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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The Gories
Majestic Theater; Detroit, MI

[06-27-2009]

It's true: there is no reason to be in Detroit, unless you want to experience depression in pretty much every form. But there was finally some good news out of the Motor City: The Gories had reunited!

A bassless, blues-influenced garage-punk trio formed in the late 80s, The Gories -- consisting of guitarists/vocalists Mick Collins (now of the Dirtbombs) and Danny Kroha (Demolition Doll Rods) and drummer Peggy O’Neill (Darkest Hours) -- broke up in 1993, leaving behind three albums, a handful of singles, and a lo-fi legacy. Playing with also recently reformed Tennessee rockers The Oblivians, the bands had only three U.S. dates before embarking on a European tour. But this show, in Detroit, was the hometown return for The Gories, and they had something to prove.

“You didn’t care about us 20 years ago, but you care now?” Collins asked the screaming fans, packed to capacity. Agog at the amount of people at the sold-out venue, Kroha could not stop smiling.

Anyone concerned that it wouldn't be the same now that the band could actually play their instruments shouldn't be. During “Ghost Rider,” Collins, t-shirt drenched in sweat (alas, no suit!), ground his guitar into the monitor at the front of the stage, relishing the noise. O’Neill sat with her legs crossed, a maraca in one hand and drumstick in the other, banging away. The only real difference was that, as Kroha pointed out before “Detroit Breakdown,” now he can play guitar and harmonica at the same time. But the breakdown in “Nitroglycerine” was still so raw it could have peeled paint.

As the band prepared to leave the stage before the encore, Collins raised his hand in farewell. “See you in another 20 years!” Fortunately this time he’s only joking.

MSTRKRFT
LAGO; Ottawa, ON

[06-30-2009]

The day before Canada Day, four of us are huddled in a kitchen in Ottawa, Ontario. Three different kinds of Canadian Whiskey are stocked in the freezer, and 2-liter bottles of Canada Dry litter the counter tops. There's Alberta beef on the propane barbecue, and there's already the odd firework going up around us, even though we're still a good 6 hours until Wednesday. In the room, there's somebody from Winnipeg Manitoba, one from Montreal, another from New Brunswick, two clowns from Cape Breton, and this writer, born and raised in the Nation's Capital itself. We could of filled two chesterfields if we needed to.

As the cab convoy pulled up to the venue, we get our first look at LAGO, an uppity-looking bar & grill on the edge of a beautiful waterfront that's been converted to handle throngs of people lookin' to get their dance on. MSTRKRFT have come all the way from Toronto to throw down at the biggest party of the summer not sponsored by the Government of Canada. As we trickled in, DJ Kid SL kept the crowd occupied while the liquor flowed. Many people peaked too early, and we watched on with smiles as their plea's fell on deaf gorilla ears. Two of our own party fell victim to that fate themselves at some point during the night. We're not sure when.

The crowd started chanting for Mas-Ter-Kraft, and the two distinctive heads of Jesse and Al-P pushed through the dry ice and set up shop in front of a bevy of knobs and pads. For the uninitiated, MSTRKFRT and their ilk produce an updated form of electro that goes by a few names, including fidget house and filthy/dirty electro. Music that lives and dies in a live setting by beat drops. The music builds on itself, generally overlaying an increasingly high frequency wave until the beat is filtered out completely. This serves a double purpose, both letting people breathe and to build anticipation for the beat to drop back in. When it does, it's coupled with bowel-moving wobble bass or synth stabs so distorted that they may as well be a bass line.

The crowd behind me pushed in, the bass wobbled, and the lights burst into a neon cavalcade. The masses around me moved to the beat with what room they had, and the floor suddenly became a tribal experience. Almost every song has a similar beginning and end point to facilitate easier mixing. There's something about a heavy 4/4 beat and a gathering of sweaty people that exposes our history as a race.

Eventually, words become irrelevant in describing the experience. Albums and singles shouldn't form an opinion of this updated version of electro -- it needs to be experienced live.

Photo: [Sexy Fitsum]

John Vanderslice / Tallest Man On Earth
Exit/In; Nashville, TN

[06-24-2009]

When Sweden's The Tallest Man on Earth (a.k.a. Kristian Matsson) steps on stage, he's given the warmest reception I've seen for an opener in recent memory. I'm only mildly familiar with his music, but I can't help thinking it's funny a guy called "tallest man" looks like a miniaturized Bonnie "Prince" Billy with less facial hair and better guitar chops. Characteristically, Nashville crowds tend to swoon over singer/songwriters, and there's plenty of that going on as Matsson sings "If the whiskey doesn't kill me, I don't know what will."

I'm not saying Swedes don't drink whiskey or anything, but the only thing legitimately great about TMoE is his guitar-comping. Maybe it's slightly antagonistic, but I find his super-gritty vocal style not only confrontational but unwelcoming, as he shows off guitar-slinger cold stares and brandishes his Taylor in a ridiculous fashion. Is it TMoE's BM-pushing vocals or my terribly-chosen Ramen noodle dinner that messes with my bowels? I may never know. I do know, however, Matsson seems like a nice enough guy in between songs, but there's little excuse for an opener to disrespectfully play an encore — which is exactly how his lengthy set ends.

When Vanderslice and full band break into the lilting and lyrically razor-sharp "Tablespoon of Codeine," I know this performance will be opposite to Matsson's. Although the band is roaring, I sadly notice people trickling out until only the modest-sized, full-fledged fans remain — whispers of "JV" (a term of endearment) are a surefire sign I'm in welcome company. I enjoy the initial sentiments that set the tone of the show, "What happened in September was a fake" ("Tablespoon of Codeine") and "freedom is overrated" ("Too Much Time"). To say the least, Vanderslice wasn't aiming to popularize any catch-phrases in the southern land.

Throughout the night, the capable backing band did well supporting imaginative rearrangements and open interpretations of older favorites "They Won't Let Me Run," "Angela," "Pale Horse," and newer tunes from Romanian Names. Keyboardist Ian Bjornstad deserves special recognition, holding things down despite minor sound issues. Fans groove when unexpected "White Plains" begins, and "Exodus Damage" became the night's most punctuated moment. While a few of the improv sections could vibe better, all's well that ends with an acoustic, crowd-encircled, on-floor-participating rendition of "Keep the Dream Alive" from 2001's classic Time Travel Is Lonely. For the first time, each person on the floor is face to face not only with the band, but with each other — unable to look away from the shared mouthing of lyrics and recognition of what they see: the JV fan within.

When Vanderslice embraces each member of his band and proceeds to make himself available to chat with anyone and everyone, I realize the moment is better than any encore.

David Byrne
The Paramount Theatre; Seattle, WA

[06-24-2009]

Decked in white, David Byrne and his ensemble of musicians, singers, and dancers set the stage for a big tent revival, the sort of affair most associated with backwoods evangelists and Steve Martin’s Jonas Nightengale from Leap of Faith. Unlike the snake oil salesmen Byrne resembled, he sold no false prophets or wisdom, rather delivering a sermon on high full of existentialism and whimsy.

The Brian Eno-fueled evening kicked off with “Strange Overtones” from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, as Byrne regaled the eager crowd with a story of love, basking in the glow of beats 20 years past due. It’s hard to come to grips with such a flippant idea since much of Byrne’s canon still sounds fresh and groundbreaking. The dance rhythms of “I, Zimbra” followed, further proving the point that what is old is new again in the hands of both Byrne and his young but talented band. It was the first time the crowd laid eyes on the skillful dancers in Byrne’s employ, each re-enacting the akimbo limbs and devil-may-care movements that made Byrne an early music video star to throngs who had not witnessed his outrageous choreography for themselves. No amount of stage antics distracted from the pulpit from which Byrne spoke, and when he launched himself into “Help Me Somebody” from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, it was evident that, while we may have been a willful congregation, the person Byrne was speaking to was himself. Granted, his words dripped of irony and wit, but the frenzied state the crowd worked themselves into mirrored Southern Baptist parishioners being saved by the word of Byrne.

Of course, the evening did not carry the weight of sin and salvation, but the fervor blanketing the crowd carried Byrne and crew increasingly higher. The stakes were continually raised, and aside from the crowd sitting through the slow sides of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (“Life is Long,” “One Fine Day”), not one ass was to be found in their assigned seat. Old Talking Head favorites garnered the largest responses, and as “Heaven,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Once in a Lifetime” wound down the set, not an ounce of energy was spared by performers and crowd.

The encore ratcheted up the pomp, with “Cities” building the tension for Byrne’s big surprise: an invasion from the San Francisco outfit Extra Action Marching Band. The blend of 60s hygiene, 70s glam, and 80s decadence emitted from the flashy freaks paraded down the aisles to astonished gasps and unbridled cheers. Once they made their way to the stage, it became an all-out assault on Talking Head classics “Road to Nowhere” and “Burning Down the House.” If Byrne were to preach about the ride to hell being worth the fun, there’s no doubt this would provide more than enough proof. It was hard to take your eyes off of the 30 bodies heaving and shaking with the spirit of Brian Eno and David Byrne, and it wasn’t until the subdued finale of “Everything That Happens” when the dust settled and our souls were set free.

Photo: [alterna2]

Jens Lekman / Tig Notaro
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[06-02-2009]

I have a confession to make: I used to not like Jens Lekman. I used to think his voice was forced and that his instrumentation was overbearing. As the friend with whom I attended this show used to say, I didn’t have a soul. Luckily, I've recently changed, and now I love his music. I say “luckily” because seeing Jens Lekman has made me a happier person.

I thought Tig Notaro would be Swedish, but she’s a California stand-up comic who has appeared on The Sarah Silverman Program. She was also a better start to the night than 97% of opening bands I’ve seen. She adapted her consistently laugh-out-loud jokes very well to the audience. Thanks to her, I’m finally able to say I’ve used the self-defense classes my parents made me take in high school; when Tig asked the audience for feedback on her martial arts skills, I gave advice that she deemed useless with her razor-sharp wit. I didn’t mind being insulted, and neither did the other crowd members she skewered during her set. If opening bands are meant to warm up the room, she ranks with Dan Deacon and Final Fantasy as the best show-starters I’ve seen.

But as stellar as she was, Jens was better. He started off with a request: don’t post show recordings on the internet. Not because he is against recording, but because he wanted the show to be a special experience shared only between him and those in attendance. After a couple minutes, I felt lucky to be in that audience. The set was filled with as much humor as Tig’s standup. A new track with the self-explanatory title “I Had An Argument With Myself on a Strange Street in Melbourne” included the lyrics “Fuck you/ No, fuck you/ Why are you hitting yourself?/ Stop hitting yourself!” (replete with Jens actually hitting himself), and Jens’ between-song storytelling had the crowd in stitches. But we weren’t there to see Jens Lekman The Comedian; we were there for Jens Lekman The Fantastic Musician.

As it turns out, Jens Lekman The Fantastic Musician plays songs that could fill up a small stadium. His albums don’t really come off as epic, but this concert did, and it worked incredibly well. The melodies were particularly notable, as they were unencumbered by the heavy arrangements that turned me off for over a year, and Jens’ voice sounds surprisingly better live than on record. Watching the set was an escapist experience, with the crowd singing and clapping along with Jens’ instruction.

As the night came to a close, Jens invited the audience to the venue's back patio if they wanted to say hi. Many people, including myself, took him up on it, and he talked to everyone in earnest. It was a perfect end to the night and achieved what he’d set out to do: create a communal, positive experience. In a world where people are regularly injured at shows, we'd do well to learn a little from Jens.

Photo: [Sammich]

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