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Canadiana Part II: Ottawa Bluesfest – nothing to be blue about

By ; August 9, 2010 at 1:00 AM 

Living in the capital of Canada, (Ottawa, Ontario), the last thing you start to expect from your city is to be rich in the arts. I mean, with parliament a stone’s throw away from any part in the city, Ottawa is more about politics than it is about the arts. This summer is different, though.

Every July, the city puts on a 10 day music festival called Ottawa Bluesfest in which they bring many different musicians (not all blues, last years before they brought Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fergie, Wyclef Jean and Kanye West). Although there are usually 2 or 3 decent names on the bill, for the past 4 years, I have deemed the festival “not worth my time or money.” Again, this summer is different. With names like Andrew Bird, the B52s, Hole, Joan Jett, Metric, Passion Pit, the Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, Drake, Stars, Jimmy Cliff and Weezer, the festival pleases audience of all kinds.

The festival began July 6th, starting the 10 day run with Iron Maiden, which I skipped out on and am happy to say that I did as from what I’ve heard they didn’t even play “Run for the Hills.” I started attending July 8th and went to six full nights up until the last night, July 18th.

To cover the festival as a whole, I most definitely had to write more than I could fit on this page, so by clicking the “more” link below, you can read all about my six days of hot weather, late nights and great music.

Day 1, July 8th:
Now, not only has Ottawa been graced with an out-of-the-ordinarily decent music festival this year, we have also been graced with an insane heat wave during which temperatures have reached over 45 degrees Celsius, which was hotter than the temperature being experienced in Death Valley, CA. This was the case for the first night of my attendance. A lot of sitting in the shade and sweating bullets took place while waiting for the first act I thought would be entertaining enough to see, The Bacon Brothers, but I ended up feeling like I had wasted my time within 15 minutes of their set. As soon as Kevin Bacon took the stage, my heart went aflutter as who doesn’t love him in Footloose, then he and his brother started to sing. The Bacon Brother’s attempt at old-school blues made my eardrums tuck in and cower for their lives, it was so horrible. Kevin Bacon was especially hard to take seriously as he had a cowbell attached to his skinny jeans during the whole set, and it kept hitting his guitar as he played. 15 minutes later, I left, shaking my head and feeling as though these boys were kind of a joke. It seems as though every actor who turns musician produces the same horrible sort of “rock” music, look at Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis. I was wondering why Ottawa had even picked them up as an addition to the festival, and then I heard that Kevin and his brother were a part of a con in the states that lost them a large sum of money, and that they had to tour. This made the set even more pathetic.

Next up to see were Canadian gems, Great Lake Swimmers. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of Canadian Indie music sounds the same, extremely depressing and almost whimsical in the way that the song is sang, (think of Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene’s breathy voice). Great Lake Swimmers are no exception to this generalisation. Sticking true to the universally depressing stereotype of Canadian Indie, the skies went from being blue and basically cloud free to dark and grey during this set, and within one song, they had opened up, soaking the audience in a random but much needed downpour. The band kept the audience captivated, by playing one upbeat song for every three depressing songs. Favourites of the set consisted of: “There is a Light” and “Changing Colours” off of 2007 album Ongiara, as well as “Palmistry,” “Everything is Moving So Fast,” and “Pulling On a Line” off of 2009 album Lost Channels. Although I had been a fan of the band before seeing them, I was unaware of the female vocalist and violin player Erin Aurich being in the band. Although every song does have hints of a female’s voice in them, I just assumed that they were taking on guest singers for the album’s recording. Hearing the collaboration of her voice combined with lead singer, Tony Dekker’s voice on stage was almost hypnotizing as the two singers harmonized beautifully.

Andrew Bird was the third act of the night that we saw, this was all my friend’s choosing as I had never heard of him before that night. I am so grateful that I was brought to this show as it was probably the best one of the entire night. Through the power of looping specific sound sequences, this one-man-band has the power of 10 behind him, or at least he could convince the ears he does. Without an ounce of exaggeration, Andrew Bird’s sound is comparable to that of a full orchestra and his beautifully melodic, depressing sound, he fit the bill perfectly and even bore similarities to Bluesfest alumni Rufus Wainwright, without the over-dramatics and irritation. Using spinning, amplifying phonograph speakers, not only did Andrew Bird achieve total musical captivation but the visuals of his set were not so shabby either; the combination of audio and visual enticement seemed to put audience in a sort of hypnotic trance. Andrew Bird proved to be a witty, (his clever rhymes as he ad-libbed between songs received applause), and personable, multi-talented musician from Chicago and the warm welcome back he received after only having been here in 2000 while touring with the New Pornographers proved that this feeling was mutual.

Headliners for the night were the B52s, and the anticipation for seeing one of my favourite bands during my adolescence was building up high. The first few tracks they played were songs I didn’t recognize from their newer album, and by the fifth song I was completely bored. The band played only newer and unknown stuff right up until their second last song, an hour and a half after they started playing. The whole time they played, the crowd was getting more and more annoyed about the lack of cult classics “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack,” they didn’t even have their trademark beehive hairdos anymore, and the absence of original guitarist, Ricky Wilson made the idea of seeing the band go from kitschy to entirely tacky really fast. The second last song they played was “Dance This Mess Around”, followed by “Love Shack.” For their encore, the band played “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster” as the finale. Although seeing these songs played live was something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime, the fact that the band delayed this desire for almost a full two hours really made the experience more of a validation for seeing them than anything.

Day 2: July 9th, 2010
Although the first night of the festival proved to be only “okay,” I refused to let this set the tone for the rest of the nights I had planned to attend. Day two was a more star-studded day with guests like Hole and Joan Jett scheduled to perform.

The first band we went to see this evening was the Planet Smashers. If you are not familiar with this band, they are a punk/ska band who play songs like “Super Orgy Porno Party” fuelled by the brass instruments found in any ska band to get the audience dancing. Whether or not you are actually familiar with ska, there is one thing you need to know when going to a show of this genre and that is how to skank. Skanking is a form of dance that occurs when the dancer kicks out one leg and swings the opposite arm and then kicks out the other leg while swinging the other, opposite arm. Now, I have not been to a ska show in over six years, and assumed, like everyone else did, that the genre of music was dead. This was until I got to the tent in which the band was playing. Hearing familiar tunes like “I Like Your Girlfriend” and “Life of the Party” I was blasted with nostalgia and couldn’t help myself. Five minutes later I emerged from the “pit” with a welt the size of a large rock in my leg and gave up. Regardless, this band really helped to improve my mood regarding the rest of the festival.

Next up was Hole. Now, except from her being a trainwreck celebrity I enjoy reading about, I hated Courtney Love. Her music was never anything super special to me, I hated that she sort of sold herself based on being married to Kurt Cobain, and I was never a big fan. Standing 10 feet away from the stage, being shoved around by people trying to get through and closer was not my idea of fun either, but the friend I was with was a big fan so we had to get up close. Surprisingly, though, right on time for her set Courtney Love stumbled on stage and up to the mike. The crowed went wild; I don’t think I had heard a bigger reaction for anyone at the festival yet. She announced that it was her birthday and that she was happy to be in Ottawa for it and launched into a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” I am a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, and if a song isn’t covered perfectly during a concert I will walk out, in the case of Courtney Love, I stayed. For a 40-something year old woman, this girl had energy I am envious of. She danced around, screamed and performed in a way that was fun to watch. She didn’t even seem that trainwreck-y (unfortunately, in a sense). The set went on for close to 2 hours and the only break she took was to chat with the crowd, take flowers from an audience member (and then throw them and stomp on them), and to have the audience sing her Happy Birthday. She played stuff off her newer album, which pleased the crowd, and her more well-known stuff which really pleased the crowd. The audience especially went mental over “Celebrity Skin” and “Doll parts.” As stated before, although I grew to appreciate her music a little bit more, I am still not the biggest fan, but the woman put on a good show; engaging the audience (she exclaimed, “I will not play Teenage Whore, I just turned 46,” at one point,) and playing to the best of ability. This performance really altered my view on Courtney Love as I just assumed that she either wouldn’t show up or be really late, get on stage and be ridiculously wasted, mumble incoherently, throw a fit and then walk off stage, but no; she managed to put on a good show.

Headliners of the night were Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. When I’m not writing for this website, (in other words, in the majority of my spare time), I work at a coffee shop, which means that sometimes I have to be up at 4 – 5am, which is the time most of my friends call bedtime at this age. This was the case for tonight, as I had to work at 6am on the 10th. Knowing that I couldn’t stay for the entire set, I thought that I was going to miss all the songs that I wanted to hear by this female punk icon, but this was not the case. She opened the set with “Bad Reputation” and played “Cherry Bomb” (by her original band, the Runaways), as well as “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and even played “Backlash” in which she had originally collaborated with the Replacements’ founder, Paul Westerberg, all before I had to leave. Although I missed out on “Crimson and Clover” and “I Love Rock and Roll,” the fact that she covered most of the classics within the first half of her set really made Joan Jett and the Blackhearts the band to see of the night.

Day 3: July 10th, 2010
During the week, the festival begins at 6 and ends at 11:30ish. On weekends, such as this day, the festival starts at 12 and goes straight through until 11:30pm. Today, my friend and I arrived at around 4:30ish, and realized there was absolutely nothing good on until about 5 or 6. This is probably one of the weaker points of the festival, the inconsistency of weekends. So we sat around and drank organic beer until the first act we wanted to see was on, Basia Bulat.

Basia Bulat is a female, Canadian singer/guitar player backed up by a band consisting of a violinist and a drummer and they are played regularly on CBC Radio 2’s the Drive, (a nightly radio show that focuses on Canadian Indie music). Although they sounded identical to how they sound on the radio, and the fact that they played their popular single “Snakes and Ladders” early enough in the set, the energy the band was giving off and the rest of the audience who were enjoying said energy was a little too “Lilith Fair” for my liking. Everywhere I looked there was a female with beads in her hair, wearing Birkenstocks, and the smell of the tent we were in just made the experience that much more uncomfortable, so we ended up leaving to find a different band to see.

This was probably the best idea we had all night, because during our little venture to find someone to see we stumbled upon the best band of the evening, Caravan Palace. This conglomeration of Parisiens played what sounded like music from Cirque du Soleil appropriate for a club. They mixed jazz with salsa and hip hop and dubstep together to produce this sound that made you stop dead in your tracks if you were walking by. The music played by this band was comparable to music one would hear in the international lounges called Buddha Bar, and even though their lyrics were consisted mostly of Scat and made no real sense, the content of each song was rich and decadent through the instruments. Borrowing beats from Daft Punk this band really knew how to get the crowd pumped for their set, and mixing it with the traditional Spanish music, it was almost impossible not to dance. At the beginning of this set, there were maybe 50 people including my friend Niall and I in the crowd, at the end of it, there were easily at least 300 and the applause that rang throughout the field at the end of the set really showed just how well received these guys were. You can check them out here.

Next up for us to see was Metric, another Canadian band that is usually really well received during concerts. Unfortunately one thing I’ve realized through the years that the older this band gets, the worse their music does too. Ploughing through singles “Help I’m Alive,” “Gimme Sympathy,” “Monster Hospital,” and “Poster of a Girl” within the first 30 minutes of their set, this band really displayed their lack of charisma on stage. My friend and I came up with a reason behind the bitterness usually displayed by frontwoman Emily Haines, and it’s that Metric will never headline. Even in Canada, the only headlining show I’ve ever heard them playing was one put on by a university. This theory rang true tonight, as the band played the 8pm slot, while newcomers Passion Pit beat them out for playing at 9pm.

Speaking of Passion Pit, Niall and I left Metric early to make our way over to the stage where they would be playing at 9pm. Their shift conflicted with headliners, the Flaming Lips, so we didn’t plan on staying the whole set, but enough to hear a few songs as this band has grown to be relatively big over the past year with the success of their single “Sleepyhead.” 9 o’clock rolls around, and the crowd starts chanting their name. 9:10pm rolls around, and the crowd is thicker but there’s still no band on stage. 9:20 rolls around and still no Passion Pit. This is when we left, the Flaming Lips were due to start in 10 minutes and the crowd for Passion Pit was way too tight to stand in without a distraction. Apparently the band didn’t start until close to 9:30, which is just disrespectful. If Courtney Love can be on time, then these guys should have been able to pull it together easily in comparison, but no. Even if the Flaming Lips weren’t playing, Passion Pit’s one single would still not have been worth the wait in that crowd in 40 degree heat.

The last band of the night was the Flaming Lips. If you have ever read anything about this band playing, then you know that lead singer, Wayne Coyne, likes to put himself in plastic spheres and walk on top of the crowd, giant balloons are released, streamers are shot, fish dance on stage, celebrities appear, etc. Well, these stories don’t exaggerate as all of the above happened at the show on this night. The set started off with Wayne in a sphere, walking around the stage on the crowd, and then giant balloons were thrown into the crowd to be tossed around, followed by streamers being shot out of cannons, a fish in a suit appearing on stage to dance around, and followers of the World Cup finalists, Netherlands’ soccer team appeared on stage to dance in all orange. Although this was quite the spectacle to see, it was distracting from the actual concert, especially when they threw in strobe lights. I felt like I was on acid and can only really remember three songs being played, because I took a break from staring at the balloons rising and falling above me to scream the lyrics. Obviously these three songs were “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “You Shimi,” and “Do You Realize” which they played for their encore. This band could have been the best of the evening, but the fact that they were so distracting really worked against them if anything.

Day 4: July 13th, 2010
Although the weather this day was dark and gloomy with thunderstorms throughout, the weather did not cool down. Thunderstorms took place for the best of the afternoon, making it a very lazy day in Ottawa, but waking up at 7pm from a nap the sky had cleared up just in time for tonight’s concerts.

My mother and I arrived at the festival pretty late this evening, at around 8:45, but it still allowed us to hear Sarah Harmer croon her folky songs to a crowd that seemed to be terrified of the skies opening up and emptying on them again. We didn’t really pay much attention to Harmer, though, as the two of us were both more excited to see Arcade Fire.

At 9:30, Arcade Fire took the stage, and the crowd erupted. I don’t know if they receive this much love everywhere, but both times I’ve seen this band (once in Montreal beforehand), the crowd has seemingly welcomed them home with the biggest applause they could possibly offer. The band, as usual reacted with an air of grace to this, huge smiles and love plastered all over their faces and they launched into their set. Playing a happy hybrid of new (“The Suburbs,” “Month of May” as well as a few more new tracks from their new album) and old (all three “Neighbourhood”s, “Haiti,” “Keep the Car Running,” “No Cars Go,” “Crown of Love,” “Wake Up,” “Rebellion (Lies),” etc.), the band interacted with the crowd by taking many breaks to thank the audience for coming, and exclaiming their love for the audience. At one point, Wyn Butler walked off the stage, through the security barricade and into the crowd to play and sing with fans. It seems that each time the band plays a city they once called home, (Double Bass player, Richard Parry, grew up and went to high school here in Ottawa), they are more grateful to be playing for the audience who are grateful to see them play. At the end of the set, Richard Parry walked into the crowd and hugged and shook the hands of fans in his hometown. The set, as to be expected with this band was overwhelmingly good as each instrument clashes and mixes beautifully in a way that is powerful to see, especially when it is being performed by this multi-talented group of seven.

Day 5: July 16th, 2010
This was a Saturday, and the lineup consisted of Blonde Redhead, Drake and Stars, among others. The first band we saw was Blonde Redhead, we arrived just in time for their set and they were amazing. The vocals are just as haunting as they are in their studio stuff and the presence they emit is incredible; it’s sort of like watching/hearing an eerie story while you see this band play. Unfortunately their set went into Drake’s stage time so we didn’t stay for the whole set, but from what we saw, they are most definitely worth seeing solo.

Next was Drake. Now, I had been looking forward to this all week, but honestly, thinking about it, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because he’s newer to performing, or maybe it’s because I really hoped that he would roll out on stage in a wheelchair as Jimmy, or maybe it’s because I’ve never really been to a rap/hip hop show before, but either way, Drake wasn’t that good. He covered all the crowd pleasers like “Over,” “Find Your Love” and even did his Timbaland collaboration (without Timbaland, unfortunately) “Say Something,” but the combination of being in a crowd of around 20,000 people, most of whom are teenage girls and lack of stage presence on his part made for a less than exciting set.

The last band of the night was Stars. I’ve seen this band maybe five or six times now, as they tend to tour their native Country of Canada quite a bit. Having just released The Five Ghosts, the band seemed really stoked on touring again with new material and focused mainly on playing stuff from the album. Amy Millan, the female vocalist of the band, was quite hammered on stage which added to the vibe of the crowd and the band, as her voice wasn’t affected by her intoxication, but her presence/way of acting was. She danced erratically; skipped around, bounced a lot and really let her freak flag fly on stage, which amped the crowd into a state of high energy. Stars covered all their most popular and loved songs from every album such as, “Elevator Love Letter,” “One More Night,” “My Favourite Book,” “Bitches in Tokyo,” and “Fixed,” and played a long and fun set; they are always a pleasure to see.

Day 6: July 18th, 2010
This was the last night of Bluesfest, and by this time my hair was greasy, I was exhausted and almost happy it was over. I was even happier with the way it ended, though because the lineup of the evening was amazing, and the performances were even better.

The first band we watched this evening was called Hollerado, a band from Montreal who had won a contest to play the festival. The lead singer looked like Michael Pitt, and the music was mediocre but the excitement the band felt to be on the main stage at one of Canada’s bigger music festivals was contagious and endearing. It was hard not to have a good time, until girls who sort of served the purpose of cheerleaders for the band threw hard candies and rubber balls into the crowd and you had to sort of swat them out of the air to avoid getting pelted in the head. Not really the safest option to get the crowd excited.

Next was reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. I personally don’t smoke pot, it makes me sick, and during his set this was all you could smell. The crowd consisted mostly of hippies, Jamaica enthusiasts, and followers of the Rastafarian religion… it’s a shame that nobody seemed to know that Jimmy Cliff actually converted to Islam in the late ’80s. Regardless, the man who appeared on the soundtrack of Cool Runnings and who has produced many amazing Reggae albums did not disappoint as he stormed through his hits including “Wild World” and “I Can See Clearly Now,” engaging the crowd in amusing conversation and just creating this vibe of happiness.

The last band of the night, and the festival, was Weezer. I wasn’t really excited to see these guys at first as I have never really been a huge Weezer fan, but man, do they ever put on a good show. As soon as they got on stage, the band launched into their set playing “Hash Pipe” and “Undone – The Sweater Song”, and then into lesser known songs. I forgot how successful this band was, as although I said I wasn’t the biggest fan, I found myself singing along to almost every song they played, especially “Say It Ain’t So,” “Beverly Hills,” and “Island In The Sun.” The band played an almost 2 hour set, covering MGMT’s “Kids” and jumping into “Pokerface” (Rivers Cuomo wore a blonde wig for this) as their last song. The crowd went mental for this, even though they had been going mental during almost the whole set. For their encore, the band chose to play “Buddy Holly” which was predictable but an amazing way to end their set and the festival.

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