Review - Ottawa Bluesfest Weekend July 8-10

Written By: Jay McConnery
Photos By: Mike Bouchard 


The Black Keys - Ottawa Bluesfest 7-8-2011

The week-end days bring out the best in the Bluesfest experience, as you can feel the machine firing on all cylinders and revellers can fully submit without thoughts of the next morning. Instead of wrestling with transportation logistics, keeping an eye on the dreaded clock, or mulling details of an early morning meeting, there is only the here and now on which to focus all your leisure attention, which really makes all the difference in live music. Friday night blew in a huge crowd and proportionally out of control beer lines; legions of younger fans checked out 'Rise Against' and fans of the heavy blues duo 'The Black Keys' anticipated their headlining set keeping the festival plaza rippling with electricity. I looked forward to a peak at Wanda Jackson, but I felt 'Hey Rosetta!' was the place to be as the group's samples were among the most intriguing I'd heard, and I felt they were poised to deliver something amazing. Unfortunately, Friday also blew in a freak storm with a very high winds and sideways rain, that had all stages shut down for a good portion of the night. Thankfully there was no shortage of cover in the War Museum, or in some of the various tents onsite, and folks were able to safely wait out the weather. It was a lengthy break though, and volunteers became the festival's front-line as the wet throngs inquired if there was any word as to whether the night had been called off, or if hope remained. As the clock approached the final hour of the evening there was still no information to share, however they had been instructed to stop scanning tickets, which led them to assume the night was over. By this point, half the crowd had left anyway, so I admittedly hopped on my bike towards home- and it was just about the half way mark where I heard enthusiastic cheering, and the raunchy blues riffs of the Black Keys emerging. It would've been a great opportunity for them to come out and own the night, and from all reports the duo stepped up and delivered a great, but short set. Oh well, can't win em all I suppose. 

The Peter Elkas Band - Ottawa Bluesfest 7-9-2011In contrast, Saturday was one of those perfect weather days that felt a bit like a dream. Hazy clouds, or some very artistic and hopefully not poisonous chem-trails painted the sky, adding to the vibe as we enjoyed a mid-afternoon arrival and stroll among the stages. We ducked into a busy Barney Danson theatre to check out the Peter Elkas Band. Backed by 3/4 of the locally legendary Burt Neilson Band, as well as a saxophone player, Elkas shared some tracks from his new record 'Repeat Offender' which felt in step with his soulful Motown tendencies. There was also a healthy helping of E-Street vibe and knowing of Elkas' love of the Boss, it made sense hearing the straight rock beats and rhythmic piano stylings fit into his original sound. The theatre certainly has it's pros and cons from the perspective of both the performer or the audience, but the band kept us engaged with their tasteful playing and spot on harmonies. Another highlight was a great version of Otis Redding's 'I Can't Turn You Loose'. Hopefully one day we'll see them playing on a big stage, out in the sun while enjoying beer. From the confines of the theatre, we walked back outdoors and over to the Subway stage to check out 5x BMA nominee MICHAEL POWERS. Now, I've never been nominated for a Blues Music Award- but I bet if I had been, or ever am, I wouldn't demand that that information appear along side my name every time it is written, uttered or pondered. He definitely played the blues, but I actually can't remember one interesting thing about his music, because I spent all my time imagining the decision making process that led to his multiple nominations becoming his title, if not his name. Also, why in CAPS, MICHAEL? Is this how you get attention in the world of the Blues? Enough about 5x BMA nominee MICHEAL POWERS, but hopefully next year 1x JAMMY AWARDS nominee NERO will be invited to re-unite for a high paid set at the festival.

Erykah Badhu's delayed start led to setting up semi-permanent camp at the Subway stage, which resulted in being treated to the electro Latino vibes of the Spam Allstars. Keeping things rolling through the late afternoon warmth, the grooves were danceable and highlighted by some fantastic percussive work. DJ le Spam's base tracks are heavy and he is as energetic as they come behind his decks. Saturday was a big night of music as far as headliners go, with M. Ward, the Tragically Hip and Shpongle all going head to head. I started out at the Hip, and couldn't help but be impressed with their musical tightness and iconic stage presence. This is really one of Canada's best-ever bands, and by the size of the crowd, the people know this. The band played with virtuous-tic purpose and was totally on point for everything I witnessed. Gord Downie started with his antics early, offering as he typically does, an entirely improvised one-man mime show featuring hundreds of characters in interpretational scenarios, while simultaneously singing the hits. I think his method of engagement is superbly original, and still draws me in after twenty years seeing them live. However, I miss the days when you could actually count on him to sing a few songs with that unique tambre, instead of scream everything, off-kilter of the original vocal patterns.    

M. Ward was a quick stop, as I was quite keen to spend some time with Shpongle.. and Simon Posford did not dissappoint. With a long set of psci-trance delivered from atop a white pyramid with face melting projections, visual effects and enough smoke'n'mirrors to entertain even the most sober of witnesses there was no leaving. The scene was also very sparse and friendly, and I find as I get a little older, atmostphere can sometimes be equally as important as the music. Saturday ended dancing among friends and making plans for go for a few drinks and keep the festival magic alive. 

Peter Frampton - Ottawa Bluesfest 7-10-2011Sunday was one of the festival's big programming days, and the only way to approach these conflict ridden days is to submit to the flow. We arrived to Peter Frampton rocking the mainstage with an outstanding group of players. Dancing through the classics of 'Frampton Comes Alive' was never more fun, but his acoustic portion was a little on the sleepy side, so after filling up on the hits, we zipped over to the National Bank stage to check out 'Neon Indian'.  Sadly, this set was re-scheduled to an earlier start and we missed it entirely. That's okay- the Funky Meters are playing just over the hill! Amazing to watch these legends playing music that has been so influential for so many. George Porter Jr. is a monster of a bass player, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. plays with such groove, that it appered the entire drum riser was in danger of collapsing-- in fact, cymbals were falling off, microphones were toppling, and the whole kit was quivering like a jellow salad. It was actually making me a little anxious to see- but he never missed a beat and the band kept the whole crowd transfixed and grooving. I would've taken in the whole thing, but one of my childhood favourites, Huey Lewis and the News, were about to kick off at the Claridge stage. Connected with friends and dug into a set peppered with hits, but made up mostly of new 'Soulsville' material. There were a few glaring emissions, (Hip to be square? Stuck with you?) but it was a real nice time.. although things got a little uncomfortable when Huey sang about being a '60 minute man', and gesturing suggestively, igniting further discussion of his rumoured prowess. Committing to this set was tough, because it meant missing Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Yukon Blonde entirely, both whom I was excited to see on the roster. One more point for nostalgia, I suppose.

Huey Lewis and the News - Ottawa Bluesfest 5-10-2011The last slot of the night was split between Leon Russell, lighting up the stage with his huge white beard and attire like the ghost of country Christmas past, A Perfect Circle and Dumpstaphunk. Leon Russell has played with everyone and seemed to be sampling all their catalogues for this performance. Soaring pedal steel and mandolin complimented his piano work and Willy Nelson-like vocals, through awesome arrangements of tunes like 'Wild Horses' and 'I've Just Seen a Face'. Definitely a personality that I'd like to learn a little more about. Took a quick visit to see 'A Perfect Circle', and although I didn't stay long, the tight crispness of the music intrigued me to explore their catalogue as well. They played a dark version of 'Imagine' as I jogged over to Dumpstaphunk to check out some great funk. I stopped along the way at the western porta-potties and took 'A Perfect Dump'. Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk is a perfect festival set experience- funky to the core and loaded with talent. Also a great way to end the weekend, dancing amongst great friends. A short bike-ride home and I'm ready for a day off. Sleep well.