July 13: Take Me to the Riots

Ra Ra Riot - Ottawa Bluesfest - photo Mike Bouchard

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While 10 straight days of music (practically anyway) can be exhausting, festivals are also exhilarating. The challenge to hit all the stages, balancing the desire to dance with the need for more beer, opting to endure the scorching sun to get the best view. This was Saturday night’s Bluesfest.

It started with Austra, Canadian electropop darlings who made critic’s lists across the board with their dark, pulsating debut, Feel it Break, in 2011. A trio pulled from the wreckage of other Canadian indie bands, Austra’s driving songs haunt you, as lead singer Katie Stelmanis’ voice gets into every corner of your head. Not so Saturday unfortunately, as the bass was turned WAY up. It was especially unfortunate for those unfamiliar with their new album, Olympia, released mid-June, since I doubt they could’ve picked out any of the songs. I almost couldn’t make out “Painful Like”, but it might’ve been because I was listening to my heart rattle around in my ribcage. I’ve seen Austra thrice and know they put on a glorious show, but this was lacklustre. It might’ve been the heat, it might’ve been the sparse crowds, it might’ve been the inability to figure out which live versions matched which studio versions, but nobody really seemed to be into it. There was lots of running to and from the beer tents.  Until “Lose it” came on, and people stopped in their tracks, finally able to get a sense of Stelmanis’ amazing vocal range. Thankfully they kept it up, finished strong with “Beat and the Pulse” and I left remembering why I’d wanted to catch them in the first place.

Next up was Death Grips on the Bell Stage, an experimental hip hop group consisting of Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett (vocals), Andy “Flatlander” Morin (keyboards/sampler), and usually, Zach Hill (drums), but Bluesfest crowds missed out on Hill. Too bad, because apparently he’s a phenominal drummer and the biggest reason we wanted to watch the show. While many of the crowd was probably wondering how this amped up MC and Count Dracula-esque keyboardist (I swear he could’ve been playing at a Transylvanian wedding) managed to make the main stage, but Death Grips are a big deal in their scene. Oh, and they’ve also remixed a couple of Bjork tracks, so that might’ve played into the programming. It wasn’t enough to keep us though, and we moved on to a stage where we could make out the words being said.

Lucky us, we landed at the Black Sheep Stage for King King, a kilt-sporting British blues band that’s been racking up accolades in Europe. Thank you, Bluesfest, for including some blues in the programming, because these guys were stupendous! Such a pleasure to have come across them, lay on the grassy hill and be treated to guitar solos that made my heart sing. Someone somewhere must’ve known they were going to be a hit with festival-goers, because they were scheduled to appear again on the River stage on Sunday! Hope you didn’t miss them twice.

We decided to fill the next bit of silence with whatever was on the River stage, and found ourselves with Phosphorescent. We walked in on “Song for Zula” and that was it. I was hooked. I’m listening to it right now. Smooth vocals, graceful keys, a perfect summer song, the sort of thing you want to listen to as you speed along the highway, windows down and radio up. If the few songs we heard are any indication, the entire album Muchacho seems to fit that description, and I hope Phosphorescent comes back to Ottawa for a visit after I’ve had some time to practice road crooning. Oh the joy of mixed festival programming!

Not everyone is keen on "festing" though, and the crowds on Saturday were light. Great for those of us who were stage hopping, and it was a breeze to float up to see Stars. Normally described as an indie pop band, we found Amy Milan (vocals, guitar) belting a rocking version of "Fixed" from The Five Ghosts. Not to be outdone, Torquil Campbell took the mic next and sang his face off to "A Song is a Weapon" from their newest album, The North. Jam band fans would've surely been impressed by their hard hitting rendition of "Ageless Beauty" with Milan, an ageless beauty herself, taking the lead on a huge jam at song's end. Stars are definitely indie pop in studio, indie rock on stage. They also showed some great versatility with songs like "Midnight Coward," pushing through with hard, fast, can't-help-but-dance-to-them drums, making the descent into the bridge even more impactful than ever...making Milan's voice sound ever more lovely. It plays so well off of Campbell's, and they got us dancing, finishing with crowd pleasers "Take Me to the Riot" and the (ridiculously) named "Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It." Oh, but they're a good Canadian band, and had 8 more minutes left, so they came out for an encore (according to Campbell anyway). It was an interesting version of "Walls" that many might have enjoyed, but not as an epic show closer. At least the night wasn't over.

After we were unable to figure out what Bjork was wearing, we took ourselves to see Ra Ra Riot. If you were to guess their genre, what would you guess? Metal? Punk? Well you'd be wrong, because these talented New Yorkers play indie rock. They've also been said to play "baroque pop," most likely thanks to the talents of violinist Rebecca Zeller. I was mesmorized watching her play, her hair moving gently in the breeze as she ran away with "Run My Mouth." I can't imagine Wes Miles sing anything but indie rock, and his performance was stellar on "Each Year," from their first studio album The Rhumb Line. It felt like the crowd was having a bit of trouble getting into it, but a full snap-along for "When I Dream" took care of that. Followed up with the synthy, upbeat "Beta Love" we had ourselves a proper dance party. Play more songs off the short and sweet Beta Love released in January, the party went right through until the last notes of "I Shut Off" reverberated across the water. So early on a Saturday night, energy like lighting through the crowd, there was certainly enough excitement to warrant an encore. Ra Ra Riot was happy to oblige, and delivered a version of "Ghost Under Rock" that I'd dance to every night given the opportunity. Hmm, 10 days doesn't seem so long after all...