Unfortunate End to Bluesfest 2011

July 18, 2011 10:44 am
Storm looms over Ottawa Bluesfest

Although we’re all sad to see our magnificent two-week music showcase come to an end, the most disappointing part is that it had to end in a traumatic manner that was entirely unrepresentative of the whole experience.

The last night of Cisco Ottawa was one to be excited for from the get-go – a scorching hot summer evening that was to begin with rapper Lupe Fiasco, transition into rockers Cheap Trick and Ra Ra Riot, and finally close with popular indie veterans Death Cab For Cutie. The sun was sizzling, the beer was ice cold, the numbers were as large and excited as the first night – and no one could expect exactly the turn the evening could take. Lupe Fiasco started the night with a bang; pumping the crowd as he pogo-bounced around stage, stopping the show to buy a staff of popcorn from a wandering vendor, tossing open water-bottles into the sticky crowd and spitting out recognizable rhymes. His energy and mass following was remarkable, and he was just about the only thing that could get that many people so close to each other and moving wildly in the hazy evening heat. Regardless of whether or not we wanted to, Lupe got us sweating more.

Lupe Fiasco: the calm before the storm

After strolling over to the Subway Stage to try and catch dance-rockers Ra Ra Riot, a festival spokesperson came on the stage to announce that a severe weather warning was being issued for a quickly-approaching storm – so no show would be happening just yet. It wasn’t chaotic, people were milling, getting refreshments and beer, and for the average person looking to the sky – it was only a little overcast and slightly windy. But amidst frustration of the show being put on hold, it was clear that the massive dark cloud hanging over the Ottawa River was growing blacker, angrier, and closer to the festival site. Within seconds, it happened; the leaves overturned and everyone broke into a jog to beat the fast-approaching storm. Squeezing into the War Museum foyer, people only minutes behind me were entering soaked to the bone, wiping their faces and wringing their shirts. Announcers came on the Museum speakers to try and usher everyone to a parking lot. We all looked at each other, down to our dry clothes, and said with a puzzled smirk, “I don’t think so.”

Text messages asking our safety and whereabouts came in by the dozen, as well as photos of the chaos that was less than 100 feet away. Cheap Trick had been rushed off stage, and almost immediately thereafter the main MBNA Stage collapsed like the sped-up wilting of a flower, crumpled and pointy with broken poles and posts. Tragically, approximately five people were seriously injured in the caving stage havoc, but emergency response and security teams were brave and fast-acting during their pursuit of the casualties. Tables had been whipped over, lawn chairs abandoned and frantic concertgoers who had tried to stick out the storm rushed in – many in tears – to the dry and flickering lit Museum.

Ultimately, immediate sympathy for festival director Mark Monahan was felt; the man behind the Bluesfest organization, volunteers, delegation and decision-making. Although composed and entirely responsible for calling Cheap Trick off the MBNA stage only minutes before the structure collapsed, we can only imagine the panic that sets in when your cherished hard-work has turned into sprinting mobs of screaming people. Of course, it leads to media speculation of the safety of a festival – even though it’s been a well-oiled machine since its inception in 1994. No one can plan for that sort of catastrophic act of Mother Nature, and all that can be done is exactly what was: fast-thinking, split-second decisions and prioritizing safety before festival satisfaction.

At the end of the day – or should I say two weeks – Bluesfest and its incredible line-up was an overwhelming success. We can all hope that the memories of this beautiful display of music and togetherness will not be trampled like the wet plastic cups and lawn chairs that remain defeated at Lebreton Flats today. Hopefully everyone can send good thoughts to anyone affected by yesterday’s unfortunate events and focus on the overall safety of the patrons, the musical spectacles that were crammed into every evening, and the rarity of experiencing something quite like that. Next year we know we’ll receive the same treatment and delightful musical exhibition; we’ll just have to remember that these are some of the realities of the true music festival – unpredictability and the chance that at any second, it might become one for the history books.

Bluesfest crowd waits out the violent storm in the War Museum

Bluesfest’s Final Weekend Brings the Heat

July 16, 2011 9:58 am
Nicole Atkin

Spending the afternoon and evening at Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest yesterday was a little like running a marathon. In order to tour around to the overlapping shows, stages and sounds – it took stamina, sunscreen, dedication and comfortable shoes.

Early in the evening, Canadian rising star Alyssa Reid took The National stage to demonstrate her pop vocal acrobatics for overjoyed young onlookers, before the booming collective Amos the Transparent let us taste their locally-produced indie rock jams that included five instruments and several voices. Rushing past the ongoing Blues shindig at the Hard Rock stage, the waterside Subway venue was hosting Calgary’s art-rock spectacles Braids – an experimental Polaris Prize-nominated quartet headed by the haunting vocal ability of Raphaelle Standell-Preston. On top of the tapping beat and peculiar instrumental concoctions, her voice pierced and echoed through the air, sounding like a flawless recording as well as a sound I would have thought was unable to project from her calm and motionless figure.

Next on the musical docket was Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea, a darkly-dressed American quartet playing their own 70s-reminiscent tunes as well as some psychedelic covers beneath the setting sun. Atkins, a slight-framed American musician famous for underground hits like “Maybe Tonight” and “Neptune City,” was adorably polite and vocally robust during her set – gathering curious onlookers as well as loyal listeners. Over in the main field, reunited noise-rockers Death from Above 1979 put on a typically earsplitting punk show with lead singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger admitting, “We were a little nervous no one would show up, because this is our first show in Canada, and apparently Nick Jonas had 500 people at his show.” Witty monologue and dance-punk had us holding our stomachs and ears throughout the loud performance of their 2004 album – before it was on the run again, back across the swarming fields to another stage.

Mother Mother

After a little foot massage and a downed bottle of water, it was onto the 6th show of the night – which meant manning the huge and overjoyed gathering waiting for Vancouver’s Mother Mother to claim the Subway stage. The multitude of young audience members stood high on their toes with their fingers hooked in their backpack straps, roaring together when the wildly trendy and confident band took the stage. Swooping right into a slew of their whacky dance-rock tunes that slid from one into the other with next-to-no stops, the young indie-rock crew skillfully established that they are going to get bigger with each new addictive track written. This amazingly entertaining show had the whole audience in a synchronized bob, hopping to the impeccable harmonies executed by the two female vocalists/keyboardists and frontman Ryan Guldemond. Such a jovial show likely even had uninterested or impartial listeners converted after the first half-hour, when the catchy melodies of tunes like “The Stand” and “Body of Years” drove all of us together in the heavy night heat.

Lastly, wandering over to Jane’s Addiction it was plain to see that the gathering wasn’t necessarily as large as expected. Clusters of faithful Jane’s fans were hopping together to the recognizable rock tunes that were orchestrated by famed lead singer Perry Farrell and his high howl. The show pushed forward and the crowd grew slightly, but for the dedicated following it was probably the most intimate experience they’ll get with the longstanding group. Nearly nude back-up dancers and Dave Navarro’s eight-pack glistened in the bending stage lights, and throughout scorching, effortless guitar solos – he validated his title as one of the greatest guitar players of our time.

At the end of the last Saturday, the music consumed is what one normally would be treated to over a year or two span of concert-going. Now onto the final night of the festival and another overflowing line-up to round out the weeks; something that is entirely doable with a quick catnap and a some ice packs on last night’s tired toes. Ah, the joys of Bluesfest.

Janes Addiction

Hard Rock Takes Over Bluesfest’s Last Thursday

July 15, 2011 11:20 am

If you had never moshed before, last night at Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest was probably one of the best opportunities to give it a whirl. A line-up that included pop-punk acts Billy Talent, the hardcore Cancer Bats and darkly industrial 90s rockers The Tea Party – the young crowd was smushed into each other at the main concert field all night, feeding off the electric energy pumping from their dynamic punk idols.

Before the night air was battered with the familiar punk of Billy Talent, The Arkells took over the coveted time slot on the Claridge Stage on behalf of mainstream pop-rockers Theory of a Deadman, who fell ill last minute (whether or not it was a mystery Ottawa shawarma that plagued the lead singer, we’re still not sure). The Canadian alt-rock band stepped right up to the stage plate and swung away with their feel-good rock, resembling fellow Canuck rockers Sloan or The Trews and hitting home with upbeat melodies and an air of excitement about them. The Arkells – although only behind one full-length album to date – are a Canadian act to watch out for, and one that will only grow bigger with another three years of experience to add to those they already have. Lead singer Max Kerman’s pretty rock barking fit like a glove with both uppity piano anthems like “The Ballad of Hugo Chavez,” as well as the sweeter strut of “Abigail” that was comically interrupted by their take on Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” therefore becoming a crowd-pleaser for everyone including those pouting over the cancelled Deadman show.

Billy Talent on the MBNA Stage

Airwave-savvy Billy Talent stormed the stage for an eager teen-heavy gathering whose jubilant cheers filled Lebreton, proving that the first-time Bluesfesters have been long anticipated by Ottawa’s younger fans. Quirky lead singer Ben Kowalewicz was impossible to look away from – pacing the stage to fire up both corners and erupting into shrieks while both hands squeezed life out of the microphone. Impressive guitar-work by Ian D’Sa (who is also famous for his modern-day twist on the Flock of Seagulls hairdo) egged on the admiring crowd during speedy punk anthems like “Devil in a Midnight Mass” and “This Suffering” – so much so that it got a little boisterous in the pit, and Ben had to take a minute to address his pushy pals. Puffing his chest out with authority at a dead stop in the middle of the third song, the singer put a hush over the crowd saying, “Alright, everybody back the f**k up.” He straightened out the partiers with wise advice: “First thing, at a Billy Talent concert, when someone falls we pick them up. Secondly, we respect the women in the audience. We are not Limp Bizkit; we are not here to break your face. We’re here to have a good time.” Lesson learned, and that they did.

On the Hard Rock stage, grey and grooving celebrity Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery band played odes to his parents and Johnny Cash with a whack at “Folsom Prison” – pleasing the older crowd but earning a tease from the neighbouring Tea Party show, of whom he complained were too noisy. Jeff Miller, the lead of the 20 year-old reunited Canadian rock group on the Subway stage, of course acknowledged the silly complaint and continued to play noisier progressive rock like “The Halcyon Days” and a cover of “Paint it Black.” Ever the Middle Eastern-influenced set, Miller’s ornamented deep voice curled into the hit “Temptation” shouting, “You can’t write a rock song unless you live it, learn it, bleed it; so, are you ready to be lead into Temptation, Ottawa?” – sending reminiscent fans into a shoulder-bumping sway to kick off the last weekend of the festival.

Actor/Musician Tim Robbins

Wednesday’s Bluesfest is an Alternative-Rock Dream

July 14, 2011 1:31 pm

Was every song actually as good as an encore? Did we dream that? Or are My Morning Jacket truly that amazing on stage? Whether or not you’ve only heard the band’s name, know only a single song of theirs or have followed them for their entire 15 year existence – My Morning Jacket’s undeniable ability and stage presence were some of the most exemplary of the entire Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest so far.

As headliners, the four-piece group didn’t packed the MBNA field as full as some of the more mainstream acts – but for those who attended, whether a fan or not, they were treated to an unbelievable display of musical genius for two hours straight. Dressed in cloaks, suit jackets and vests – the rock warlocks immediately cast a spell with the first track of their new album, “Victory Dance”, a dark and thudding track that sent a wave of heavy vibration through the chests of the crowd members. The bass shoved through our bodies as fearless leader Jim James’ soothing folk vocals transitioned into the next tune, “Circuital,” which starts and stops with intervals of haunting guitar loop before revving up to a fast-paced folk anthem. The crowd leaped along with the extraordinarily animated group that consists of James, the heroic fur-ball front man whose legendary voice is refreshingly sweet; hypnotizing bassist Two-Tone Tommy; ruthless drumming caveman Patrick Hallahan; and astounding lead guitar-God Carl Broemel. To describe the bang-on rock performances of “Anytime”, “Holding Onto Black Metal”, “Outta My System” and “Off The Record” is nearly impossible, except to ask this question: how it is, that after nearly 15 years of performing, this band hasn’t burnt out from these marathon jam sessions? Slowed-down solos in the glimmering rainbow lights sporadically set a quieter mood on “The Way That He Sings” and the breathtakingly harmonic performance of the shadowy “Dondante,” which might have been the highlight of the entire set. A show that had James wearing a white cloth over his matted afro at one point, Broemel transitioning from mind-blowing guitar antics to a roaring saxophone solo, and the band having what looked like epileptic instrumental seizures together at centre stage – it felt a little surreal at times. Nothing about MMJ was out of sync or lackluster – they went big, and went home.

My Morning Jacket

Earlier in the night, the indie-cult ambiance was set with Toronto’s Metric, who were churning out one radio hit after the other for the dancing mobs. The band’s usual opener, “Black Sheep,” showcased Haines’ sultry enunciated vocals as well as her tiny rock ‘n roll figure; decked in a white romper, black vest and heeled booties during her hop around stage. Tweets across the Claridge screens were often authored by swooning young men convinced that they made eye contact with the flirtatious leading lady, whose seductive croons probably had their hearts beating like a hammer during “Help I’m Alive”, “Monster Hospital”, and “Satellite Mind.” Haines kicked it up a notch at the end of the show with jumpy and likeable recitals of “Sick Muse” and Gimme Sympathy,” looking like a natural as one of Canada’s indie poster girls. Her short gold locks glistened in the sunlight from above her keyboard and the whistles echoed as she admitted, “It’s been the longest winter for us, in the studio recording our new album – and it wouldn’t be summer without Bluesfest.”

An evening that saw Winnipeg’s up-and-comers Imaginary Cities cram heaps of fans in front of The National stage for their indie-pop set and the flailing fingers of the attractive young  bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles – it seems that indie and alternative-rock got the best of a relatively quiet Bluesfest night. Proving that even if the band originated from a tiny dot on a map, has odds working against them, or has never heard their song on the radio before – we can’t really be surprised anymore if they put on one of the most inconceivably brilliant performances we’ve ever seen.

A cloaked Jim James

Fogerty and Fuchs Bring the Hits

July 13, 2011 10:38 am
Dana Fuchs

“This was one of the first songs I ever played with my band back in 1968,” said an excitedly high-pitched John Fogerty to a diverse crowd cheering back at him in awe. Only a minute of silence and gathering of their instruments was needed before Johnny slid into the plucking loop of the down-South ditty “Suzie Q.” Although it was what the crowd had hoped for, everyone’s synchronized leap into the air at the sound of the bayou twang indicated that we all thought it was a little too good to be true.

As a night that began with punk band Protest The Hero and pop-metal Canadians Three Days Grace, the CCR-reminiscent mood was more appropriately set with the soulful Janis Joplin sound-a-like, Dana Fuchs, on the sunset adjacent Subway Stage. Easily recognized for her role in the 2007 film Across the Universe, Fuchs resembled something out of Fogerty’s era with her throaty, gospel pipes; and looked like a performer from a similar time, whipping her slender body and coiled blonde mane all over stage – often treating the speakers as a sitting place for deep monologues and horizontal tambourine playing. Citing Bluesfest as the venue for her best Canadian shows, the obvious hopeless romantic played a number of emotional soul-rock tunes before ending with noteworthy covers – a raspy Beatles breakdown of “Helter Skelter” that birthed from an acapella “Don’t Let Me Down,” and Led Zeppelin’s rampant “Whole Lotta Love.”

John Fogerty: The Hit Machine

Throughout his headlining set, Fogerty stayed on the same throwback path, dishing out crowd favourites that were impossible to pull yourself away from. Although goofy white-tuxedoed rapper Buck 65 drew a small crowd, it was difficult to stay and watch when the resounding uppity chants of “Looking Out My Back Door” were sailing over the entire concert grounds. Even those looking for a place to wander couldn’t avoid Fogerty and his countless rock n’ roll hits, and it wasn’t unlikely to hear aloof bystanders repeating, “I definitely know this song, but had no idea that he sang it.”

Listening to ex-front man Fogerty talk about a “little gig” he played called Woodstock and the Creedence Clearwater Revival years that founded the Southern-rock classics, it was hard to believe the old cat had been around that long – his sharp coined growl still completely intact and his flying fingers still overly familiar with the ways of the guitar strings. Splitting solos and sing-along prompts to the crowd made songs like “Up Around the Bend”, “Fortunate Son” and “Born on the Bayou” the ideal entertainment, while slower classics like “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” were mesmerizing. Dipping into his extensive jar of re-worked covers, Fogerty had men swinging women alongside “Pretty Woman” and the closing “Proud Mary,” making it one of the most energetic and worthwhile shows – his liveliness never faltering, and his legend-status more authentic than ever.

Sunset over Subway

OLM Photo Gallery: Kirk Franklin Brings Gospel Sound to Bluesfest

8:57 am

The Ottawa Bluesfest has been a hit for years, drawing crowds from all over the world. One of the key factors for this is the organizer’s ability to cater to the musical tastes of its varied patrons by offering performances from a wide selection of musicians and artists from around the world. One example of the Ottawa Bluesfest’s dedication to its patrons is the World Gospel Jam. This stage gives patrons a taste of the roots of many successful and famous blues musicians, while showcasing prominent gospel artists. This year’s main act for the World Gospel Jam was top gospel artist and Grammy Award winner Kirk Franklin. The anticipation and excitement for his performance drew crowds from Montreal and as far as Toronto. And without a doubt, he delivered in true boot stomping, revolutionary Kirk Franklin style.

*All photos by OLM Photographer Quame Scott of Q3 Studio.

Ottawa Concert Venues and Presenters of Yester-year

July 12, 2011 9:00 am
Music and Arts Ottawa

In the midst of a vibrant and heady festival season, here is a look back at what made Ottawa a festive place in its earlier days. Short of intentional diving into the audience, or Glastonbury-like group rain shower experiences, the city was graced with rewarding concert presentations.

Ottawa’s Tremblay Concerts were founded by Antonio Tremblay in 1929 and were an active part of the city’s concert activities until 1971; Tremblay’s wife Adine and daughter Suzanne assisted until 1961. Venues included the Grand Opera House, Russell Theatre, Glebe Collegiate, The Capitol Theatre and the NAC (1970-71). A tragic fire at the Grand (1913) and the demolition of the Russell (1928) saw the Tremblay Concerts move to the Glebe Collegiate auditorium flourishing for 12 years (1929-49). From 1942-69 the concerts were held at The Capitol and finally the, then new, NAC.

The Tremblays were no strangers to music presentation. Antonio was born c.1887 and died in December of 1974. He had been a translator for the Canadian government. His first concert was presented at the Capitol Theatre in 1921 featuring the Italian operatic soprano Amelita Galli-Curci. Tremblay was an agent for the then Montreal based impresario J. Albert Gauvin. Adine studied piano with her great uncle Gustave Gagnon and voice with Alice Dion-Parent, Berthe Roy, and Jean Riddez. She often gave recitals and was Constance Lambert’s teacher among others.

Harry Belafonte

Edward Johnson

Historically, many big names of the day were brought to the city by the Tremblays. The first subscription series (1929) included: Edward Johnson, the English Singers, Jacques Thibaud, Rachmaninoff, and Kathryn Meisle. Music genres ranged from popular performers of the times and classical music including chamber music, opera, ballet and symphonic music. Other stars included a who’s who of artists of the day: Nellie Melba, Artur Rubinstein, and Fritz Kreisler to Victor Borge, Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark. Canadian stars included Teresa Stratas, Jon Vickers and Maureen Forrester. Before the NAC, these concerts were also the first Ottawa appearances of the New York and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestras. The artistic efforts of this Ottawa family were rewarded not long before Tremblay’s death when he and his wife were appointed Members of the Order of Canada in 1974. This was an historically significant honor as they were the first

Maureen Forrester

couple to be so honored.

These concerts filled a void in the city during the early 1960s when Ottawa’s cultural scene was not as vibrant. At that time the city’s Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra had stopped performances. The best bet for the enjoyment of live performances of classical music were concerts presented at the city’s Capitol Theatre with artists brought in by the Ottawa Philharmonic Society and the Tremblays. Also active at the time was the Ottawa Civic Symphony Orchestra.

Ottawa Capitol Theatre: 1940s

The Capitol Theatre was one of the last of the grand opera theatres. A Loews Theatre, it stood at the southwest corner of Queen and Bank Streets. It opened on November 8, 1920. It was a pretty big deal for the company too because in honor of the opening a special train from New York brought Marcus Loew (Loews Theatres founder), Thomas Lamb (designer of the ‘lim rest’, an anatomical handle providing for comfort when holding all kinds of common things from cutlery to crutches) and a group of famous stars of silent films of the day. They were all taken to City Hall, greeted by Mayor, Harold Fisher and then later, on Parliament Hill, welcomed by Senator James Alexander Lougheed. If you thought the reception for the Royals was something, this entourage from the U.S. was also greeted by none other than the Governor General’s Foot Guards and throngs of cheering movie fans! Ottawa’s been in the big deal festive greetings business for some time!

The Capitol, designed by Thomas Lamb, had a grand lobby complete with a breathtaking marble staircase and balustrade. An impressive mezzanine and domed ceiling with a crystal chandelier. Its auditorium included an ornate proscenium arch, hand painted ceiling, box seats and balcony. It was considered one of the grandest of Lamb’s theatres in North America. Its opening was not without a scandal rivaling even the juiciest of today’s Hollywood

Texas Guinan

gossip; what good opening soiree would be? Reports in the papers of the day spoke of the actress Texas Guinan partying with the celebrities and guests well into the night and dawn of the next day and conducting the ‘activities’ from the Mayor’s chair. Ottawa, not used to this kind of notoriety, reeled (sic) at the idea of the seat of local government being ‘used’ in this way. There may not have been a mosh pit but I’d say Ottawa’s no stranger to a good party! The ‘party’ aside the theatre hosted a stellar cast of performers including: Nelson Eddy, Ethel Barrymore, John Gielgud, Maurice Chevalier, Michael Redgrave, Victor Borge, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, The Metropolitan Opera Company and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The Who and

Jimmy Hendrix

Hendrix also performed there leaving a legacy of two much sought after bootleg recording from their shows. The Hendrix recording was later released officially as “Live in Ottawa”.

The coming of the National Arts Centre saw the demise of The Capitol among other realities including meager audiences for movies. It closed on May 1, 1970 with the last movie shown being M*A*S*H. A special last hurrah was a benefit including a stage show and showing of Mary Pickford’s, Pollyanna. It was all emceed by Alex Trebek, and the audience sang “Auld Lang Syne”. The dust settled as The Capitol Square complex and those theatres closed in 1999.

All in all Ottawa has always risen to the challenge of providing excellent musical and artistic enjoyment. From the well recognized and worthy efforts of the Tremblay family to the ghosts of the Loews Capitol Theatre’s past, the city continues to excite and entice – great venues, opportunities, events and festivals.

First Week Ends With Old Time Rock ‘N Roll

July 11, 2011 10:22 am

After drying off from a night with The Black Keys and cooling off from shaking it with Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, last night it was time to try and understand our parents’ preaching about the music in the good old days. Last night, the good old days were handed to Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest attendees on a silver platter upon wrapping up the first week of the festival – featuring one big, tasty plate of Huey Lewis, Peter Frampton and their vintage tunes.

The beginning of the night saw younger bands like Boston Celtic-punkers The Dropkick Murphys and electronic kids Neon Indian exclaiming at the fact that they were playing alongside such prestigious veteran company and confirming that there was an air of astonishment about having two old-time favourites in the house. Frampton packed the MBNA stage with a sea of planted lawn chairs, clapping bystanders and curious young adults as he churned out popular 1970s classic-rock tunes like “It’s a Plain Shame” and the swaying “Baby, I Love Your Way” for the enthusiastic crowd. Between recollections and humorous tangents in his charming British accent, Frampton demonstrated he was still a rock n’ roll hero – whipping out his psychedelic talk-box effect for fierce performances of “Show Me The Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do?” Every time his voice buzzed through the microphone, with the wail of his guitar next to him, the crowd erupted into excited cheers while images of Frampton’s younger days rolled in a slideshow on stage. Although the famed musician was vocally and instrumentally as bracing as he was known to be in 1976, he shared the recognition with his younger band mates – dueling with Adam Lester’s fiery guitar fingers and Rob Arthur’s impressive keys at centre stage throughout the set.

Yukon Blonde

Before letting the second old hand of the night grab our attention, the hill-sitters at The National stage remarked at the upbeat indie-rock of talented Canadians Yukon Blonde – who seemed over-the-moon to be playing amongst such established company. Solo-ing side-by-side, smiling through their hippie harmonies and shaking the long locks from their face – the quartet requested help from the audience on catchy up-and-coming ditties like “Wind Blows” and “Brides Song” as the sun went down.

Pushing through the throngs of grooving fans who were pressed all the way back onto the gravel path proved to be unlike other concerts at the Claridge stage; it was almost impossible to weasel a way further into the crowd. Couples were hip-to-hip with their hands in their air, bumping to the soulful sultriness of the casually-dressed band – and they weren’t moving an inch for anyone. Lewis had his old-time swagger out to play during rowdy and fun renditions of “Power of Love” and the cool “Respect Yourself.” Handsome and charismatic, Lewis and The News shook and two-stepped to the jazzy jams while the female back-up singers’ choreographed croons echoed far and wide.  The saxophone, harmonica and slam of the percussion made for a well-rounded harmonious experience with The News, and upon heading home it was clear to see what all of the retro fuss was about. These old-time rockers may have been playing music from another era, but nothing about the performances was outdated. Sure, the bodies and personas may have aged a little over the years, but the sound was as state-of-the-art as the first day they set foot on a stage.

The Black Keys Heat Up Cold and Wet Crowd

July 9, 2011 3:01 pm

Well, that was interesting. Mixed feelings are really the most prominent ones when it comes to the whole experience of the fourth night at Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest. On a night that began with the humble, orchestral beauty of the Newfoundland collective Hey Rosetta! on The Hard Rock stage, then turned into an hour wait after being beaten by torrential raindrops and ended with the tardy but shattering slam-rock of headliners The Black Keys – you could say that most of us were a little beside ourselves.

After Rise Against finished their crashing punk-rock set to open the night, the darkening sky and initial spatter of rain caused the concert goers to question their next move. They could stay in the audience and frustrate others with unwieldy umbrellas, leave the grounds entirely, or stick it out fully unprepared and ready to get a little damp and dirty.

Most dedicated festival-goers and Black Keys fans chose the latter, and although the nearly hour and 20-minute wait for the headliners was one of the most unenjoyable concert stands for miles, the prize at the finish line was unbelievable. You see, the wait for the band was understandable at first upon watching the violent downpour lead to technicians tarping the instruments and equipment. But, after no communication from a festival spokesperson or messaging on the big screens (aside from a brief WordPad message nearly all the way into the long haul wait), the morale felt low and the crowd was agitated from within. In the middle of the heaps, it thinned and shifted as some left disgruntled and projecting boos, while others (myself and crew) were not pleased but completely determined to rock. Don’t get me wrong, the expected 25,000 fans wasn’t a far off prediction; even after the cold and blustery episode, the house was still packed with the anticipation of getting to see the famed Ohio blues-rockers jump on stage for the last half-hour of the night.

The disappointing lack of communication was easier to forget as soon as Dan Auerbach and his drumming sidekick Patrick Carney took the stage at 10:40 pm, hammering out the first beats and fuzzy guitar strums of “Everlasting Light” off the Grammy-winning album Brothers to an enthralled fan base. The pair played mainly the scorching rock ‘n roll album, which is chock-full of catchy blues-rock concepts and storylines that have captivated the music universe. Although surprised to hear that the band wasn’t at first more apologetic for the tardy start time, the trimmed and clean-cut Auerbach dove head first into playing as many addictive tunes as soon as possible; powering through percussion-heavy tracks like “Howlin’ for You,” “She’s Long Gone” and “Strange Times.” Carney looked like he was running a marathon as he pummeled his sticks down on to the drum set, while Auerbach exuded determination to tear his guitar strings apart with undeniably sizzling solos and creamy smooth vocals. When the sound cut out suddenly, grumbles and boos rose up again before the issue was sorted, and Auerbach made clear, “Against all odds we’re going to keep going, until they tell us to stop playing.”

Closing out with upbeat hot rock like “Sinister Kid,” Auerbach commented that the organizers were telling them “this would be the last song of the night.” His response? “Well, maybe it is…maybe it isn’t. We’ll just have to figure that out,” he smirked as the thousands roared at the hint of an encore, which would technically break Bluesfest’s noise curfew. Sure enough, past our curfew and bedtime, we were treated to a few more before the brave rockers left the stage; and we left Bluesfest soaking, a little flabbergasted – but ecstatic that the cold wind and drizzle in the air had been replaced with the hottest rock ‘n roll on the planet.

The Black Keys power on despite the odds

Third Night at Bluesfest: Something for Everyone

July 8, 2011 11:31 am

Who says that the young and the old can’t mix? On the third night of Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest, it certainly wasn’t surprising to see any over-50 concert-goers out of their lawn chair and shaking a leg with someone half their age – whether it was to the steady flow of mash-ups spun by Girl Talk or Steve Miller’s old school blues-rock. Late in the Girl Talk set, a 60-something-year-old man on the outskirts of the crowd jumped from his seat to have (what looked to be like) a highland dance-off with someone old enough to be his grandson. Only at Bluesfest.

You see, that’s the perk of this two week-long experience. Whether the performances are next to each other, or you stroll past a stage to get to another show, you see more music than you ever bargained for; music that might not necessarily be your regular cup of tea. But, during the magical stream of live acts, you could be forced to swallow something new – and judging from the mixed crowd last night, it might be easier than you thought to enjoy what you’re given get a taste of.

Especially when what you’re tasting (or hearing, rather) is a nearly two-hour long puree of half of popular music’s discography. Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk and the host of Bluesfest’s biggest dance party yet, took hold of the Claridge stage with 30 or so shakers plucked from the crowd – cramming tune over top of tune and making it impossible to stand still. Mashing tracks like Radiohead’s “Karma Police” over T-pain’s auto-tuned vocals and Ludacris over Phoenix’s dance-rock loop from “1901” – Gillis boosted himself up and around his laptops, his disheveled shag secured underneath his signature bandana, while the dancers entertained. Between Gillis and Skrillex’s performances, I can’t help but wonder two things: will Bluesfest organizers arrange future line-ups to include more electronic and experimental acts? And, should I be concerned that as a healthy early-twenties gal, even I don’t have as much energy as these two?

Ewan Currie of The Sheepdogs

Up-and-comers The Sheepdogs began the night with their Americana, classic-rock revival at the Subway venue, and despite the stench of sweat and beer that lurked at the foot of the stage, being beneath the scruffy rockers (who look like they’ve stepped straight out of 1970) was entirely worth it. Sounding like The Allman Brothers or The Band, these guys are currently waiting to hear whether or not they snagged a contract with Atlantic Records and a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine; the prizes in a media-hyped contest of which the Saskatoon-quartet are a finalist. Regardless of if they win, the attention garnered through the contest and recent gig at Bonnaroo has pumped their pleasing traditional rock sound in the way it deserves, and they undoubtedly are something to watch out for.

As Bob Marley’s son Stephen took the stage to play his own reggae originals, as well as unforgettables from his Dad like “Jammin”, a hefty crowd stayed to watch while other teens, twenties and older packs pushed through to find the perfect swaying spot for Steve Miller Band. With an audience that stretched across the entire surrounding areas of the MBNA stage, Miller and his band jammed away to songs with the help of the reminiscing crowd who mouthed along devotedly. Sounding more aged but still incredibly passionate about playing his bluesy-rock hits some 40 years later, Miller had the vocal helping hand of Sonny Charles – an awesomely playful soul man who knew how to work the crowd. Nostalgic onlookers were treated to mid-1970s fan favourites like “Abracadabra”, “Fly like an Eagle”, “Rock ‘n Me” and finally – after some shameless crowd-teasing – “The Joker.” Miller’s band grooved together under the night sky, sliding away on their guitars and toying with the arrangements to create a fun and evocative atmosphere for the mixed-bag crowd – melting hearts young and old as he uttered the famous, “You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see, I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree.” One thing’s for sure – nothing about this night in Ottawa lacked shaking. Bodies young and old united, allowed the music move them, and between twisting hips and twirling couples – the real essence of the music festival was perfectly revealed.

Ben Harper and The Roots Still Have It

July 7, 2011 11:40 am

Talk about a trip down memory lane. For many of the concert attendees, the second night of Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest felt like an old stroll down high school halls or hometown streets, ear buds in and head bobbing to the funky rap beats of The Roots or folksy strums of Ben Harper. Last night, throwback songs had audience members pushing to the front, satisfying the 17-year-old fan within who never would have imagined they’d have the opportunity to see either acts together in one night. New spins had the present-day versions of us exclaiming between knee dips and fist pumps that our old friends have still got it – and more.

Led forward by noble band conductor Black Thought, The Roots’ hip-hop instrument-use and live band charm was intact throughout the entire set; so intact and unbelievably larger than life as they wailed away on drums and guitars, that it was hard to believe the six of them ever do anything more than once on stage. Whether it was quirky and spry Captain Kirk Douglas crouching across stage as he rips the guitar, before playing it high above his head and evoking piercing cheers from the crowd, or Owen Biddle’s lengthy and acrobatic bass solo – it seemed like their improvisation and charisma even surprised their fellow band members at times. Playing what felt like a half-hour medley based around “You Got Me” (which originally featured Erykah Badu, who we’ll see play later in the festival), the band jumped in and out of the song with Black Thought’s sputtering rhymes, Douglas’ talk-box guitar solo, and flashes of Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” and the thump of “Bad to the Bone.”  In between demanding the crowd to jump and holding the microphone outwards, The Roots paid thoughtful tribute to the late African artist Fela Kuti and Gil Scott-Heron – modestly unaware that they themselves are on their way to becoming live legends.

Roots rock the house

On the MBNA stage, it was hard at first to come down from the surge of energy put forward by The Roots, but within a few growling blues performances by three-time Bluesfest performer Ben Harper, the mellow mood was set. As Harper defended his title of the King of Slide guitar – often taking a seat and plucking the guitar skillfully from his lap – murmurs could be heard throughout the crowd about not knowing some of the lesser famous (but still impressive) bluesy material, but as soon as he rose to his feet to kick off “Diamonds on the Inside,” the crowd felt and sounded right at home. His Cat Stevens-esque soft vocals, polite commentary and nifty guitar skills set the enormous crowd at ease during memorable favourites like “Burn One Down” and “Walk Away” – songs that sent us right back down that aforementioned hallway.

And then there was Skrillex. If we’re talking adolescence to describe our devotion to the first two acts of the night, Skrillex can be thought of as the unexpected misfit in class who secretly rocks your world or the new friend you find after moving away from home, who tells you to let your hair down and go nuts. This 23-year-old Los Angeles producer mixes some of the most infectious dubstep and electro in town (town being North America); a formula that includes buzzing beats and cool sampling which eventually rise in volume and slam into a big, body-thrusting electro pound. It was so big and thrust-worthy that the show had to stop early in, while the security could remove a fence, control the crowds and Skrillex himself could advise the moshers to take it easy. The show – which he later tweeted was marked one out of his top five – ended with the half shaggy-headed, half-shaved DJ telling men in the crowd to ask the women beside them if they could “respectfully” hoist them onto their shoulders. Before you knew it, the night rounded out looking like a sea of jack-in-the-boxes – women sprouting up as far as the eye could see with their hands in the air and the beat banging heavy. There was nothing like some boy/girl chemistry to close down a night – just like the high school days.

Shoulder-hopping at Skrillex

Bluesfest Opening Night Rocks Hard

July 6, 2011 12:13 pm
Bluesfest Opening Night Crowd

A popular sentiment echoed by Ottawa personalities introducing musicians and one of the most tweeted phrases in the national capital yesterday rang true on the opening night of Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest – it truly is “the most wonderful time of the year.”

As Tuesday evening set in, overflowing line-ups of hopeful attendees curled around ticket booths and eager early-birds shuffled through the gateways of Lebreton Flats, impatient to set sights on one of Ottawa’s most dazzling spectacles of the year – a handful of towering stages and a buzzing stretch of concert grounds that will host some of the world’s most renowned musicians over the next ten days.

Bluesfest is back, and with the first foot in the gate it was clear to see that nothing about this year’s festival is going to be any less exciting than the previous years. While Coheed and Cambria greeted the first arrivals with the blast of their heavy rock, the rest of the star struck attendees maneuvered into one of the quickly forming beer and food lines before some of the night’s biggest names appeared. The quiet roars from only a few hundred yards away are usually a good indicator that someone big, and someone worth pushing towards, is taking the stage.

Ebert pouncing into the crowd

A good example of the night’s first big roar came alongside the testing of jangly instruments, which meant only one thing – the Californian caravan-collective known as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros had arrived. The feel-good nine-piece band didn’t waste any time, starting with the thump of “40 Day Dream” – a joyous anthem that had the entire young audience participating off the bat. Scruffy, free-loving lead singer Alex Ebert and his goofy story-telling coaxed the audience into chuckles and cheers while his raspy croon spit out some of today’s most famous upbeat indie-folk. His female counterpart Jade Castrinos (the other voice heard hollering on the hit single “Home”) was adorably shy, despite her impressively haunting vocals during songs like “Fire and Water” which projected through and over all of us. Taking random requests from the audience, the set list included ballads like “Carries On” and the dark and swaying “Black Water”, before Ebert hopped right into the crowd, asked our opinion and sarcastically remarked that the crowd was “really pulling out some obscure requests”. Sure enough, the tousled frontman gave into the majority and kicked off the distinctive opening whistle of “Home” – sending everyone into a hopping frenzy.

Wandering over to the psychedelic veteran indie-rockers The Flaming Lips who were making their consecutive Bluesfest appearance, every bit of what was seen was what was expected: gigantic inflatable balls bouncing overtop of the crowd, bizarre screen imagery, two troops of costumed young girls (who looked too young to even know who The Lips were) dancing on stage, and lead singer Wayne Coyne’s famously inexplicable salt and pepper afro. Coyne was fascinated with the setting Ottawa sun, which he described as the perfect backdrop for their show, which was filled with eclectic classics like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and an explosive finale of “Do You Realize??” that featured fireworks and a rainfall of confetti.

Calgary-bred indie twins Tegan and Sara played a nostalgic and heartwarming set alongside the Ottawa River, which included some of the female indie-rock movement’s most popular tunes; causing groups of girls and boys alike to turn towards each other and chant the catchy lyrics in sync. Despite strumming a few newer tracks like the soon-to-be-released “Body Work” and the fashionable Tiesto-remixed “Feel It In My Bones”, the pair admitted to feeling like a “mature band” who often receive puzzled looks from their younger demographic when they still use terminology from the 1990s.

Every festival organizer’s dream is to arrange artists in an appropriate order, maintain the energy on the concert grounds during every act, and of course – pick headliners that are going to melt the stage and their audience members. Mission accomplished last night. Reunited grunge beloveds Soundgarden were the musical epitome of ending the night with a (head) bang, treating the masses to nearly 15 year-old classics like “The Day I Tried To Live” and “Black Hole Sun”. Taking a page out of their 90s tour book, the band hasn’t changed a bit; thriving off deafening guitars and handsome lead singer Chris Cornell’s legendary screeches and hoarse howls. After a solo album and stint as the lead of millennium rockers Audioslave, Cornell has grown his rocker locks back down past his shoulders, revisited his grungy on-stage persona and remembered how to drive an air-guitar savvy crowd wild with an earth-rattling set.

The newly designed concert site has the two main stages facing towards the War Museum, therefore moving the crowds towards the exit with ease nearing the end of the night, and allowing everyone to happily soak in their musical awe. With the first night down and many more to go, the pulsing atmosphere at Lebreton is sign that the best is yet to come; now it’s just a matter of pushing through the work days so that we can get back down there and push through towards the stages.

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