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.

----

- {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.

----

- {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]

[PREVIOUS | NEXT]

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.

----

- {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.

----

- {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]

[PREVIOUS | NEXT]

Jackie-O Motherfucker / Dragging An Ox Through Water / Jazzfinger
Star & Shadow; Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

[07-08-2009]

I arrived a little late for the opening set from locals Onoma, but I was happy I didn't miss Jazzfinger. Conjuring weird synthetic/earthen feelings -- submerged and lushly monolithic -- the set focused on ultra-low-frequency free-noise with bass-heavy rumbles to create natural rhythmic patterns. It was an astonishingly immersive set. Afterward, Dragging An Ox Through Water (the solo project of Brian Mumford from Jackie-O) hit the stage, taking Dirty Projectors-style vocal gusto and backing it with various textures of harsh ambience and fake blues riffs to create some truly skewed pop/folk. With a wide selection of pedals and other weird contraptions (including one that made sound in correspondence to the flicker of a nearby candle), his splicing of noise and pop linearity made his set the all-round surprise of the night

And then on came Jackie-O Motherfucker. The group is from Portland, OR, but the American mythos buried in its rock seems much more widespread. Such is the success of Jackie-O's heavily majestic, drone-oriented rock, especially when heard by British ears. Here, in the context of Newcastle's always-endearing Star & Shadow cinema, their oblique, desert-inspired riffage flourished in front of a mid-sized audience.

Jackie-O are at their best when splitting time between their free-jazz and free-noise approaches, when embracing both burnt-put sonics and more fluid sounds. But since they were without Valet/Honey Owens (whose distinct evocations are easily heard on the the new Ballad Of The Revolution LP) tonight, there was a proclivity towards more band-oriented structures. But the set still maintained a comfortable balance between rigidness and exploration, gaining even more immediacy because of the low-key setting. Dragging An Ox Through Water might have upstaged Jackie-O's set, but it was still a perfect way to end the night.

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

[July 8-9, 2009]

[NEXT]

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.

----

- {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.

----

- {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]

[NEXT]

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

[July 8-9, 2009]

[NEXT]

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.

----

- {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.

----

- {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]

[NEXT]

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]

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