Ottawa Bluesfest: Days 1 and 2
July 8-9, 2009;

[July 8-9, 2009]

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The Ottawa Bluesfest has been a yearly tradition in the Nation's Capital since 1994, slowly amassing a yearly attendance of close to 300,000 people over a 12-day period. In 2002, the organizers started putting out invitations to "big" acts that rest outside the Blues canon, including Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Van Morrison, Steve Miller, Kanye West, Brian Wilson, Snoop Dogg, Primus, and Donna Summer. This year's big names include KISS, Jeff Beck, Stone Temple Pilots, Ice Cube, The Dead Weather, Girl Talk, Ornette Coleman, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

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- {Day 1}

On opening night {The Black Keys} (pictured) rolled into town and people took notice, arrived early, crammed front stage, and were rewarded with an absolutely blinding set from Akron's finest. Although Patrick Carney was a sight, smashing away on his risen kit and carefully examining his sticks for splits between each song, Dan Auerbach blew the minds of everyone in attendance with tons of emotion, very little attitude, and a whole lot of noise. The duo's mastery of volume was truly inspirational; everyone knows they can deliver loud and heavy blues, but their ability to switch seamlessly to quieter song pieces on a dime is just as spectacular. As impressive is the unbelievable instinctual playing of Auerbach and Carney. Besides a couple of quick words to discuss song order, the two barely looked in the other's direction, which is astounding given the ample meandering that characterize each of their Sabbath-meets-White Stripes blues explosions like "The Break," "Thickfreakness," "Stack Shot Billy," "No Trust," and "Psychotic Girl." Revelatory and remarkable, The Black Keys was stoned, dirty escapism at its very best -- and the best way to really kick off this year's Bluesfest.

{Tympanic} were playing on a side stage, and their brand of Sublime-influenced ska/punk/funk was a poppy way to enjoy a setting sun over the Ottawa River. More than one artist has commented on the gorgeous setting of the festival, which resides on the bank of the Ottawa River on a huge patch of green space owned and operated by the National Capital Commission. The Subway stage in particular backs on to open water, and any artist performing there has an unobstructed view.

Given the large site area and number of stages, one of the givens with attending Bluesfest is the healthy embracing of your inner nomad. Stopping briefly at Jeff Beck's slick six-string main stage show, then taking in a few stolen moments of straight-faced jazz-prog with Peter Hammill and his Van der Graaf Generator, the final destination of the night was at an out-of-the-way stage to see {Sergent Garcia}'s mad sideshow. Heading a heaving band that included a flautist, pianist, a bunch of brass, trap drummer, bass, and all on vocals, Garcia took the often staid Ottawa crowd and whipped it into a loose frenzy with a culture-mixing set that embraced reggae, rap, salsa, Cuban, Jamaican and African rhythms, and Latin percussion music. I am not sure if I will ever see, much less hear, Sergent Garcia again, but they were the perfect festival fodder choice. The organizers knew it too, immediately booking the band to a free downtown show the following night.

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- {Day 2}

Outside of a few diversions in the {Brothers Chaffey} and {Sista Monica}, the second day started with {Holy Fuck} (pictured), the four-piece from Toronto that lays down a thick groove with a bevy of cheap keyboards/toys fed through filters and pedals. Unfortunately because of questionable acts booked on the same stage, I think there was some Iron and Wine fans put off by all the racket. Holy Fuck pressed on regardless, pumping out variations of songs on both their LPs, and there was a smattering of material from the new album, which sounds like it's going to be a funky good time. During the closer, the four built to a crescendo in "Lovely Allen" for what seemed like 10 minutes, but the explosion of noise that followed moved everyone that was previously stoic to join the dance party.

The prospect of frolicking in a field of Emily Haines clones notwithstanding, {Iron & Wine}'s show was about to begin on a nearby stage. So nearby, in fact, that Haines' Metric bled over into Sam Beam's quiet and reflective set (Beam likened it to being in a car at a stoplight, trying to talk about "bills and picking the kids up," next to a deafening tinted-windowed Escalade). Fortunately, Metric finished early and Beam was able to bless the remaining faithful with a show that was light on festival showmanship and heavy on presenting his labyrinthine stories. Beginning with "The Trapeze Swinger," Beam played a wonderful gig that included one new track among many live favorites ("Naked As We Came," "Jezebel"), all done in his inimitable style. As always, his playing was impeccably honest and his maze-like words begged for individual interpretation. With the sun setting on the Ottawa River, Iron & Wine's first appearance in the city gave the crowd a rare chance to celebrate a beautiful repertoire by a special performer.

While Iron & Wine was on one of the smaller stages, others were pressed up close on the big stage witnessing {Ben Harper and the Relentless7} power-drive their way through crunchy blues and straight-up hard rock. The lack of a large library of recorded music meant the band had to fill in with some covers, and they did so aptly with some Zeppelin and Queen's "Under Pressure" (which somebody in the audience laughably called the "Vanilla Ice Song"). The Relentless7 themselves are capable musicians, but it's apparent they're studio players. They're just too clean. Contrastingly, Harper bleeds music, which is apparent in both his stage presence and actual playing. I've never seen anybody rock out so hard with their ass in a chair.

[Photos: munroe]

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