By: Jay McConnery
Photos: Mike Bouchard
As the sun set on the final weekend of the 20th Anniversary Bluesfest blowout, and I considered the uncomfortable implications of Collective Soul’s suggestive anthem “Spit me Out,” endless mutating reflections and highlights bounced around my head like dried maize spinning in a hot kettle; a tired, disgusting old kettle, with growing cracks and tell-tale signs of irreversible scorching. Although, in principle, still functional. Thankfully, some of these aforementioned kernels were able to reach the required temperature to explode into realized ideas and mature into the seasoned, salty sweet nuggets we are able to enjoy together here. Others, of course, remain in undeveloped stasis, slipping forgotten between cracks of the fold out floor, into the flattened Bluesfest turf, where they will wait to be devoured by next spring’s flock of Canadian Geese. I think a few nuggets may also be only partially popped. To say, pulling together a final festival weekend wrap-up is a daunting, difficult task- especially sitting at my desk on Monday morning, considering the sheer number of artists and experiences that must be recalled - but even more so, synthesizing the successes and challenges of the festival brand into a delicious stick-worthy bag of throat clogging kettle corn delight. Anyway, I volunteered for this, so let’s get down to it.
Friday began with a sun-soaked throwback, as an ocean of black shirts sang through Guns’n’Roses classics as led by the dextrous fret-work of the iconic Slash and his band, the Conspirators. Tending towards Quebecois, tattooed, and heavily bronzed, the audience suspended (some) reality to be all at once transported to a simpler time- 1990. Visions of hedonistic hairspray danced across the mind’s eye as security hosed down the overheating pit crowd in a scene reminiscent of rock videos from times gone by. Myles Kennedy did a great job as a different kind of mild-mannered Axl, and it was pretty hard to deny the fun atmosphere during their short set, which got double check marks as a cover band, and nostalgia act. Overall, I would say Slash’s volume could’ve been boosted a little during the raging solo portion of ‘Paradise City,’ but it’s silly to complain now.
Over on the Blacksheep Stage, Yung Lean created a futuristic and confusing digital soundscape with his twitching pubescent fingertips. His music is in large part a collage of bloops and bleeps, assembled in homage to his favourite video game effects and soundtracks. An interesting niche, I’d say. The sizeable audience seemed split between reverence and disdain for the young Swede’s creativity, likely clearly distinguished by those who shared his nostalgia for this particular vintage of games and sounds. I zipped back through the War Museum to check out Third Eye Blind. And it should definitely be noted that this inter-stage scuttling has been made exceptionally easy this year- specifically, by including the inside of the Museum as part of the official festival grounds. Additionally, by changing the festival layout to avoid bottleneck zones which plagued the last few years. It’s a huge improvement as far as crowd experience. Now if only they could have a small bike park and entrance at the west end.
San Francisco’s Third Eye Blind followed on the Claridge Stage. They confessed to having joined the Big Shiny Bluesfest line-up as a one off, and as a result sounded a little under rehearsed. TEB was a huge hit machine in the late 90s and their following appears intact, as the crowd was vast and quick to forgive the band’s lack of polish, shouting out the familiar choruses and willingly gobbling up front man Jenkins’ stomach churning diatribe. I thought the performance improved over the course of the set, and was embarrassingly disappointed to have missed meth-anthem ‘Semi-Charmed Kinda Life,’ while checking out the odd smooth blues of Joe Nemeth, doo doo d’oh.
The evening’s headline spot was split between the Barenaked Ladies on the Bell Stage and the phenomenal July Talk on the River Stage. The Steven Page-less BNL dismantled their huge audience with seasoned showmanship, impressively running through a catalogue that many of us know and love. It may not be my thing at the moment- but everyone’s had a soft spot for these sweethearts at some point, hell, I was even thinking of wearing my oversized ‘Gordon’ shirt to the gig. Interestingly, BNL were one of several main stage acts that felt it necessary to cover (in their case, in the form of song and dance medley) other current top 40 hits and/or artists. This tendency was a subject of discussion among festival pass holders, as it occurred during 5 separate headline sets on the same stage, including Snoop. Is it an exercise in cross-branding, a jab at how much other popular music sucks, or perhaps just a ‘thing’ I am unaware of?
Instead, I spent the balance of time checking out July Talk. This was one of the most entertaining shows I witnessed at Bluesfest, as the band rocked a highly playful and engaging set at Springsteen energy levels, with the captivating sexual sparring of the male/female vocalists guiding the audience’s attention through the performance. The aggressive raspy vocals of Peter Dreimanis blended with the playful, sensual timbre of Leah Fay’s voice in some kind of perfectly unpredictable saucy ‘mixture,’ and their exaggerated interaction complimented it perfectly. The tension is actually quite riveting- as they compete and outdo each other for the audience’s attention. The musicians walk a tightrope with extreme dynamics, accompanying audience participation and physical theatrics- and managed to impressively maintain the musicality throughout. Without doubt this band is destined for bigger audiences, and I’m sure the right song could see them on a main stage in no time.
Saturday’s most discussed day sets were from Mr. Olsen-twin himself, Bob Saget, and the porta-potty rapping antics of Action Bronson. Work engagements forced me to miss the measure of the day, but I arrived in time to catch a taste of the ‘Nostalghia,’ who were by sake of name alone, an obvious shoe-in for this year’s festival. Then I checked out the latter half of Childish Gambino and made a quick visit to Thornetta Davis, struggling to connect to something musically as the growing legion of Snoop Dogg fans permeated the site with hormone-heavy energy. I did catch a few of my favourite Snoop cuts, but really, it’s just the same as it ever was- and I guess I’m less high. I felt perhaps I had hit my Bluesfest threshold as I was cussed out for shuffling through a group of Barhaaven hustlaz, when I stumbled upon the Mavericks on the River Stage.
The Tex-Mex Spanish Americana vibe has been otherwise absent at this year’s festival, and it was a real treat to enjoy something you might not normally hear on the radio, The Mavericks. It was also wonderful to escape the teeming masses, which I’m increasingly reminded are not for me, especially if you are not traveling with the herd. Like the mutant neon-green Bluesfest ‘official’ swamp bugs that adhere to audience members’ hair and skin, the sticky gumbo of acoustic and brass instrumentation peppered with percussion and commanding vocals,(Raul Malo), latched onto my heart like a July May-fly. It also reminded me of the festival’s former tendency to highlight Latin Jazz, Cuban and African world music extensively, which I feel is another unfortunate trend in the festival’s programming. Their music felt like a northern cousin to the Gipsy Kings, and had the moderate audience smiling widely.
From this set, I enjoyed the weirdo pirate rock of Dr. Hook featuring the eye-patch wearing Roy Sawyer, on the Black Sheep stage. Sawyer is not much of a singer, or performer, anymore- but it doesn’t matter. His band buttressed his performance with strong vocals, and enthusiastic delivery- and he is such a character with his baton and perpetually burning cigarette. The audience singalong of “Cover of the Rolling Stone” is one I’ll not soon forget. Nor will I forget the beautiful parkway bike ride east, underneath Parliament, and along the locks and canal to a friend’s place afterwards- what a beautiful city we have.
Sunday couldn’t start and end soon enough for me, as physical exhaustion was beginning to take hold of my psyche. As a younger man, I was happy to spend the 11 days of Bluesfest burning the midnight oil- waltzing without problem through work and festie life . Now, I’ve found it must be managed more like a careful marathon. You need to sleep, eat well, exercise – in balance with festival attendance, otherwise, well, these reviews would be even grumpier. I arrived late Sunday afternoon in time to bounce between a couple of shows of interest.
On the Black Sheep stage- I checked out the ‘Be In the Band, Instructors Showcase’ which featured a number of noteworthy local players and dedicated music teachers running through a well prepared set of covers. Watching the 5 guitar assault on ‘Whipping Post’ and ‘Rocking in the Free World’ was truly awesome, especially in that the players were on par with most others I had seen over the course of the festival, and in many ways the heart of Ottawa’s expanding community of musicians. I split my time with The Darcys over on the River Stage, who were an awesome treat. I undersood them to be a band who is dedicated to studio magic and execution, but the Darcys also very much deliver live. Their songs are slightly elusive, but soon hook you with great breaks, arrangements and a complex wall of sound approach in their instrumental climaxes which were no less than epic. They also performed some of their innovative adaptation of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ - most stirringly, a loving and respectful take on ‘Home at Last.’ I thought their grooves were deliberate and original- much like their onstage energy: definitely a band to check out.
I followed the increasing humidity over to Moist, performing on the Bell Stage. It was interesting to see how well the band has aged. After things dried up a bit, we galloped over to see a bit of USS on River Stage, an odd trio of drummer, acoustic rhythm guitar and samples/dj/mc/hype-man who attacked their performance with an unmatched energy and intensity. They had a huge enthusiastic crowd, many donning their fashionable swag- and they didn’t disappoint, especially during their anticipated song ‘Yin Yang,’ which has often been heard on popular radio. There were several cartwheels, crowdsurfing, and I think a back flip- pretty impressive for a dude who looks to be about 35. The Sam Roberts Band followed on the Claridge Stage drawing an impressive crowd with the their modern classic Can-Rock. The band is made up of solid players, who take their show and performance seriously- and engage the audience frequently and respectfully. Not having a sense of their music previously, I did fall a little in love at the Wolfe Island festival a couple years back, and again really enjoyed their slightly tripped out groove rock again this day. They are probably one of the better charting bands in the country right now, and the addition of a sax player definitely upped the ante.
And then Collective Soul- who opened with two originals, but quickly addressed the concerned faces in the audience by promising the rest of the set would be ‘the old stuff’. A perfect familiar and non-threatening set to cap off the Bluesfest weekend. It’s crazy how many Collective Soul songs I recognize, and how few of their lyrics I’ve bothered to learn. Uh huh, Yeah. Goddo and Elvin Bishop closed the other stages, but tired and blind with thickening eye crust, I hopped on my bike and bid Bluesfest adieu for another year.
The festival is clearly a different beast than the one I got to know about 15 years ago. Unlike the whimsical mystery of new and undiscovered talent the lineup once provided, It is now programmed for maximum turnout, maximum efficiency, and maximum profit. A festival which has something for everyone, not just self-righteous music afficiandos (like me), but really everyone. It’s huge and teeming, and spectacular. It has increasingly re-written itself in recognition of culture trends, becoming one of the 10 biggest and most successful festivals in the world. It seems like everyone has got something to sell at Bluesfest- and if I was more of a venture capitalist, I might try out my concession ideas next year: Sugar Rope, or Irish Popsicles. Anyway, its rare an opportunity comes to crush success within the context of the arts, and function as a self- sufficient non-profit which donates extensively to important programs in Ottawa. I applaud Mr Monahan and his team, and thank him for considering the tastes of me and people like me when putting together the new and improved Folk Fest. Thanks for reading.