The Hold Steady, Sam Roberts, Sheepdogs, Mellancamp Review at Ottawa Bluesfest - 07-12-2012

Review:  Jay McConnery
Photos: Mike Bouchard (more photos)

 Craig Finn - The Hold Steady

Thursday night continued this year's trend of idealistic weather for the Ottawa Bluesfest, and except for the smokey brushfire scent colouring the air with a splash of uncertain danger, most revelers were looking pretty sunny and laid back for this evening's line up. As it tends to do, real life took priority- leaving me a little late off the mark this evening, but I cycled down in time for the first portions of Sam Roberts Band and the Hold Steady.

The Hold Steady has always been a bit of a mystery to me, but I think I may be finally figuring it out. A lot of music fans that I respect hold them in a very dear place, and when watching the performance tonight, it's definitely clear to me that they are a fantastic rock band and that front man Craig Finn is surely one of the more animated and entertaining vocalists on the festival circuit. Clearly his influences are vast, but the working man's spoken delivery always seems to remind me of Springsteen, which is fitting as the lyrical aspect of the band is what has always stood out to me with Finn's words painting very familiar pictures of parties and situations of young adult life with his exaggerated delivery and slam-style riffing on certain phrases, really driving home the imagery and context of his tales. Some of these lyrics originally whispered or co-spoken into my ear by an enthusiastic fan are now familiar. However, I think that his vocal style may be the very element that gets to me in the live setting, where it kind of feels like Finn is pleading to get his story across. I think I just need to spend more time getting to know the lyrics. The positive message is certainly present and I'll catch them anytime they are in town- because they deliver in a live setting.

 Sam Roberts - The Sam Roberts Band

I strolled the grounds and through the museum to catch Sam Roberts Band who was playing to an enormous crowd on the Claridge stage. Sam and his band are a little too good looking for me to get excited about, but I have to admit that over the last decade or so they have become a hell of a live band, and probably one of Canada's best and most endearing straight up rock outfits. I caught a few newer tunes that I wasn't familiar with, but the energy that erupted with their hits like 'Where have all the good people gone' is undeniable. It's fantastic to see them making forays into the US but I can't help but wonder if they'll be destined to follow in the footsteps of the Tragically Hip with a very comfortable domestic career, or perhaps if their wider appeal (looks) will allow them some more action South of the Border.

I got up close for John Mellencamp, and he and his band emerged with a fantastic stage set featuring barn style Christmas lights, and some stark southern kitchen imagery as a back drop. The band dressed in formal black southern minstrel style attire and performed in a soulfully slowed down manner, even offering a stripped down version of the band to begin the show. It was pretty vibey watching the drummer play on a stand-up kit, locked in with the upright bass player- resulting in some very fat low end frequencies that were kind of making me feel dizzy. The use of accordian and fiddle in his last few records has always been a flavour I've dug, and it works so well over all his material. John left the Mellencamp and went back to his Cougar days for solo renditions of 'Jack and Diane' and 'Small Town' on his beat up old Martin. He is one entertainer that has totally retained his raspy, rough and soulful voice over his many years of service- and it seems to be because he has found a pattern that works for him: smoke>heart attack (repeat). The crowd was very laid back and comfortable for this evenings set, much more reminecint of a typical Bluesfest crowd. In fact it was exactly like a normal Bluesfest crowd. Doobies were being past around with disregard, and cougars were spilling beers and smoking cheap cigarettes, people were smiling.  I caught the vibe bug and headed over to Sheepdogs to wind down the night.

 Ewan Currie - The Sheepdogs

Sheepdogs look like they are from 1972! They also sound like they would've fit in perfectly to that ideal timeframe of rock and roll magic- and judging from their bursting at the seams River Stage crowd, the rock n roll lovers of Ottawa agree. The band played their songs with great confidence (compared to their last Bluesfest gig especially)- rocking out a little harder than I would've expected and even doing some jamming (!). I don't know that their songs could be as good if it was actually 1972, and they didn't have all that historical rock to draw upon in their writing, but I will tip my hat to them for doing the right thing at the wrong time. Perhaps if they were born in another time, they would've been the Guess Who. Or maybe they would be to the Guess Who, what the Monkees where to the Beatles. If they don't already, think they should all live on a grassy commune and make some really good records before becoming a cult and imploding.  

Checked out some Blues on the Black Sheep stage with Sugar Ray and his band- soloist Michael 'Mudcat' Ward drew me in with his tasy soloing, but frightened my off with his quivery vocals. I ended the night by checking in on the Electro stage where a good sized crowd raged to DJ Arty. They were employing some speaker stacks towards the museum giving a great surround sound. The music seemed like bubblegum house to me, although it looked like everyone there was having a really great time.

Check it out. I hope you have a better understanding.