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


- {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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