at the huge smiles and shaking heads during one of his moments about 4 songs in (a Derek Trucks Band original). There was a slight mist starting to fall and the music was really perfect as Kofi and Derek had a total musical conversation for us all to witness. I am not sure if they dove into pure improv here, but from the smile that busted across the faces of Derek, Kofi and Oteil all at once- it surely seemed as though they had really impressed each other.
The fairly frequent appearance of Joe Cockers “Space Captain” in their set list meant I wasn’t surprised by the choice, but it certainly didn’t mean I wasn’t excited. Having seen Herbie Hancock play this at Jazz Fest recently and a whole host of artists over the years (Black Crowes, Cornmeal)- it did occur to me that I don’t think I’ve seen a version that deviates at all from the original. Whatever- that’s what classics are for- woooh! By the time Space Captain wrapped, Mill Street was starting to win the battle with my choice of East Side Mario’s Chicken Parm sandwich and I was forced to take off for the back. The final two songs I watched from the hill were again highlighting Susan’s husky blues vocals and the band just blew everyone away with their choice solos (especially a couple of knockouts from bass master Oteil). I know I am leaving out a lot about Derek but I think he would have wanted it this way- last night I witnessed a man at the height of his abilities- taking a back seat to highlight the amazing abilities of the woman he loves. This was never more evident than during To The City (?) the final number I caught where Susan tore into a solo spot and Derek just beamed the way love will make you do……