A festival this prolonged has something for everyone, but with less (quote-unquote) independent bands playing there seems to be an increased reliance on acts from days long passed. Shows by these veteran acts tend to be hit-or-miss, depending on the toll that hard living has had on band members’ bodies over the decades. However, if you have been playing the same songs for 40 years, there is no real reason to not have it spot on. In an effort to cover both the “veterans” and the other groups, we’ve broken down our first part of coverage into two major categories: “Respect the Vets” and “Brief Look At The Rest.” In addition to those categories, we’ve included the “Dem B’ys is Full-a Humour” and “Look at Me! I’m Famous!” categories about stuff we found amusing with a distinct Canadian spelling, and the acts that clearly inspired this year’s bizarre theme of “Bluesfest Goes Hollywood.”
On with the shows!
Look At Me! I’m Famous!
The Bacon Brothers, featuring the “footloose” Kevin Bacon on guitar, harmonica, and tight black t-shirt, was the first Hollywood-linked act to take to the stage. Unfortunately, they played a limp set of sub-Mellancamp, countrified pop. Kudos to Bacon for trying his darndest and taking a stab outside his comfort zone, as he has for years with The Bacon Band, but this act was booked because of its name, not its content.
Rotten behavior is what people expect from Courtney Love, but the train-wreck rubber-neckers would have been disappointed by Hole’s show. Trying valiantly to resurrect her musical career instead of her tabloid-fodder career, the confident and jovial (seriously!) birthday girl ran the latest version of Hole through songs off new album, Nobody’s Daughter, faithful versions from her back catalog (“Miss World,” “Celebrity Skin,” Violet”), and a covers of Leonard’s Cohen’s “Take This Longing” (chosen instead of Canuck anthems like “Summer of ‘69” or “Black Velvet,” joked Love) and the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Musically, Hole was as unimpressive as always, proving that Love’s strongest suit is her ability to draw a crowd, not her ability keep them entertained.
The big-screen biopic of The Runaways hasn’t hurt to rekindle Joan Jett’s popularity, but Day 4’s headliner proved the real deal is always better than Twilight’s “it-girl” facsimile. Beginning with her classic “Bad Reputation,” the still-cool-as-fuck Jett and The Blackhearts rifled off crowd pleasers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Do You Want to Touch Me There,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Throw in a few Runaways hits like “Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild” and the show was great enough to make me want to see Light of Day again.
Brief Look At The Rest
The Gipsy Kings opened the second night on the Claridge Homes stage to a staggering number of people for an early show. The band responded kindly with an energetic set perfect for an open-air festival. Grupo Fantasma and SEPTENTRIONAL d’Haiti are excellent World bands, who played to small crowds of enthusiastic fans in the blacksheep tent. We also caught up with MonkeyJunk for a moment while they worked over the crowd with their brand of quality local blues.
The hillside setting at the Hard Rock Cafe stage is conducive to more intimate sets, and this year is no different. On Day 3 alone, mellow yellers were treated to a captivating show by Ottawa-born, Montreal-based Laurent Bourque, the standard, rustic fayre from Great Lake Swimmers, and quiet magic from Andrew Bird. Bird just can’t lose at festivals. Every time we’ve seen him he plays haunting sets that show off his sickening versatility and musicianship (yes, we’re a little jealous). Needless to say, his appearance was much appreciated by the dedicated contingent of indie fans and lovers of heartfelt songwriting alike.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band were suggested by a friend, and we’re happy we agreed after witnessing one of the best blues acts on the first leg of the festival. Randolph himself looks stuck between a hip-hop MC and somebody on their way to a wedding, neither of which would indicate he was a phenomenal slide-guitar player with a knack for improvising within a lock-tight groove, in this case provided by Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph. Similiarly gifted were the John Butler Trio, a chart-topping Australian group with a revolving set of musicians except for the guy in the band name. The trio play exceedingly well off each other, ending its set with a wall-of-noise drum finale that could be heard two stages over.
Caravan Palace are the type of festival band that do exceedingly well with a live audience but flounder a bit in the studio. The Parisian band consists of several members playing a variety of instruments, including an electric stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, clarinet, bass-heavy synth, and a female singer rocking a ’20s jazz style. In lesser hands you could deride an act like this for trying too hard, but the earnest delivery and high-energy set sold the gimmicky aspects. Another high-energy act that hasn’t lost an ounce of their grip on the 16-18 local demographic in the last 10 years are The Planet Smashers. They tore through a set of aging material, but the youthful crowd ate it up, circle moshing with a ferocity only found at the best ska shows.
We skipped much of the Kelp Records Revue (with the exception of the ever-reliable Andrew Vincent) and sidestepped most of the saccharine electronic sounds of Lights, the guitar goddess freakout of Ana Popovic, and the tedious heavy rock stylings of Dream Theater for the opportunity to see Iron Maiden’s long-awaited return to town.
Iron Maiden were their usual selves. Whirling dervishes Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris commandeering the large stage with the gusto of men 30 years younger, three guitarists trading solos, a massive drum set (and Nicko McBrain somewhere behind it), and a fleeting appearance by Eddie (who now looks like a cyborg linebacker, in case you were wondering). All “newer” songs sounded great and wouldn’t be completely out of place on the band’s early albums but, with the exception of five tracks from the first three albums, the entire setlist consisted of tracks post-Somewhere in Time. The band were fantastic as always but there was an anticipatory feel in the air that didn’t subside until “Iron Maiden,” “The Number of the Beast,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and “Running Free” were done.
Snippets of sets by The Moody Blues, Steve Hackett, and the rain-delayed Renaissance came next. All flashed some golden-years form. Babe Ruth, in particular, stole pieces of hearts with a wonderfully arranged spectacle led by the overpowering presence of frontwoman Janita Haan, who is THE template for women rock singers. Her swaggering confidence and chops brought fans like flies to sherbet as the sun was setting on the Ottawa River.
The crowd at Further with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir was dense but peaceful, as most were in an altered state or were waiting for the perfect moment to enter an altered state without being noticed by the red-shirted security slinking about. Lesh and Weir sounded laid-back and comfortable, which only furthered the distinct vibe coming from within the crowd. This TMT-er is not familiar enough with past work to comment on their dedication to classic material, but they sounded great.
The B-52’s were radio dynamite in their day, but have been reduced to the following statement overheard from a young audience member: “I think is the band that did that Family Guy song about lobsters.” With their legacy on the line, the B-52’s put on their best “show faces” and rehashed their hits in front of a diverse group of just about every age, from 5 to 65. To their credit, the main trio of Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, and Kate Pierson have plenty of enthusiasm for both the performance and music that has been paying their bills for the last 30 years.
Dem B’ys is Full a Humour
Metal bands attract a certain type of crowd, but metal bands of a certain vintage attract an even more certain type of crowd. Where else but at a Maiden show would a hoary rock chick (sorry, she could only be described as such) deafen those in the vicinity with, “I don’t need a bike, this is MY BITCH!” as she straddled her startled husband’s back like he was a well-worn Harley seat? Alright, that could happen anywhere — and should happen more often — but it seemed more at home on this night.
The Subway stage, which has a glorious backdrop in the Ottawa river, and offers up some more eclectic musical choices for the city, is also unfortunately home for some of the more “aggressive” blues, including Jonas & The Massive Attraction, a band that really “wants it.” The stage theatrics of lead singer Jonas Tomalty were incredible in how uniformly awful they were, and even better when noticing the smirks on the faces of his band members. Jonas’ wife-beater tank-top, greasy curls, and rippling body mass might of attracted a very specific demographic (the type that enjoys chillin’ on the Jersey shore), but his Blueshammer level of terrible should of earned him a spot in the comedy tent instead of on a stage.
The laughs provided by Mr. Jonas inspired a visit to the Black Sheep music and comedy tent, a new addition to Bluesfest this year, and after getting past the crack security team of volunteer children (well, teenagers) we were presented with some relationship advice from Finesse Mitchell, a former SNL cast member. His routine was amusing and he delivered the material well, but the topic of relationships is a well-worn path in the comedy world and Mitchell didn’t offer any new insights. Louis C.K., on the other hand, was brutal, vicious, and absolutely hilarious. Even though some of his material can border on mean, his delivery and cushy personality sell jokes that would drown a lesser comedian.
The first slab of days at Bluesfest was a struggle of attrition for our already overworked sweat glands, but the heat wave is over. Whatever nonsense Mother Nature throws at us for the rest of the Bluesfest, it couldn’t be worse than what we endured (though we would probably endure razorblade-and-dirty-diaper tornadoes if it meant standing in a field drinking beer and watching an overwhelming amount of music). Bring on days five to nine!
by David Nadelle and munroe