For months now, I have been telling anyone who would listen that I was going to Ottawa Bluesfest and how psyched I was about it. “Oh yeah?” people would ask, oftentimes feigning interest. “A blues festival in Ottawa, huh? That should be fun. Who’s playing?”
I would proceed to excitedly tell them that before we even get there, one of the nicest cities in Canada to visit will have already seen headlining performances by Iron Maiden, Furthur featuring Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in their only Canadian appearance, The B-52s, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, The Flaming Lips, Rush, Arcade Fire, Santana, and Crowded House. To which I would frequently hear the reply, “Um, those aren’t very bluesy bands.”
Can’t argue with that logic. Bluesfest has done a lot of growing up since 5,000 people came out to see E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons at a downtown Ottawa park in 1994. It’s now unarguably one of the largest music events in North America, with more than 230 acts spread out over 12 days at LeBreton Flats as well as other locations throughout the city like the world-famous ByWard Market (where President Obama stopped for cookies in 2009). While blues are still an integral part of the yearly lineup, there have been so many other music genres that have been added to the mix recently to make the festival more commercial that, as much I hate to suggest it, a name change may be in order.
And in 2010, especially during the three days I attended, the indie rock influence was overwhelming, with a number of Canadian bands taking centre stage. It was a kick ass time in Ottawa, and I am honored to be bringing you a recap of the proceedings from my perspective. Now if only my home city of Toronto could get its act together and organize something as wickedly cool as Bluesfest…
Friday, July 16th
The Budos Band
MBNA Stage, 7:00 p.m.
The Budos Band’s funky, jazzed-up instrumental stylings dominated by trumpet and saxophone should have been the perfect way to get anyone’s evening going. Unfortunately, these Staten Islanders’ talents seemed to have been wasted on a crowd clearly waiting to party with popular celtic folk rockers Great Big Sea a few hours later.
Claridge Homes Stage, 8:15 p.m.
For a great many young adults on Friday, particularly those of the female persuasion, THIS was by far the main event of the entire Bluesfest. The Claridge Homes stage, named after the company developing condos across the street at LeBreton Flats, was looking dangerously overcrowded for the man they affectionately call ‘Drizzy.’ No riots ever did end up breaking out, but I thought I was going to go deaf from all the screaming, which didn’t subside for the length of Drake’s set. While they may believe he’s the best thing since sliced bread, I’m not convinced that the kid from Degrassi has graduated into hip-hop stardom just yet. I certainly didn’t like how he went all auto-tune not even three songs in, and I also didn’t think he had to swear in front of all those kids.
I will give him this, though – Damn is he ever charismatic. Despite the frenzied scene unfolding at the start, I was impressed with how he nonchalantly sang “Forever” standing sideways for a few verses before thrusting himself into the proverbial lion’s den. Is Drake the face of a new musical generation? I don’t know, but it won’t be because his home and native land doesn’t support him.
Subway Stage, 9:30 p.m.
As I made my way to the far west end of the park, I started to sense something magical in the air. Blonde Redhead had just ended with an awkward whimper, their trance-like brand of dream pop having lulled the several thousand people present into a stupor of sorts. When they came to, instead of a concert stage, they found a setting decorated like we had all been invited to a romantic candlelight dinner, white roses were everywhere, with our dates for the evening being Montreal band Stars.
No tricks or potions were needed to make us fall for them and their music. Between passionate duetting by Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell (Seriously, how cool of a name is that?) as well as some rocking, love-laced synth, we all bore witness to some true Stars being born that night.
First Broken Social Scene, then Metric, and now Stars…Canada’s beginning to cultivate quite the reputation when it comes to producing brilliantly talented indie bands.
Saturday, July 17th
The White Wires
Subway Stage, 2:00 p.m.
Upon returning to the Subway-sponsored stage Saturday afternoon, it was looking as if some ominous dark clouds were going to wreak havoc on Bluesfest…that is until local Ottawa outfit The White Wires saved the day! Once guitarist and singer Ian, bassist Luke and drummer Allie started playing their nifty, fun, and energetic surf rock, the sun came out almost immediately and shone down on everyone. For a good time, hit up their MySpace – I’m pretty sure I saw this address scrawled on a bathroom stall wall at a ’50s sock hop revival not too long ago…
Hard Rock Stage, 4:15 p.m.
With the threat of rain having passed, I was all ready to enjoy a little bit of blues courtesy of someone named T.J. Wheeler, but he was being drowned out by what sounded like some pretty aggressive, old school Ice Cube-like rapping coming from the Hard Rock stage to the north. In contrast to its name, the Hard Rock had been where gospel choirs and Christian rock bands had been congregating all day. And now, it was Richie Righteous and his crew’s turn.
I stayed long enough to get the takeaway points from Richie’s presentation. He is one angry dude, he wants to see you dance, and oh yeah, he really, really, and I mean really loves Jesus. Judge R.I.C.H. for yourself at RichieRighteous.net.
The Matt Schofield Trio
Subway Stage, 4:45 p.m.
Hey, what do you know…blues at Ottawa Bluesfest! And Matt Schofield and his band were well worth the wait. This about to turn 33 year-old guitarist from the UK is one cool customer. Very laid back, and very similar to the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan I found in terms of his technique. As I joined my family far away from the stage to watch him jam extensively with his mates, the breeze from the nearby water cooling everybody in the park off just right, I couldn’t help but think to myself that that there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.
Subway Stage, 6:15 p.m.
When you go to a festival like Bluesfest, there’s bound to be that one band that surprises you when you least expect it and becomes a new favorite of yours. That band for us may very well have been The Whigs.
With our two young kids rapidly becoming cranky, we decided after five hours that The Whigs would be our last show of the day. I was really hoping to stay for The Hold Steady, who The Whigs are currently on tour with, but was cool with our decision to leave.
To be honest, we couldn’t have gone out on a higher note. While I knew they were a get down and dirty garage rock band from Athens, Georgia, I didn’t realize just how good lead singer and guitarist Parker Gispert, drummer Julian Dorio (with his bush of reddish hair that reminded us of snowboarder Shaun White), and bassist Tim Deaux sounded together.
I think my wife summed it up best during one song of theirs called “Dying”, from their latest album In the Dark. She had two simple yet powerful words to describe how she was feeling about them at that moment – Rhythmically haunting.
Sunday, July 18th
MBNA Stage, 7:00 p.m.
Am I weird in admitting that little-known Hollerado were the band I was probably MOST looking forward to all Bluesfest weekend? Or is that incredibly ‘hipsterish’ of me?
These four fun loving guys from just outside of Ottawa have been busting their butts the last couple of years getting themselves noticed – I first saw them opening for The Dead Weather at a secret Toronto club show in 2009 and bought their CD off of lead singer Menno Versteeg for cool $5 (which came in a Ziplock bag, no less). Their beyond-catchy songs quickly became family favorites and it is so awesome to now see them playing in front of probably their biggest crowd ever at Bluesfest.
And they didn’t let the opportunity for exposure pass them by, pulling out all the stops during their 45-minute set including confetti, wrapped candy, and inflatable beach toys. Kudos to the Bluesfest schedulers – Hollerado’s mischievously rocking nature made them the PERFECT warm-up for the hardcore Weezer fans making up the first dozen or so rows. I simply can’t recommend this band enough to people – Check out their just as playful site here, and do your ears a favour and give songs like “Americanarama”, “Juliette”, and “Fake Drugs” a sample.
MBNA Stage, 9:30 p.m.
After 12 days of nonstop concerts, you would think that the good folks of Ottawa may have felt like taking a pass on a band who some critics have insinuated their best days may be behind them.
I think it’s safe to say though, after witnessing them pack in one of the biggest crowds at this year’s Bluesfest (rivaling other, more “time-honored” headliners like Rush and Santana), that Weezer are still pretty darn cool.
It didn’t take long for the dozen or so rows I mentioned earlier to stretch past the soundboard tent, all the way back to the LeBreton Flats park entrance and even further once the first notes of “Hash Pipe” became recognizable. From there it was hit after alt-rock radio hit, each one enthusiastically delivered by the long-time poster child for all things geek chic, Mr. Rivers Cuomo. He even led the charge on more than one occasion of flashing the =w= hand sign, all while looking resplendent in an argyle sweater vest that would have made Mr. Rogers himself jealous, God rest his soul.
One thing that was blatantly apparent with Cuomo the whole show long which was transmitted to the other band members and each and every person in attendance was that he was having FUN. Not only did they play their now-standard “Kids/Poker Face” mash up, complete with Cuomo sporting a Lady Gaga-worthy wig, they even busted out a full on thrash metal cover of Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen”!
Not that Weezer ever needed to prove to their fans that they are back, but on this last night of Bluesfest, they showed the world at large that they can be one of the biggest bands in the world.