Monday, July 13
Bluesfest began its second week with its regular Monday dedication to the younger crowd, shutting down everything but the main stage for a trio of performances calculated to appeal to folks whose musical education began in the 1990s: Victory signees Silverstein, hip-hop rockers Gym Class Heroes and grunge era titans Stone Temple Pilots filled the bill.
Tuesday, July 14
Tuesday offered a marginally more promising lineup. While gangsta rapper Ice Cube and ululating Can-rockers Our Lady Peace kept the youngsters entertained at the Main Stage, the older set pitched their lawn chairs in front of the Subway Stage for a triple bill of Brit rock: Spencer Davis, the Yardbirds and the Zombies.
Most of the other stages drew smaller crowds ... few people showed up for the howling garage rock of Ottawa’s own Allrights, despite a formidable performance of Replacements-worshipping rock from the local scene vets on the Hard Rock Stage. Veteran bluesman Joe Louis Walker had better luck with his sizzling set, despite competition from the Yardbirds.
Festival mainstay Xavier Rudd had no such problems, drawing his usual massive crowd. The one-man-band has signed up a bassist and djembe player to accompany him, and the heavier sound – quite reminiscent of Peter Gabriel in parts - had an even greater appeal to the enthusiastic audience.
A very young crowd had assembled in front of the Black Sheep Stage to watch DNA – no, not the New York no-wave greats, but a quartet of presumptuous young Quebecers who have snaffled the name and play competent, slightly proggy guitar rock. Greater things may beckon, but right now the only remarkable thing about them is their youth.
One of the best shows of the festival rounded out the evening as indefatigable reggae great Toots and The Maytals tore through a set of classics, most notably ‘Pressure Drop’ – which kicked off the set - and a rama-lama cover of ‘Louie Louie’. Toots has also kept up with the times – instead of asking the crowd to wave their lighters, he had them wave their cellphones.
Wednesday, July 15
Wednesday was the festival’s big day. Monsters of rock Kiss attracted the festival’s biggest crowd for an evening of reheated glam rock and facepaint, as well as the serial violation of Ottawa’s noise bylaws.
The rest of the day’s lineup was comparatively light, though local stalwarts Good2Go drew their usual crowd to witness frontwoman Miss Maureen’s high-kicking antics and the band’s Blondie-meets-the-Sex Pistols hard rock.
A brief glimpses of folk festival frequent flyers the Duhks also entertained, though their cover of Led Zeppelin's ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was drawn out to absurd lengths.
Vancouver’s Japandroids are gathering a certain amount of buzz in Canada (and around the world, thanks to positive reviews from sites like Pitchfork), and a good-sized crowd of hipsters collected in front of the Subway Stage to witness the duo’s high energy fuzz-rock. The music is a bit samey, but it was fun to see guitarist Brian King perch over the drum kit, jump about and run around while hollering the combo’s low-fi tunes.
The rest of the evening didn’t hold the same degree of fascination, though folk-rockers the Skydiggers and consciousness rapper K’naan did attract a few stragglers uninterested in the pummeling tunes of Kiss.
Thursday, July 16
Thursday began with the jaunty electropop of Politique, another local band which attracted some appreciative friends and relatives to the Black Sheep Stage. Unfortunately discopunks Shout Out Out Out Out siphoned off most of their audience to the Rogers Stage.
Another local band, Loudlove, fared better. The ska-soul hybrid is buoyed thanks to having a truly great frontman in Peter MacKenzie Hammond, a natural entertainer whose gruff singing voice and buoyant patter made for an engaging set from start to finish – not to undersell the rest of the crack band, which has been touring Ontario seemingly without stop.
Bluesman Zac Harmon also has considerable skills as a frontman. He also appreciates that half of good blues guitar playing is the faces you make. A long resume backing blues singers filled out the other half quite well.
Anthony Gonzalez of French electro-rock act M83 isn’t quite as lively in front of a crowd, but he and the drummer and keyboardist who fill out the band for live performances certainly understand you can’t just sit around turning knobs in front of an audience – no matter how impressive a collection of electronics you have. The band’s evocative tunes got the show they deserved, and an appreciative young crowd was happy to sway along.
Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings kicked things into higher gear as night fell on the Black Sheep Stage. As always Ms. Jones was a forceful presence, and the band also had a raft of new and excellent songs to share with the audience. As the night progressed, a succession of young men was brought up a makeshift staircase in front of the stage for Jones to offer love advice to. Unfortunately, unlike previous Ottawa shows, guitarist Binky Griptite was not around. His funky guitar-stylings and MC talents were sorely missing from an otherwise powerhouse show.
Elsewhere, arena rockers Styx were dazzling their crowd with massive confetti bombs and Top 40 staples like ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Eye of The Tiger’ at the Main Stage, while the Alan Parsons Project corralled whatever 70s rock fans remained with some particularly adroit musicianship.
Saturday, July 18
I skipped on Friday thanks to a torrential downpour and a lineup whose big draw was Canadian country rockers Blue Rodeo, the most regular of regulars at Bluesfest, but Saturday more than picked up the slack, starting with an electric performance from Hollerado, one of Canada’s most promising rock acts.
The whip-smart quartet play brainy hard rock buttressed with excellent harmony vocals. Never afraid to defy expectations, they also had a young gospel group come on stage to provide backing vocals for catchy tunes like ‘Fake Drugs’.
Saturday’s lineup was a particularly diverse one; a concertgoer could wander from seeing folk bluesman Paul Reddick work the harmonica on the Rogers stage set to watch Toronto duo Woodhands’s Paul Werb rock the keytar at the Black Sheep Stage to viewing gospel acts on the Hard Rock Stage and marvel at such ludicrous merchandise as a T-shirt with the mixed-martial arts inspired slogan 'Jesus Never Tapped Out'. Meanwhile on the main stage, local singer Becky Abbot was putting a sultry gloss on Neko Case's ‘Hold On, Hold On’ and Lucinda Williams' ‘Changed The Locks’. She’s as easy on the ears as the eyes, but perhaps a little too polished.
Back at Bluesfest’s inception, Bessemer, Ala.-born bluesman Lousiana Red would likely have been a headliner. Fifteen years on he brought the hardcore blues crowd to the Subway Stage for some solid Chess-Chicago style blues.
There were several standout performances on Saturday. Saskatchewan’s Deep Dark Woods seem to have a serious fixation on Bob Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’ but have the appropriately mumbling frontman to carry it off.
Bluesman Otis Taylor was given the thankless task of taking the Rogers Stage set before Atlanta rapper Ludacris, but he wowed the young crowd of hip hop heads along with his own fans, winning them over with his weighty demeanour and hard edged rocking blues.
For sheer peculiarity, it would be hard to beat That 1 Guy. Mike Silverman started as a classically trained bassist. Now he plays his own boot (which has its own mike and a quarter-inch plug in the heel so it can be amplified and a set of industrial piping). His lyrics are pitched somewhere between Dr. Seuss, Raffi and nonsense rhyme, but his sense of rhythm is strong and appealing.
Now, one of the perils of festivals is that the person introducing the band is often a local DJ. In this case Virgin Radio’s local crew got the job, and it’s fair to say that most of the acts they were tasked with warming up the crowd for were ones they had never played. The crowd for M83 got the cringe-inducing introduction “I’ve never heard of this band before, but apparently they can really rock!”
Fortunately David Lindley was spared such embarrassment. He was introduced as one of the best, if not the best, guitarist on the planet – a claim that may be actually true.
An acclaimed master of stringed instruments in all shapes and sizes, he got his start in California psychedelic folk band Kaleidoscope (not to be confused with the innumerable other Kaleidoscopes that formed around the globe in the 1960s, most notably in Mexico and the U.K.). A skilled storyteller, his entrancing set ranged through Blind Willy Johnson's ‘Soul of A Man’, frequent collaborator Warren Zevon's ‘Seminole Bingo’ and Bruce Springsteen's ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’, which he introduced with a sharp dig at past U.S. president George W. Bush.
Unfortunately as the day wound down fans of alternative rock were stuck with a hard choice: Black Mountain or Drive-By Truckers? I went with the Truckers and was rewarded with a brilliant live show that more than lived up to the outfits fabled reputation as public performers par excellence. Later reports from Black Mountain attendees were similarly fulsome.
Sunday, July 19
The last day of Bluesfest turned out to be something of an anticlimax.
Things started off strong with a hard-charging set from Moreland and Arbuckle, a Kansas duo (abetted on this occasion by a drummer) who start with Little Walter’s harmonica blues and charge it up with rock’n’roll. The music would surely appeal to fans of the White Stripes and Black Keys, and their performance was fiery.
The Hard Rock Stage was dedicated to acts featuring steel guitar. Quebec’s Magneto was performing a pretty energetic set, but then diluted it with a lacklustre tribute to Miles Davis’ Freddy The Freeloader.
Over on the Rogers Stage, late arrivals Deer Tick were demonstrating that sometimes having time to soundcheck really does matter. Their cosmic country rock was not sounding right at all.
By comparison, Handsome Furs put on a ripping set, with husband and wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry jumping around like crazy. Indeed, Perry jumped so hard she suffered a wardrobe mishap (swiftly repaired).
Jack White’s new band the Dead Weather attracted a predictably huge crowd, which seemed to be really into their stomping post-blues. The Kills' Allison Mosshart is certainly an ace frontwoman, perching on monitors and waving her shaggy black hair hither and yon like a brunette Robert Plant. White also came out from behind the kit to play the drums, but half way through the set I was hankering for something a bit different.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women had attracted a good-sized crowd of their own. As you’d expect from such experienced hands, it was a very capable set, which concluded with a cover of ‘Que Sera, Sera’. When the Dead Weathers' sound began bleeding over, Alvin traded in his acoustic for an electric and cranked things up. “You want to fight, we can do that!” he joked to the crowd.
Unfortunately the evening’s headliners were not so interesting.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs giant eyeball looked cool, but their set sounded a bit drab – even a cover of The Cramps ‘Human Fly’ didn’t stir me. Jennifer Warnes looked like a schoolmarm behind her lectern on the Black Sheep Stage, and even noted party-starter Buckwheat Zydeco didn’t touch a nerve.
As Bluesfests go, the 2009 edition was not one of the best, though perhaps that may only be a question of perception, coming as it does on the heels of two exceptional years. Most of the best acts seemed to come from the Black Sheep Stage, indicating that perhaps some more quirky taste is needed to keep things lively in future years.