Blondie, John Mayall, Young the Giant, Procol Harum at Ottawa Bluesfest

Blondie - Photo: Mike Bouchard - at Ottawa Bluesfest

By: Jay McConnery

Perfect weather and sunny vibes greeted my arrival Thursday afternoon to Bluesfest. The sun roasting my pink crown as I happily sashayed through security with an unwieldy can-shaped bulge in my pants.  My clandestine refreshment kept axels cool as I motored between stages, mechanically harvesting as much musical fruit as possible before Blondie was scheduled to perform an hour later. First up, I enjoyed the unique voice of Gary Brooker and his band Procol Harum, accompanied by the NAC orchestra on the Bell Stage: an elaborate production of thoughtful scoring and spectacular execution.  

The proceedings were masterfully guided by conductor David Firman, in close proximity and communication with Harum drummer Geoff Dunn. The pair navigated the prodigious collective like a bloated hover craft meandering carefully over hot lava, while Brooker’s trademark voice acted as rudder, in this oddly imagined vessel metaphor. In quieter sections, the music’s affect fell victim to the festival’s oft-cited sound bleed from the River Stage, yet generally the orchestra powerfully bolstered the compositions, much to the delight of Brooker and his band-mates, who grinned to each other throughout the performance. Highlights included the closing pair of tunes ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘Conquistador’ – which are admittedly, the only tunes I was really sure I recognized.

I also caught a few tunes from The Districts at the Barney Danson Theatre and was thoroughly impressed with their sweaty in your face rock-show. This incredibly young Pennsylvania band thrashed through some Americana tinted indie rock in front of a small crowd like they were playing for their lives, but weren’t too worried about it. Their compositions were unique, ragged, and exceptionally dynamic with impressive stops, howls and gritty delivery. I hope to catch this band again soon, because it’s clear they are already kicking a lot of ass. Careful not to miss the start of Blondie, I ran up into the pit of the Claridge stage and jockeyed for an atypically close spot. Being tall, I’m often either shamed aside, or discouraged from standing in certain places, but after a discussion about how large bearded men also have feelings, I befriending a group of middle-aged women who had brought their kids to check out Blondie- and allowed me to join their cross generational culture swap. Which I guess, really, is the crux of this whole thing anyway.

My excitement was echoed by many, as I considered my childhood crush on Deborah Harry, and the unforgettable evening in 1979 when she appeared on the Muppet Show performing Rainbow Connection with Kermit.  On that same broadcast, she also performed ‘One Way or Another’ (which as a 3 year old was my favourite song, until I heard the Kink’s Superman Song) and much to my delight, they opened the show with this classic rocker. Harry, Chris Klein, and the guys performed well, taking my nostalgia train brightly through the past, looking pretty cool all the while. The set was peppered with newer unknown tracks, but their one-time vanguard themes of new wave, disco and rap, (now all entirely classic cannon), made up the majority of the show. Deborah Harry still has her knowing, mischievous glint, evident even behind her bleached hair and white glasses, as she pranced and twisted across the stage like everyone’s favourite eccentric aunt. Highlights of the set included ‘Rapture’, ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Hanging on the Phone,’ leaving this 70s kid satisfied and looking forward to some classic British Blues and some Indie rock.

The Black Sheep stage was jammed for John Mayall, a legend of British Blues, and master bandleader. Mayall has mentored the majority of notable British rock guitarists, essentially giving legs to the British Invasion, and changing the face of rock forever. He’s a man who found his lot early in life, and still performs in the same basic context- dishing out contemporary renditions of classic American blues. His hot shot band of players was up to task last night, following Mayall’s brief direction and leadership towards hard rocking blues excursions. Although I am not typically interested in straight blues,  I enjoyed this set and the pangy solos Mayall punched out on his eccentric guitar, but mostly the awe and respect on the faces of spectators. Over at the River Stage Young the Giant had another significant audience, and ended the evening jubilantly, while Perry the Band stunk it up on the main pitch.