Drive By Truckers, Vintage Trouble, St. Vincent and more at Ottawa Bluesfest

St. Vincent - July 6, Ottawa Bluesfest - photo: Mike Bouchard

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By: Jay McConnery

Summer breeze cooled the trademark dusty summer haze of Lebreton Flats, as Bluesfest wrapped its opening weekend with a musically overwhelming afternoon of typically incongruous scheduling relentlessly entertaining throngs of contented, weary Sunday revelers. Mayo soaked Tornado fries were savoured and the sugary grease of Beaver Tail sleeves licked, as gangs of celebratory seagulls dotted the dramatic sky scape of pink, idly-threatening clouds, as some phenomenally diverse music entertained the increasingly mixed social demographic of Ottawa’s biggest festival: The Festival of the Blues.

Afternoon sets from Langhorne Slim and Caitlin Rose were discussed enthusiastically as crowds began to gather in earnest over the dinner hour for the musical meat of the day, one which I felt contradicts this year’s tendency to focus succinctly on the interests of a mass, culturally conservative audience. I settled in at the Claridge stage to check out the Drive By Truckers, enjoying a hot contraband banana from my pocket, sneering widely at the huge concession lines. The Truckers rolled out the loose southern rock as only they can, trading solos at the foot of the stage, and inviting the Texas horns out for a good portion of the set. They keep things informal and playful, and have built a dedicated following who expect this. I noticed the sound to be a little uneven, and was confused by the grinning two-step of the androgynous bass player.

I was also increasingly intimidated by a burgeoning group of teenaged cowgirl clones who gathered around me in a storm of curls, beauty products and sexual confusion. They produced embroidered flasks from somewhere within the folds of their sundresses, dripping the boozy contents into their diet Pepsis and over their stiff new brown leather boots. Swarming the site like locusts, these hybridized Daisy Dukes seemed, to me, to represent a new Bluesfest archetype, fitting into the discourse of festival’s increasingly eclectic cast of stereotypes nicely alongside the recent addition of ‘EDM guy’ in 2011, ‘Hipster extreme’ (est. 2006), and ‘Rock-a-Billy man’ (from the way old school, primordial). Socio-Cultural reminiscing at the Blues fest is, of course, as natural and satisfying as complaining at Bluesfest.

From the main festival bowl, I zipped over to the River Stage to check out the talented Ty Taylor lead his band like a fashionably young Al Green, engaging the crowd like a less young Michael Franti. Taylor ran every square inch of the pitch coming face to face with unexpecting audience members and staff, even climbing the lighting tower to the cameraman’s delight. The group was made up of immensely talented (and well dressed) players, who had no trouble getting the audience worked up like a well-shook bottle of hot ginger ale with their tight chops and dynamics. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, what (who?) allowed them to settle on the name ‘Vintage Trouble’- which quite frankly, I think sucks. They’ve opened for the Who- so I guess, it’s working. I figure they want people to know they are old school, and badass- but c’mon guys.

As the catchy talent of the bandleader drew more spectators, I waltzed over to the Barney Danson Theatre to check out New Country Rehab who were stunning in their unified dynamic delivery. The group’s interplay and virtuous fiddle and guitar solos kept the audience rapt, though in trying to consume as much as possible (I think this might be the permanent theme now), I continued out to check out the weird Blaster blues of the Alvin Bros- and ultimately back to  the River Stage for Mac DeMarco. Mac and his band dropped some awesome lo-fi stoner rock, with songs named after cigarettes, sleep and love. The band cracked me up with their slacker aesthetic and humour- discussing the colonial significance of festival sponsor RBC in pompous British accents. They also grinned through some original and somehow timeless numbers which drew from the best and worst of the 80s and 90s, underneath some of the most impressive flattened neon hats I’d seen since 1992. I definitely plan to get my hands on some recent material.

Next up, while sadly missing Pokey Lafarge, The Violent Femmes, tore into their set with the two songs everyone wanted to hear, and then seemed to flounder in front of the enormous audience. Instead, I rushed to Black Sheep to check out the bulk of Shovels and Rope- a husband and wife duo from South Carolina who blew everyone’s socks clear off. Performing face to face in a rotating guitar and drums format- they reminded me of an organic diversified White Stripes, with Dolly Parton’s evil semi-twin in place of quiet Meg. They howled over incredibly thoughtful arrangements enbeefened by the addition of a keyboard in place of hi-hats for whoever sat in the drum throne. This duo had come highly recommended, and I really enjoyed their energetic set, as did most that were able to check it out. 

I decided to forego the new country (with a twist!!) of Lady Antebellum, after discovering that I knew their recent single. On the River Stage, St. Vincent held the crowd in the palm of her ivory-skinned hand dropping huge intricate riffs and performance theatrics in abundance. Rich with artistic intention and some hot backing tracks, long-legged Annie Clark dropped irresistible future-rock on the crowd slathered in her eclectic brand of guitar work, which is nothing short of awesome. Every aspect of her show exudes deliberation, and thoughtful planning, a quality surely driven home by her work with David Byrne, and as a result her performance was surreal and perfectly paced. All in all, an incredibly busy evening stuffed with talent, delight and not a drop of rain.