Mile High Music Festival 2009
Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Denver, CO

[July 18-19, 2009]

This year’s Mile High Music Festival, the second annual celebration of all-things-elevated in Denver, Colorado, was an odd beast if you looked at it up close. Let’s see, first off we’ve got Widespread Panic playing... bo-... both nights? Umm okay, could be a typo...

Moving right along, we’ve got a list of bands you’d expect to be playing with Panic: Ben Harper (sure, why not), Matisyahu (I’m in a good mood, go for it!), Thievery Corporation (yeah, still rockin’), Gov’t Mule (things are gettin’ weird), G. Love & Special Sauce (now I’m just getting angry), Ani fuckin’ DiFranco (I’m freakin’ out!!!)...

Then, after you peel the initial, stinky-hippie layer, you’ve a few choice pieces of action: DeVotchKa (incredible!), Lyrics Born (indelible), and Pepper (incredibly unoriginal and indelibly enjoyable).

Then the REAL head-scratchers enter the mix: Incubus (it is now officially 1999), Black Keys (it is now officially 2004) and, mother of all motherfuckers, Tool’s first show since December 2007 (it is now officially time to take three hits of sunshine acid).

It all melted together reasonably well. And I mean literally: The hot-to-the-touch temperatures had my balls sticking together like velcro straps. How can one enjoy music with so many distractions, including sweltering heat, lots of food, tons of drunk people, and several well-distributed recycling tents?

Very carefully. To me, Mile High wouldn’t have made any sense at all without the VIP tent, where I was able to grab roughly seven-or-so ice teas -- iced -- every hour. Those who did attend without the heightened luxury must have spent every bit of disposable income they had on beer at $8 a cup.

I just can’t do that; maybe that’s why I write about it instead. Regardless, despite the lineup gaffes, Mile High didn’t crash to the ground.

LIGHTNING SPEED REVIEW ROUND!!!!!:

- Incubus: Yr pretty, but HA! Make yrself, fucko.
- Ani DiFranco: I ... I just have no idea.
- Thievery Corporation: Good; no seriously, it’s good, I promise. When is it over?
- The Black Keys: No seriously, it actually DOES sound like two people, nothing more.
- Pepper: It’s good, but it’s Sublime. Be honest.
- Ben Harper: Is that a KISS cover? No? Shit, sorry.

As short as that last section seems, I’m not sure if I could have shit out another word for any of those groups if my life depended on it. The real reason I -- and everyone else -- went to Mile High was to get beaten over the head by Maynard James Keenan’s big, floppy Tool.

They didn’t disappoint. Or maybe they did; after seeing them five times starting in 1997, I can’t really tell anymore. All I know is that Tool are a consummate live act, even though I find myself not as starstruck as in the past. It’s not so much the songs or the killer-cool stoner vibe or the whole Tool-is-the-new-Rush thing; it’s more that, as a four-cog machine, the quartet have few peers. Danny Carey, their drummer, is the ultimate conservatory musician, trained in the fundamentals to a fault; he can do anything required of him except grow an extra limb (though I’m told he is working on that). Their bassist Justin Chancellor is the perfect wall for Carey to bounce his beats off, as he can go from a head-charge rumble to a fluid melodic groove in no-time-flat. Guitarist Adam Jones is the least skilled but just as important, his brush strokes adding something tangible for the masses (no one wants to pay $70 to sit on the grass and listen to drums-and-bass solos).

And then you have Maynard James Keenan. He’s a decent lyricist in a pinch, or at least he was before 10,000 Days, but his best quality is his ability to project his voice over the daunting din of his band. THAT’s what sets him apart from the Chino Morenos of the world: He can hold a note, and more than that, he can hold it next to a distortion guitar and still be heard.

Well, there you have it: Two days of 90-degree temperatures to really see one, maybe two bands.

Such is life.

Ottawa Bluesfest: Days 6-9
July 13-16, 2009;

[July 13-16, 2009]

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- {Day 6}

Every year at Bluesfest, there's one night where the organizers give the festival pass owners a break. They tend to put on acts that appeal to people who aren't really "in" to music, in so much as they only like a few select radio-friendly bands. Monday night featured Silverstein, Gym Class Heroes (pictured), and Stone Temple Pilots. Total. Only 1 stage out of 5 was active that night. Silverstein was missed entirely, Gym Class Heroes played a great set if you were a 16-year-old girl just getting into rock and hip-hop, and Stone Temple Pilots created pitch-perfect recreations of their 90s hits. Weiland was toast, but I suppose it couldn't have been any other way.

----

- {Day 7}

Although {Spencer Davis} and his group played a lot of hits that had the crowd singing along ("Gimme Some Lovin', "I'm a Man," etc.), the set was a tad pedestrian "blues-rock" and only highlighted the problem with many of these revisionist shows -- b(r)and name alone cannot hide key lineup deficiencies (in this case Steve Winwood). Because of this, Davis was in tough to provide the thrills the other two bands on this bill more sporadically managed. {The Yardbirds}, comprised of longstanding rhythm guitarist and drummer Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty alongside a posse of young gunslingers, banged out formidable takes from a well-known back catalog that ended up being more than just good facsimiles. Of course, the band is primarily known for honing farm-club muckers into major league stars (guitar maestros Clapton, Page, and Beck) but the crackerjack session musicians on hand belted out Yardbirds gems like "For Your Love," "Shapes of Things," "Heart Full of Soul," "Happenings 10 Years Time Ago," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," and a super-charged version of Jimmy Page's Yardbirds-written/Led Zep-mastered "Dazed and Confused" with ease.

Out of the three "big" hip-hop acts to hit Bluesfest this year, {Ice Cube} (pictured) was the only professional. Both Luda and Busta were late, played short sets, and generally had no idea what to do with a festival. Ice Cube had his DJ out on stage a few minutes before he got there, getting the crowd of mostly young suburban gangsters whipped up until Ice Cube strutted on stage, with a calm, assured swagger. He must have mentioned Ottawa 30 times in his set, and we were the "Westside center of the world," which I imagine is the same for all the cities on his tour itinerary, but played into the insecurity of all wannabe gangsters. He played one half of the crowd to the other, and had a minute-and-a-half interlude where he told everyone to smoke more pot. Between encouraging narcotics use and a passionate rendition of "Fuck Da Police," the security and police on hand were looking nervous. Nothing came to pass, except everyone in the crowd having a good time on a sunny evening.

{The Zombies} fared better than Spencer Davis, much to do with the still honey-voiced Colin Blunstone and the unmistakable signature sound of Rod Argent's keys. Rumors of an in-its-entirety Odessey and Oracle set were quashed as the band played with some generic blues riffage, Argent solo hits ("Hold Your Head Up", "God Gave Rock and Roll To You"), and a couple of non-Odessey songs ("She's Not There," Tell Her No," "I Love You"). When the band played the four-song run of "A Rose for Emily," "Care of Cell 44," "This Will Be Our Year," and "Time of the Season," Zombies fanatics were overjoyed. The Zombies show was a rare treat by a still under-appreciated act, but the too-short set and emphasis on non-Zombies material made for a mildly frustrating, yet admittedly beautiful show.

You simply cannot attend a festival and ignore {Toots and the Maytals} if you tried. If you did, the legend himself would come and drag you to his must-see show. Toots, flanked by an unstoppable rhythm band and buttery-voiced backing singers, addressed and suppressed the big crowd with his uniquely gruff voice and gave the large crowd on hand a much-needed jolt of heartfelt reggae. Starting with their hallmark "Pressure Drop," The Maytals chugged through a loved-up set of their standards and sweet covers (Toots -- and possibly Lemmy -- is one of the few singers that can make "Louie Louie" his own) that were as infectious as superbly played, and they rightfully could have commanded a much larger stage to wow wide-eyed shufflers. This was another no-brainer festival must-see among many (see Sharon Jones below) and a great show by one of the genres most loved and important figures.

----

- {Day 8}

{Rocco Deluca and the Burden} started the evening destroying eardrums on the smallest of stages, tearing through their awful recorded output with a toothy set that was 100% meat. Two of the four members were missing from the ensemble, so Deluca and his drummer put on their best Black Keys/White Stripes impressions for the night. The drums varied between vicious blues-inspired pounding and serene accompaniment for the lightest of guitar flourishes. Deluca himself is a force on guitar, if only in a live setting. When he went balls out, just banging on the strings while his drummer went apeshit, I swear they were encouraging bowel movements two stages over. Highly recommended live, but avoid their recorded output until they grow some studio balls.

And then {KISS}. The leadup to tonight was ridiculous based on word of mouth alone. Everyone was talking about it, even people who don't care for the band's music at all. The main area of the festival was packed with people on Wednesday night, from toddler's that had to be carried to keepers of the flame in full face paint. KISS had the most impressive stage setup this writer has ever seen. A massive LCD screen covered half the stage, a wall of fake speakers complete with stairs covered the rest, while lights, fireworks, and pyrotechnics made up for the flaccid, turgid sound that escaped the PA. It was neither the band's fault nor the organizers'; it was just a couple of people who whined that the festival was too loud in their houses (even though it finished at 11 every night on the dot), so I imagine the city was ready to pounce if the decibels climbed too high. The ridiculously oversold event meant that there was nowhere to stand without being groped by men in sleeveless AC/DC 79 tour shirts and their wives sporting a Tom Waits rasp and droopy eyelids.

On a much-less-packed side stage, {K'Naan} (pictured) was moving the small, but passionate crowd with both hits off his new album, and the a capella material off his debut. Although a relatively tame set overall, it was an enjoyable experience watching a rapper who actually had something to say. Consider him the antidote to the overblown spectacle that went on over on the main stage.

----

- {Day 9}

Judging by the clever "Shirt Irt Irt Irt Irt" tees witnessed, it was no surprise to see a small but dedicated crowd beginning to gather for Edmonton's electro-pop heroes {Shout Out Out Out Out} on Thursday afternoon. Playing many tracks off their impressive sophomore disc Reintegration Time, the Shout Outs took electronic cues from Holy Fuck (who played a stellar set earlier during the festival) by layering loads of bass, synths, and percussion (using two drummers though) but their set was dampened slightly by vocoder overload. Conversely, there was nothing about {M83}'s set that was out of step as France's premier dream-pop won over many newbies in attendance. Fronting a three piece, Anthony Gonzalez wheeled between keyboards and guitar and played a string of tunes that were alternately atmospheric, dancey, new wavey, hi-NRG-inspired, and even rockier than many expected. Popular tracks got a slightly more enthusiastic reception, but the whole set was so good and sounded so precise and spectacular that everything was eaten up by those in the throng.

{Les Claypool} (pictured) had the unfortunate timeslot of playing against Sharon Jones, Alan Parsons, and Styx. So even fans of his, who would normally of wanted to check out his set, were off seeing other "bigger" acts. Those people missed an eclectic taste of his solo material and a truly bizarre stage presence. All the members of his band were wearing half face masks, which only exposed their mouths. Claypool himself was wearing goggles and a hat, which lent him a willy wonka vibe for his madcap tomfoolery. The entire stage was bathed in red light for most of the set, which made it hard to see anything. Regardless of the purposeful distractions, Claypool knows how to put on a show, and he tore through his solo material with his usual weirdo commander swagger. The accompanying band (including a guitarist, cello player, and drummer) was tight, even though they probably had a hard time seeing out of their silly masks.

Like every other city in the free world, Ottawa has seen {Sharon Jones} strut through town a number of times, so it was strange to see her atop a smaller stage, but it's no wonder that she entertained a larger-than-normal crowd while there. The Jones spectacle is always entertaining as hell, but as her albums get mellower and mellower, so does the song selection in her gigs. What she and The Dap-Kings lacked in up-tempo soul they made up for in a deep, relaxed change of pace, a nice genuine tribute to Michael Jackson, and stage patter and antics galore from Jones, including bringing up a near-continuous line of more-than-willing males to the stage with whom to serenade and mildly frisk. The Dap-Kings were unbelievably tight, and the Georgia singer was as sunny as a peach. So, it was a completely expected show of pure class from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings... as always.

[Photos: munroe]

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Ottawa Bluesfest: Days 6-9
July 13-16, 2009;

[July 13-16, 2009]

[PREVIOUS | NEXT]

- {Day 6}

Every year at Bluesfest, there's one night where the organizers give the festival pass owners a break. They tend to put on acts that appeal to people who aren't really "in" to music, in so much as they only like a few select radio-friendly bands. Monday night featured Silverstein, Gym Class Heroes (pictured), and Stone Temple Pilots. Total. Only 1 stage out of 5 was active that night. Silverstein was missed entirely, Gym Class Heroes played a great set if you were a 16-year-old girl just getting into rock and hip-hop, and Stone Temple Pilots created pitch-perfect recreations of their 90s hits. Weiland was toast, but I suppose it couldn't have been any other way.

----

- {Day 7}

Although {Spencer Davis} and his group played a lot of hits that had the crowd singing along ("Gimme Some Lovin', "I'm a Man," etc.), the set was a tad pedestrian "blues-rock" and only highlighted the problem with many of these revisionist shows -- b(r)and name alone cannot hide key lineup deficiencies (in this case Steve Winwood). Because of this, Davis was in tough to provide the thrills the other two bands on this bill more sporadically managed. {The Yardbirds}, comprised of longstanding rhythm guitarist and drummer Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty alongside a posse of young gunslingers, banged out formidable takes from a well-known back catalog that ended up being more than just good facsimiles. Of course, the band is primarily known for honing farm-club muckers into major league stars (guitar maestros Clapton, Page, and Beck) but the crackerjack session musicians on hand belted out Yardbirds gems like "For Your Love," "Shapes of Things," "Heart Full of Soul," "Happenings 10 Years Time Ago," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," and a super-charged version of Jimmy Page's Yardbirds-written/Led Zep-mastered "Dazed and Confused" with ease.

Out of the three "big" hip-hop acts to hit Bluesfest this year, {Ice Cube} (pictured) was the only professional. Both Luda and Busta were late, played short sets, and generally had no idea what to do with a festival. Ice Cube had his DJ out on stage a few minutes before he got there, getting the crowd of mostly young suburban gangsters whipped up until Ice Cube strutted on stage, with a calm, assured swagger. He must have mentioned Ottawa 30 times in his set, and we were the "Westside center of the world," which I imagine is the same for all the cities on his tour itinerary, but played into the insecurity of all wannabe gangsters. He played one half of the crowd to the other, and had a minute-and-a-half interlude where he told everyone to smoke more pot. Between encouraging narcotics use and a passionate rendition of "Fuck Da Police," the security and police on hand were looking nervous. Nothing came to pass, except everyone in the crowd having a good time on a sunny evening.

{The Zombies} fared better than Spencer Davis, much to do with the still honey-voiced Colin Blunstone and the unmistakable signature sound of Rod Argent's keys. Rumors of an in-its-entirety Odessey and Oracle set were quashed as the band played with some generic blues riffage, Argent solo hits ("Hold Your Head Up", "God Gave Rock and Roll To You"), and a couple of non-Odessey songs ("She's Not There," Tell Her No," "I Love You"). When the band played the four-song run of "A Rose for Emily," "Care of Cell 44," "This Will Be Our Year," and "Time of the Season," Zombies fanatics were overjoyed. The Zombies show was a rare treat by a still under-appreciated act, but the too-short set and emphasis on non-Zombies material made for a mildly frustrating, yet admittedly beautiful show.

You simply cannot attend a festival and ignore {Toots and the Maytals} if you tried. If you did, the legend himself would come and drag you to his must-see show. Toots, flanked by an unstoppable rhythm band and buttery-voiced backing singers, addressed and suppressed the big crowd with his uniquely gruff voice and gave the large crowd on hand a much-needed jolt of heartfelt reggae. Starting with their hallmark "Pressure Drop," The Maytals chugged through a loved-up set of their standards and sweet covers (Toots -- and possibly Lemmy -- is one of the few singers that can make "Louie Louie" his own) that were as infectious as superbly played, and they rightfully could have commanded a much larger stage to wow wide-eyed shufflers. This was another no-brainer festival must-see among many (see Sharon Jones below) and a great show by one of the genres most loved and important figures.

----

- {Day 8}

{Rocco Deluca and the Burden} started the evening destroying eardrums on the smallest of stages, tearing through their awful recorded output with a toothy set that was 100% meat. Two of the four members were missing from the ensemble, so Deluca and his drummer put on their best Black Keys/White Stripes impressions for the night. The drums varied between vicious blues-inspired pounding and serene accompaniment for the lightest of guitar flourishes. Deluca himself is a force on guitar, if only in a live setting. When he went balls out, just banging on the strings while his drummer went apeshit, I swear they were encouraging bowel movements two stages over. Highly recommended live, but avoid their recorded output until they grow some studio balls.

And then {KISS}. The leadup to tonight was ridiculous based on word of mouth alone. Everyone was talking about it, even people who don't care for the band's music at all. The main area of the festival was packed with people on Wednesday night, from toddler's that had to be carried to keepers of the flame in full face paint. KISS had the most impressive stage setup this writer has ever seen. A massive LCD screen covered half the stage, a wall of fake speakers complete with stairs covered the rest, while lights, fireworks, and pyrotechnics made up for the flaccid, turgid sound that escaped the PA. It was neither the band's fault nor the organizers'; it was just a couple of people who whined that the festival was too loud in their houses (even though it finished at 11 every night on the dot), so I imagine the city was ready to pounce if the decibels climbed too high. The ridiculously oversold event meant that there was nowhere to stand without being groped by men in sleeveless AC/DC 79 tour shirts and their wives sporting a Tom Waits rasp and droopy eyelids.

On a much-less-packed side stage, {K'Naan} (pictured) was moving the small, but passionate crowd with both hits off his new album, and the a capella material off his debut. Although a relatively tame set overall, it was an enjoyable experience watching a rapper who actually had something to say. Consider him the antidote to the overblown spectacle that went on over on the main stage.

----

- {Day 9}

Judging by the clever "Shirt Irt Irt Irt Irt" tees witnessed, it was no surprise to see a small but dedicated crowd beginning to gather for Edmonton's electro-pop heroes {Shout Out Out Out Out} on Thursday afternoon. Playing many tracks off their impressive sophomore disc Reintegration Time, the Shout Outs took electronic cues from Holy Fuck (who played a stellar set earlier during the festival) by layering loads of bass, synths, and percussion (using two drummers though) but their set was dampened slightly by vocoder overload. Conversely, there was nothing about {M83}'s set that was out of step as France's premier dream-pop won over many newbies in attendance. Fronting a three piece, Anthony Gonzalez wheeled between keyboards and guitar and played a string of tunes that were alternately atmospheric, dancey, new wavey, hi-NRG-inspired, and even rockier than many expected. Popular tracks got a slightly more enthusiastic reception, but the whole set was so good and sounded so precise and spectacular that everything was eaten up by those in the throng.

{Les Claypool} (pictured) had the unfortunate timeslot of playing against Sharon Jones, Alan Parsons, and Styx. So even fans of his, who would normally of wanted to check out his set, were off seeing other "bigger" acts. Those people missed an eclectic taste of his solo material and a truly bizarre stage presence. All the members of his band were wearing half face masks, which only exposed their mouths. Claypool himself was wearing goggles and a hat, which lent him a willy wonka vibe for his madcap tomfoolery. The entire stage was bathed in red light for most of the set, which made it hard to see anything. Regardless of the purposeful distractions, Claypool knows how to put on a show, and he tore through his solo material with his usual weirdo commander swagger. The accompanying band (including a guitarist, cello player, and drummer) was tight, even though they probably had a hard time seeing out of their silly masks.

Like every other city in the free world, Ottawa has seen {Sharon Jones} strut through town a number of times, so it was strange to see her atop a smaller stage, but it's no wonder that she entertained a larger-than-normal crowd while there. The Jones spectacle is always entertaining as hell, but as her albums get mellower and mellower, so does the song selection in her gigs. What she and The Dap-Kings lacked in up-tempo soul they made up for in a deep, relaxed change of pace, a nice genuine tribute to Michael Jackson, and stage patter and antics galore from Jones, including bringing up a near-continuous line of more-than-willing males to the stage with whom to serenade and mildly frisk. The Dap-Kings were unbelievably tight, and the Georgia singer was as sunny as a peach. So, it was a completely expected show of pure class from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings... as always.

[Photos: munroe]

[PREVIOUS | NEXT]

Mission Of Burma / Fucked Up / Ponytail
East River State Park; Brooklyn, NY

[07-12-2009]

Let's start this review off with some trivial context. McCarren Park Pool, a gigantic, empty, disused outdoor swimming pool in Brooklyn, played host to free rock shows since 2006. But sometime in 2008, the owners decided they wanted to put water in it again. Hipsters, cheapskates, and general music fans were sad. Then the promoters quickly figured out a way to move the whole shebang a few blocks away to a new state park on the East River and decided to keep calling shows "pool parties."

This show, with Mission of Burma, Fucked Up, and Ponytail, was the first Pool Party without a pool, and it lived up to its forebears admirably.

I almost wrote off Ponytail as nothing more than magnet school kids haphazardly fucking around with wild vocalizations and delay pedals, but I'm a believer now: at this show, the funk pushed through the noise, the hooks revealed themselves as actual hooks, and singer Molly Siegel's yelps largely blended into the mix as yet another joyous sound. Their music and attitude, as it turns out, are perfect for outdoor shows on beautiful days overlooking horribly polluted rivers. As long as people are willing to believe that a band that sounds like OOIOO could come from Baltimore, then there's no reason Ponytail can't be as big as all outdoors.

Fucked Up were up next, and with a largely stationary and unremarkable presence from everyone but lead singer Pink Eyes, it's hard not to compare their live show to Les Savy Fav's. To be fair, they managed to play like grownup hardcore kids without losing its sense of purpose, and Pink Eyes' smart-guy-doing-stupid-shit routine is worth whatever the price of admission happens to be. After watching them struggle to mesh with the implications of a sunny outdoor performance, I fear only that their newfound Eastern European nu-metal fame (they recently opened for Korn in Serbia) will mean that we've missed our chance to see them tear up dank basements.

Mission of Burma sidestepped the possibility of a comparatively predictable set by playing mainly new songs likely destined for their recently announced upcoming album, The Sound The Speed The Light. While the new songs were good, they were obviously not what the crowd was in the mood to hear. Judging by the reaction that even "Spider's Web" received, the audience would have been perfectly pleased with a set comprised solely of Onoffon and The Obliterati tracks. But that was not to be. If they come back to Brooklyn next year and play the same set, they'll probably have the slightly aging hipsters slurping it down like Jamba Juice and gin, but after a long day of drinking in the sun, the new tracks bled together too much to deliver a truly memorable experience.

If anything stood out from the set, it was Bob Weston's performance on tape loops. While his reversed vocals and spliced-up guitar can sometimes clutter up a perfectly good rock ‘n’ roll performance, he masterfully thickened up Roger Miller's guitar solos this time, providing incisive stabs of noise at only the most opportune moments.

Before ripping into "Photograph," which continues to somewhat surprisingly assert itself as the most crowd-pleasing of Burma live tracks, Clint Conley exhorted the crowd to shuffle over to Spike Hill for a Future of the Left show following the Pool Party festivities. Future of the Left, of course, proceeded to decimate the day's previous performers, but that's a story for another day.

[Photo: Kelly Davidson]

Wilco / Yo La Tengo
Keyspan Park; Coney Island, NY

[07-13-2009]

Playing outdoors at Coney Island’s Keyspan Park, Wilco’s past lurked just behind the grandstand.

One block from the stadium lay the street where Woody Guthrie lived and scrawled lyrics eventually sung on Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue. The album became Wilco’s first major step out of the shadow of singer Jeff Tweedy’s first band, Uncle Tupelo, and freed him to follow his own sonic course, a famously troubled one. This was Wilco’s first New York City appearance since the drug overdose of former member Jay Bennett, conspicuous in his absence since being let go after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band’s widely accepted classic.

But from the first muddy, chugging chords of “Wilco (The Song),” off the band’s new album of Americana-inflected rock, no one within the friendly confines seemed too sentimental. At its core, the show celebrated the band as it stands. During “California Stars,” one of only two old Mermaid Avenue songs in the band’s set, Tweedy even forgot some of the lyrics.

The florescent pink Wonder Wheel turned slowly over Left Field, JFK-bound planes drifted behind the Parachute Jump’s flashing red lights, and Wilco managed the lineup’s current balancing act: mixing quiet, pretty folk music with eruptions of atonal noise, precise rhythms, bluesy jams, and even soul. Sometimes these elements fought for air within a single song, as with the band’s beautiful rendition of Sky Blue Sky’s “You Are My Face.”

After Bennett's departure, the vacuum was filled by Nels Cline, a virtuoso guitarist. Bennett's talents for pop songwriting and arrangement were replaced with Cline’s passionate bluesy riffs and visceral noise. In a black shirt and bright red pants, the lead guitarist often stole Jeff Tweedy’s spotlight. During A Ghost Is Born’s “Handshake Drugs,” Cline stabbed at his guitar with a unique violence, strangling from his instrument notes that squealed and hissed. On “Impossible Germany,” his guitar work suddenly became angular and limber, reminiscent of another guitar god, Tom Verlaine. He filled “Jesus, etc” with yawning slide guitar before achieving his greatest musical violence in “Misunderstood,” the only song performed from 1996’ Being There. During the song, he whipped his hand off the strings, as if angrily igniting a chainsaw.

Tweedy had plenty of his own moments. He sounds entirely at ease within his songs. His raspy voice hushed quiet sweetness one moment and screamed for “Something in my veins/ Bloodier than blood,” on “Shot In The Arm” the next, as if he were still in the desperate throes of addiction (he kicked a prescription drug habit years ago). His banter (“You guys really look good. I’m not just saying that.”) kept the audience buttered up, as he embraced his inner showmen, leading the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and briefly lifting his guitar to play it behind his head during “I’m The Man Who Loves You.” Tweedy was the portrait of a serious musician, trying his hardest to not take anything very seriously.

Wilco gets grief from the press for being too predictable, but no boredom could be detected in the thousands of happy attendees, nor in the performers. Indeed, it was almost anti-climactic when Leslie Feist and Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste joined Wilco on stage. Their contributions were barely notable, as if swallowed up by the momentum Wilco had steadied over their two-hour-long, free flowing, consistently excellent set. Wilco has emerged from years of drama to become a truly great band, even if a predictable one, with little use for guest stars.

Yo La Tengo, whom Tweedy called “one of the greatest bands ever” when they joined Wilco onstage, opened the concert with a fantastic daylight set, but their casually dressed bodies could barely be detected between the metallic glare of amps and equipment coming offstage. Rather than match Wilco’s finely tuned showmanship, the three-piece band achieved epic transcendence by turning in on themselves. Their closing song, a 10-minute-long “The Story Of Yo La Tengo,” found them basking in washes of distortion and propulsive rhythm, their backs nearly turned on the crowd. They seemed self-assured. The audience could fend for themselves.

Ottawa Bluesfest: Days 3-5
July 10-12, 2009;

[July 10-12, 2009]

[PREVIOUS | NEXT]

- {Day 3}

The third day of the festival opened with some weak Canadian radio fodder in {The Stills} and some Pelican/Isis-type instrumental work from {City of a Hundred Spires}. {The Dodos} were pumping out their brand of indie rock for a young crowd on a side stage. But the first true show of the evening was {Okkervil River}, all the way from Austin, Texas. The audience was a nice size despite the light showers, and they were receptive to the band's light and poppy indie rock. They were perfect for a slowly setting sun.

Meanwhile on the main stage, {Carlos Verada} was serenading the audience in Spanish while {Sam Roberts} set up on the other big stage. Roberts is a Canadian icon, and the large audience that showed up was excited to see him power through his set. The real destination for tonight, though, was {Steve Earle} (pictured) on a side stage. The size of the crowd swelled right to the stage entrance, and after a few minutes, it was clear 98% were proper fans. The other 2% were impatiently waiting for Copperhead Road, and Earle dealt with them appropriately. Earle ran through most of his hits and a smattering of tunes off his latest album covering Townes Van Zandt songs. Earle managed to keep the political stuff held off until the end, but once he got started, it was hard for him to stop. Thankfully, there was a bus to catch, but I was reluctant to leave despite the political grandstanding. He's a proper songwriter, whether or not his style is for you.

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- {Day 4}

On the fourth day, the torrential rains came, conquered, and pissed off in quick succession, leaving behind {Cotton Jones} in their wake and handed the job of conquering the hearts of early-evening festival goers on Saturday. Conquering may have been a daunting task, but impressing the crowd on hand was easy work for the increasingly Americana-tinged outfit from ex-Page France leader Michael Nau. For reasons unknown, a smaller-scale band was expected for this show -- possibly even the duo of Nau and Whitney McGraw -- but they were six strong and sounded down-to-earth smooth, playing many a song from their excellent Paranoid Cocoon album. All good stuff, but highlights included incredible renditions of “I Am the Changer” and “Blood Red Sentimental Blues.”

After sifting through crowds and taking in a few tracks each from Aussie legends {The Church}, straight-up rocky blues from {Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm}, and some lightweight Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack fare from {Rachael Yamagata}, we chanced upon a down-home acoustic set by {The Punch Brothers} (pictured). This experimental bluegrass quartet -- led by mandolin virtuoso, Nickel Creek veteran, and Jude Law look-alike Chris Thile -- sounded fantastic standing front stage around two vintage mics on the smallest back(woods) stage on the festival grounds. The White Stripes' “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and the first part of Thile’s 40-minute suite “The Blind Leaving the Blind” stuck out as particularly strong. Holders of the bluegrass flame should start marketing this quintet big time, because we like the sound of slick “new bluegrass” over stale “new country” any day.

When {Hey Rosetta} were first added to the lineup, the organizers put them at 2 PM on a Saturday afternoon, which guarantees only the hardcore and family will show up. The organizers must of realized what a firecracker they had on their hands, because the band was moved up to 7 PM on the same day, essentially opening for Brian Setzer. Professional doesn't even begin to describe Hey Rosetta: with 6 members on stage, nobody missed a beat, and the segues between songs were short (and planned). Their variety of upbeat indie rock might inspire someone to make an Arcade Fire connection, but it would be unfounded. Hey Rosetta are a lot more upbeat, and slightly more traditional, but the complete package was phenomenal.

There was no way to anticipate {Ya Ho Wha 13}, but in hindsight it was exactly what the band would want, had some thought been put into it. Entering the indoor theatre in customary robes, Djin Aquarian, Octavius Aquarian, and Sunflower Aquarian set about destroying eardrums by seemingly playing three distinct noise patterns before settling into extreme acid rock grooves and visual trippiness. Technical difficulties aside (the bass side was coming and going throughout the first half of the show), Ya Ho Wha 13 provided a concrete side to their mysterious abstract cult. Everything done was in devoted tribute to spiritual leader and friend Father Yod, who departed from this world in 1975, from direct shout-outs to inspired avant-leaning psychedelic movements.

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- {Day 5}

What can you say about {King Khan and BBQ Show} that hasn’t been said about all great rock ‘n’ roll acts before. Primitive, raw, and entertaining as hell, the duo managed to kick up more dirt and laughs than most modern acts around. Their stage presence is one-of-a-kind, and musically they just embody the rock spirit. In between killer songs, both original garage rave-ups and choice covers (among them a sweet version of The Stones’ “Out of Time”), Khan and Show kicked the crowd into gleeful submission, despite the four separate rainstorms that failed to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm. Kahn was especially in good spirits, stuck-walking around the stage in German pith helmet and trying his luck with death metal vox. BBQ Show was a marvel as well, singing, playing guitar, AND keeping time on a snare and bass drum affixed to each foot. This stood as one of the better and most effective shows of the day, but it warmed up the crowd for the upcoming set on the same stage, which would turn out to be one of the more memorable shows of the festival thus far.

Expectations were high for {Girl Talk}'s show, but not for the music itself. Rumours of being naked by the end of the set made their way through the crowd, as two laptops were set up on stage wrapped in plastic to prevent the rain from ruining them. A slow drone started to wrap up the crowd as it grew increasingly intense, until Greg Gillis (pictured) burst from the back of the stage, lept off it, and ran up the center area giving everyone high fives. His brightly-colored assistants had crept out from the sides and were covering the audience in toilet paper shot off the end of leaf blowers. Balloons filled with confetti were floated over the audience until they burst, and pre-filled beach balls were tossed into the crowd after about 10 minutes. It was chaos. Security had to deal with crowd surfers, people climbing scaffolding, girls getting crushed up front, and on stage, Gillis had assembled a group of 20 teenagers to dance constantly behind him. This writer managed to sneak his way up the side and snake his way into that crowd of 20 people. Top 5 concert experiences ever. For an hour and a half, Gillis played everything from "Jump," to "Lightning Crashes," to some dirty south tracks with hilariously direct lyrics. Innuendo is passé. As the show progressed, Gillis removed layers of clothing, but stopped once he was shirtless with just sweatpants on. As the show came to a close, the crowd chanted for an extra 5 fruitless minutes for Girl Talk to come back, but the stage had to be set up for Ani Difranco. A set for which we have no coverage.

[Photos: munroe]

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