Ottawa's Top 10 Concerts of 2016
All photos by Andre Gagne.
When you are an event photographer / reporter you can tell it’s been a busy year when should you attempt to wear all the lanyards accumulated over the 12 months you risk cervical dislocation or, at the very least, one hell of a case of whiplash!
Looking back on a year where I attended nearly 300 shows of all genres in venues that range from stadiums, festivals and even a pancake house, it’s not easy to select a TOP LIST. Let’s be honest, such lists are generally created to generate discussion, mainly amongst the throngs online who disagree with the author’s selections.
Sure, some of these shows may not have been the largest attended or biggest shows in the city over the year but they each either moved me emotionally, had amazing performances or, at least in one instance, made me a fan.
Those who look at this town as a sleepy little city aren’t getting out much. The bevy of options currently can be viewed in the lanyards currently causing my bookcase to slant slightly to the left.
Even if you don’t take in one of the big stadium shows or even the growing choices in festivals, you owe it to yourself to check out some of the more intimate venues in the city or the workhorses for local music (Irene’s, LIVE! On Elgin). 2016 provided a new escape every night, new artists to discover and new local acts to support.
Before we bring on a year that is shapping up to be even bigger than this one, let’s look back at some of the best shows in the city for 2016.
Tom Waits Revue: Songs From a Drunken Piano with Steve Berndt, Megan Jerome and Christine Fagan, Irene’s Pub, February 25
(Author's note: As a man who is giving up hope seeing Tom Waits live, this was really the next best thing. This trio were fans right down to the kitchen sink.)
From original review: A three-legged, raven-black mongrel scavenges through the sludgy soup bowl they call Bank Street. He looks at me like I were a plate of prime rib leaning up against a flickering street light, decides I’m not worth the battle and moves off. I watch him until the mange of black fur blends in with the darkness and disappears into this night of ice and rain. Safe travels you Rain Dog, I think, and then step into Irene’s where a drunken piano awaits the beautiful maladies of the man with the bourbon drenched voice.
The Ottawa Waits Revue was birthed one New Year’s Eve in the mind of Christine Fagan. Discovering a mutual love of Waits’ music with singer Missy Burgess, the two found it easy to bring other local musicians into the fold. Along came Steve Berndt, a man with a trombone and somebody who sports a Poor Boy Cap as well as he does a fedora.
…For the trio, instrument selection wasn’t as difficult as choosing what songs to select from Waits’ vast and unique collection of dusty sea shanties, heartbreaking wailers, side show circus melodies and tunes Rod Stewart guts the way a Fulton fishmonger would dig into a Halibut with a chainsaw.
- Marianas Trench, TD Place, November 18
(Author’s note: I went into this show not really being in touch with the band’s music. Sure, I’d heard the name but I couldn’t name a tune. I left, driven by the power of not only the music but one of the best [and most appreciative crowds] I have been in, a fan.)
From original review: The lights go off, a microsecond of darkness, and then the rumble roar rises. This is your audience. They will make your show or they will break your show and without their energy you’re just a couple of people on a stage pumping your songs into a smattering of scattered appreciative applause or, worse, deadening silence. For the length of a set you’re working for them and, if you’re lucky, they’ll cheer, they’ll clap and a few of ‘em will leave with a t-shirt. If you’re awesome they’ll adore you, hang on every word you say, sing your songs back to you with enthusiasm and leave with two t-shirts.
If you’re Marianas Trench you’re all of the above with the added bonus of having a crowd made up of, judging from the octave range, crazed young women or exceptionally talented male countertenors. The former would gladly sire enough of your offspring to populate a small country ensuring your lineage continued well into the next millennia. They not only know every word to your songs but every syllable in perfect sync with the performance. Conjoined, their voices will be louder than yours and they don’t have amps the size of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith. Calling them rabid would do a disservice to an angry, diseased Rottweiler. These fans are like an over-caffeinated pack of wildebeests with a sugar high about two seconds after being spooked by a pack of famished hyenas. They were ready for this show three months before you got into town, they already have a t-shirt and they’re leaving with three more!
- The PepTides (w/ Slack Bridges), LIVE! on Elgin, September 10
(Author’s note: We here at Ottawa Life were introduced to the PepTides early in the year and seemed everywhere we went this band was there. That was just fine by us because if you’ve never seen one of their shows prepare to hold onto anything that is nailed down or risk being blown away. After the first time I saw the band perform I described them as such: picture a painting by Andy Warhol hanging on the bridge of a neon green alien starship being piloted by the B-52’s Fred Schneider blasting rainbow fire into the stratosphere.
As the band I have seen the most this year, they have only gotten better each time with this performance for the CD release of their latest EP being one of the most energetic and wild shows. Newcomers Slack Bridges were a perfect appetizer for the PepTide buffet and though there were seats most didn’t need them. Both bands provided a flood of sweat that may have been dripping onto the plates in the restaurant below. Sorry Dunn’s.
This was one of those show’s where you felt like you were seeing something special and though it wasn’t on a huge stage but a more intimate venue, the band performed like they were at Radio City Music Hall! No let up. No release. Just pure adrenaline that LIVE on Elgin could hardly contain even after moving away some tables and chairs. They’ll be in town again come the New Year. DO NOT miss this band!)
- The Music of Star Wars: May The Force Be With You, The National Arts Centre, December 8
(Author’s note: Okay, I was already giddy with Star Wars geekdom BEFORE this show with Rogue One on the horizon but when those lights went dark and Charlie Ross spoke the iconic prequel line “wipe them out. ALL of them” to unleash what looked like a hundred hooded Sith Lords flanking the aisles of the NAC…yeah, my inner child blew up like Alderaan. Sorry…too soon?)
From original preview: The theatre lights dim, the screen goes black and the famous line of light blue text fades in: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Then, in a bright flash of yellow, STAR WARS bursts onto the frame and the text scrolls out into the infinite darkness. This begins some of the most iconic, successful and loved films in the history of cinema.
But these words are just be silence on a screen. Before the lightsabers, Jedi, Sith and action-filled battles, one piece is needed to really transport us into that galaxy far, far away. How could we even begin to imagine the opening of a Star Wars movie without the glorious “Main Title” score composed by John Williams?
“The John Williams musical scores are the soul of Star Wars, and a window into the hopes, dreams, fears and emotions of its characters,” says Charlie Ross, creator of The One Man Star Wars Trilogy and co-host of The Music of Star Wars beginning its three night run tonight at the National Arts Centre.
- Philip Sayce, The Rainbow, November 4
(Author’s note: Sayce was one of my favourite discovers of the year. He played the Rainbow repeatedly and I went all four times. He works the guitar like Mozart would a piano or Picasso a brush. I’m sure there were a slew of other shows going on in the Market that night but damned if Sayce wasn’t drowning all of them out by the sheer power pushing through the walls and out into the Ottawa atmosphere. You could probably still here it somewhere near Clarence Street! One of my most memorable show moments of the year was when Sayce, not content with remaining on stage, walked off it and into the packed crowd at the Rainbow without once missing a power chord, his sweat running down his guitar like a rockin’ blues waterfall. It wasn’t a show. It was a religious experience.)
- I Can’t Believe It’s Not: David Bowie (Tribute Show / Various artists), St. Alban’s Anglican Church, April 22
(Author’s note: Bowie had passed only a few months. We fans were still feeling the loss. This night was a fitting tribute put together by the right people and attended by the right fans. You could feel the spirit of Bowie in that room, wrapped around that energy. Such a memorable show!)
From original review: It wasn’t hard to put together a band for this performance. Culled from members of FET.NAT, Boyhood and the Hilotrons, the event would feature guest vocalists like the Acorn’s Rolf Klausener and cover all sides of Bowie’s storied career. Though the two night event (April 22-23) was held inside St. Alban’s Anglican Church, don’t think that it would be a solemn affair. The crowd would not morn silently. This was a celebration where dancing on the pews wasn’t discouraged, copious drinks were consumed, shout at the top of your lungs singing was a way to make new friends and face painting wasn’t just for the people on stage. Oh yes, there were costumes.
“I wanted to wear white pleated pants, so I went for the early ‘80’s Let’s Dance era,” says Fisher of his Bowie inspired wardrobe. “Somehow I got roped into singing a couple earlier tunes as well so I’ll probably be looking for a spandex bodysuit. What do you want from me, I’m a c-list Canadian musician largely known for my hairstyle?”
… Everybody was a sweaty mess by the end of the evening. Nobody wanted to leave. Hynes admitted to the crowd that they had not prepared an encore after the initial set so they would take requests. A nine year old kid wanted to hear “Starman” again. Alas, Hynes believed Fisher, who had sang it early, had gone back home to his newborn. To the surprise of everyone there, Fisher emerged from the crowd to play the tune again.
- The 24-Hour Jazz Ramble, The Record Centre, June 14
(Author’s note: This was an interesting concept: take a small venue and every hour, on the hour, introduce a new performer for an entire day. It could have fell spectacularly on it’s face like a misplaced note on an aging sax but it came off wonderfully. How often can you say you attended a 24 hour concert, first of all, and, more so, one filled with a lot of local talent leading into one of the premier summer festivals. I liken this show to being a kid and getting one of those surprise loot bags. You had no idea what was in it but each time you put your hand in you seemingly pulled out something more amazing. Shows included Juno-nominee Petr Cancura, The Chocolate Hot Pockets and Pierre Chretien’s Atlantis Jazz Ensemble. Staff at the Record Centre couldn’t have been more welcoming of such an endeavour in their shop and they even served coffee and snacks. Those nutters who stuck out the whole 24 hours would need it! Hope they roll this out again next year.)
- Garth Brooks, Canadian Tire Centre, April 1
(Author’s note: This show holds an extra special place in my year in a story not included in my original review. My father has been a huge Garth fan for as long as I can remember and much of the musicians early tunes I heard via my dad. Press all received two minutes of interview time with the country superstar and, as my question has already been asked at the press conference, I asked if Brooks would mind saying hello to my father in my recorder. He snatched it out of my hand and, just as I was wondering if I were going to receive a lifetime ban from the Canadian Tire Centre for even asking the question, Brooks invited my family backstage before the show for a meet and greet. As my father was driving when I called to inform him of this development I deduced it was best to wait for him to get to a red light. Seeing the look on my father’s face [one that only started to fade somewhere in October] when Garth walked in, hand extended, to thank him for his support of the music, was worth more than any riches one could drive up to my front door. The man couldn’t have been more charming, ensuring everyone in the room got a little time to chat with him and a photo. It was only 15 minutes but the memory sticks for a lifetime. Oh yeah, and the show kicked ass too!)
From original review: Brooks, who would later admit that he often wonders if he’ll be remembered, surveyed the crowd later that night during “The River.” He stepped back and smiled to take it all in. The stadium had become a solar system of little cell phone stars all currently making up the Ottawa section of the Brooks Galaxy. Sales for these shows broke a local ticket sales record originally set by Brooks himself back in 1998. The audience wasn’t going anywhere. Those in the stands remembered.
… That energy was like rocket fuel to Brooks who zipped around the stage when he wasn’t hanging off of it or grabbing camera equipment to film the band. At one point, he caused an audio tennis match between both sides of the stadium with each cheer gaining in decibel level in a booming back and forth battle. Brooks would also test the audience’s knowledge of the oldies like “Unanswered Prayers” and “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” with the singalongs continuing on staples like “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends In Low Places”.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, RBC Bluesfest, July 15
(Author’s note: I remember this show for what came after photographing the first three songs. When the gate was opened to allow photographers to leave we couldn’t move. This has never happened before. They could hardly push the gate open. There were that many people. Battling our way through the crowd was like being part of the Battle of Pelennor Fields only with Flea providing the soundtrack!)
The rumble that this would be a big one started late Thursday afternoon when it was announced that, due to overwhelming demand, no day-of tickets would be available for the show. The festival would also be adding two additional screens in the main bowl to accommodate the expected crowd. This was a first. A few hours before the gates opened came another announcement. The show had sold out, something that hasn’t happened at Bluesfest in 10 years. Even the street was packed not to mention the insanely long lines for beer and bathrooms.
That all dispersed, however, when one of the best drummers in rock, Chad Smith, kicked things into gear. Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer soon followed with some riffs. You felt bassist Flea before he appeared on stage, the sound of his Modulus pumping through his Gallien-Krueger amps to reverberate ribcages!
The three set the pace for what would be an extremely frenetic 90-minute set, working the crowd up with a building funky rhythm that only released them –only for a moment– when singer Anthony Kiedis bolted onto the stage in a blaze of colour and energy to merge the jam into 2002 hit “Can’t Stop”.
- Michael Franti, TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, July
From original review: How does one try to explain what it is like watching Michael Franti perform? Try to picture how it would feel if the summer sunshine suddenly turned into music, a warmth that envelopes you, digs out the dark and fills the empty with love, positivity and a want to hug everything that moves.
And move we did, the thousands gathered in Confederation Park on this beautiful night, from the lawn to those up on the bridge trying to peak around trees to catch a glimpse of the show. We clapped, we swayed our arms and, oh yes, we danced, danced, danced.
His music takes the rays of that sun and fuses roots, reggae, funk, folk and hip hop but, for us in the crowd, the moment Franti strapped on his guitar there were no genres. The music just became life, a wonderful life where in a chorus your problems became extinct and you are filled with an unbearable urge to somehow try to better the world.
There’s a power in song, Franti will tell you, that can evoke change but you really feel it as this soul caress when you see him live. It makes you want to forgive, it makes you want to give and, for me in that moment, it makes you want to get on a plane that night to some place on the planet where the people need helping and just do any bit of good you can.
- The Tragically Hip, Canadian Tire Centre, August 18
(Author’s note: Right before what may be the final performance of one of Canada’s most treasured bands, The Hip rolled into Ottawa. Photographing through tears isn’t easy, folks.)
From original review: Downie hugged his band and then stood alone facing a crowd that cried as much as they smiled. The emotion was felt as high as the rafters. But we stood together this night not in premature mourning but in gratefulness, in thanks for a career of music that defined pieces of our lives and while we are all mortal the songs live forever not to be felled by whatever reasons or ailments that will shuffle us off this spinning ball in the dark.
“Carry on out there,” Downie said, one last wave, before leaving the stage.
We will, Gord. We will with your songs, memories of your energetic, often outright wacky stage presence and for the band that united us as Canadians, an audience always within reach to embrace The Hip fully and completely.
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