When it began Ottawa’s Bluesfest brought a selection of prominent soul, blues and R&B performers to play for a crowd of dedicated fans in a small park across the street from City Hall. In 2012, things are far different: The festival has decamped to the sunbaked plain outside the National War Museum. There is still a smattering of blues and soul artists, but the festival now features artists from many genres, and mainstage headliners were as likely to be DJs as bands.
This didn’t sit well with the purists - Ottawa’s Blues Society sat out this year’s festival - and caused some grief for other artists as well.
The heat was also a factor. July 2012 was the city’s driest on record, with mosh pits raising clouds of dust and ravers who failed to hydrate properly passing out in even greater numbers than usual.
The festival’s first day began with a couple of energetic local acts. On the Electro Stage, Hull’s Fet. Nat sounded like a francophone Pere Ubu with a punk injection, while Loon Choir put on a particularly fiery performance at the Black Sheep Stage on the other side of the hill for those enamoured of the Arcade Fire’s collective sound.
The big draw of the day for rock fans of an independent character was Washington underground legends the Melvins, making their first-ever Ottawa appearance before a sizeable crowd. The band’s usual Big Business cronies were somewhere else for this tour. Instead Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn was accompanying Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover for what was billed as Melvins Lite - obviously a purely relative term. After weeding out casual listeners with a few minutes of skronk, the band steamrollered through a set of their trademark sludge.
Psychedelic weirdoes Akron/Family attracted a decent crowd on the other side of the hill, but the real attraction during the sunset hours was L.A. oddfunkers Fishbone. The band seemed destined for Red Hot Chili Peppers-sized stardom in the 1990s, but a series of bizarre setbacks derailed their climb to fame. The reunited group was showing no sign of having slowed down during their River stage set, romping through hits such as ‘Everyday Sunshine’.
Later that evening, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals built on a much-lauded set of southern-fried rock and roll on the Electro Stage. Billy Bragg’s rabble-rousing folk music garnered a good-sized crowd at the Black Sheep Stage, but anyone not close to the amps was treated to a good chunk of Tiesto’s pounding bass, emanating from the main stage. “I don’t care if you’ve got a big plastic head on with fucking Mickey Mouse ears. It’s still disco,” opined Bragg.
Thursday began on a less-opinionated note with ‘Call Me Maybe’ hitmaker Carly Rae Jepsen offering some frothy pop on the main stage. Local electro-rockers Fevers impressed a small crowd on the River Stage, while another local act, Dry River Caravan, offered their take on Balkan music on the Black Sheep Stage.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires offered a blast from the past; his soul sounds are steeped in the music of James Brown. His heartfelt show was unfortunately subject to some derogatory chatter from early-arriving LMFAO fans - perhaps the least-qualified people on the planet to offer a critique of anyone’s music.
There were no such kibbitzers at Dirty Projectors’ River Stage set, just a gagle of hipsters out to enjoy the band’s edgy art-rock.
As night fell, those not enamoured of LMFAO were treated to a set of superb electrified blues from Super Chikan, who rocked out on a series of home-made guitars and a cigar-box banjo. Jukejoint pianist Lala Craig added plenty of energy to his, which attracted a rapidly swelling crowd.
The festival’s first Friday began on a slow note; the city was enjoying a record-breaking heatwave for much of the festival, but that didn’t stop Brooklyn’s overly precious Freelance Whales from getting a decent crowd. Elsewhere local folk-rockers Winchester Warm attracted friends, family and the curious to the Black Sheep Stage, while Kalle Mattson, another local act with a rocking flavour somewhat influenced by Wilco, played a hearty set.
They were probably glad to be done in time to see Conor Oberst perform with a stellar band on the main stage.
Another festival surprise, Lake Street Dive, played a searing set of what could be called jazzabilly over on the Black Sheep stage, including their trademark, heavily redone version of George Michael’s ‘Faith’.
A night after LFMAO subjected drooling fans to their special brand of drivel, !!! brought some first-rate electro-dance rock to the Electro Stage, with frontman Nic Offer bouncing around the stage in his ‘Some Girls’-themed boxers. One has to hope that in a better world, a younger and better-looking !!! would have been switching places with the ‘Sorry For Party-Rocking’ goofballs.
Sleigh Bells has their own brand of electro rock: Two guitarists, a wall of amplifiers (curiously making less noise than far less elaborate setups on the River Stage), a punkish singer, drums in a can and plumes of smoke to pummel an enthused crowd with.
As the night ended, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires reprised their excellent set in a far more appropriate setting, the Black Sheep Stage for an audience thankfully free of play-by-play from nitwits.
The first Saturday offered a rare escape from the festival’s all-over-the-map programming. On the Claridge Stage - barring an early show by country act Rory Gardiner - you got a steady diet of rock, Beginning with local quartet Hellbros, punk jumpers Sparrows, exceptionally hairy boogie rockers Monster Truck and Austin art-soul combo Bright Light Social Hour, while the adjoining main stage boasted tourmates Alice Cooper and Iron Maiden. (On the River stage, country rock dominated, the Electro Stage focused on hip hop while the Black Sheep Stage hosted the festival’s day dedicated to Christian acts.
Stalwart showman Cooper played a short set - while most acts get an hour, his more elaborate performance, geared for an opening slot on the latest Maiden tour, went about 45 minutes, and featured multiple jackets changes (with the occasional blood-smeared lab coat thrown in), a giant FrankenAlice on stilts and the requisite decapitation (Alice’s head doesn’t seem to have aged as much as the man himself, mind you ...). Although it’s more vaudeville than shock nowadays, the crowd still went wild.
Iron Maiden also put on a great set; it was something of an improvement over last year’s opening day extravaganza, in that they dipped a bit more heavily into their back catalogue, serving up such classics as ‘The Trooper’, ‘Number of the Beast’, ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ and ‘Run to the Hills’.
Along with buckets of pyro and Bruce Dickinson’s antic runabouts, it was a flashback to the metal glories of old.
By comparison, the first Sunday showed off the festival’s diversity: If you stayed put at the River Stage, you had in succession local singer-songwriter Ashley Crnic and the not-too dissimilar Amanda Bon, but from there you got NY guitar instrumentalist Jim Campilongo, pop punkers Keek, the African beats of Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, L.A. funk masters Orgone and finally rap-rockers Down With Webster. The Black Sheep stage started off with bluesman Toronzo Cannon and ended with a DJ set from Chromeo (in between you got indie rockers Flight Distance and Native Canadian beatmakers A Tribe Called Red).
Stuck in the middle of this was an outstanding set from Lukas Nelson, son of Willie. His quavery voice sounds quite similar to his famous father’s, but unlike Dad, Lukas is a classic rock lover who scorched his way through a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil’, playing part of it with his teeth.
Just over the hill - and unfortunately at much the same time - Irish folk star James Vincent McMorrow gave a superb performance to a small crowd of in-the-know music lovers and a growing collection of passersby.
Also of note was a set of warped doo-wop from local band the Peptides, who broke out their 1950’s best duds to accompany their layered, nihilistic pop and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, which features famed Neville Brother Cyril on percussion and Allman Brothers Band relative Devon Allman on guitar, sounding much like you’d expect a combination of the two acts to sound.