For two weeks each year, the grounds of Canada’s War Museum are turned into one of the country’s largest music festivals. Began in 1994 as a single-stage festival dedicated to the blues in a small downtown park, it now gets about 400,000 people over the course of a dozen days.

This year’s theme was “Bluesfest goes Hollywood”, which turned out to be at best a mixed blessing. Another mixed blessing was the weather, was sunny for 11 days out of 12. Unfortunately, the first few days included a record-breaking heatwave which left many people feeling baked.

While most of those come for the big-name headliners, there are also many dedicated music lovers who come for the offerings on the trio of side stages arrayed around the museums west and north. Starting in 2009, the festival has also had a stage in the downtown’s Byward Market, an area dominated by some of the city’s oldest buildings, a raft of small, eclectic stores and sundry bars and nightclubs.

While in previous years the side stages were where the cognoscenti gathered, the main stage offered several of this year’s best shows.

July 6

The first performer up at this year’s Bluesfest was, in a nod to the event’s past, a blueswoman though Belgrade-born Ana Popovic doesn’t hail from a part of the world usually noted as a source of the blues (except perhaps to diplomats). Alexsz Johnson, a.k.a. “British Columbia’s Celine Dion” offered a poppier turn on another side stage.

The grounds truly began to fill up as progressive metal titans Dream Theatre took the main stage. The band is well known for its technical virtuoso - guitarist John Petrucci is the sort of axeman regularly in ‘Guitar World’ and similar publications, signature six-string, etc., while drummer Mike Portnoy is practically the mascot of ‘Modern Drummer’ and he can certainly work the frets with the best of them. The band’s engaging set was the first time I’ve heard someone introduce a song - ‘Panic Attack’ - with the words “You may have played this in Rockband 2.” It’s also the first time I’ve seen a metal band use a keytar.

Elsewhere, local label Kelp Records offered a friendly and rambunctious showcase of its varied acts. The exhibit included a musical duel between its two instrumental acts, the Empiricals and the Flaps, onstage rapping from Andrew Vincent (who shouldnt’t be quitting his singer-songwriting any time soon) and some wrestling between weird-rock purveyor Flecton Big Sky and Acorn frontman Rolf Klausener (who kept singing while tackled).

Local reggae rock quartet Loudlove offered a typically energetic set in the mainstage area, while Lights and Faber Drive entertained the younger set at the sidestages with their frankly terrible music.

The 2010 edition of Bluesfest did have one major change from previous years. The Black Sheep Stage, which offered a diverse collection of world music acts in previous years, including brilliant sets from a number of African acts such as Toumani Diabate, was put in a tent. Where in previous years festival goers had enjoyed a gently sloping hill which formed a natural ampitheatre, the tent’s acoustics were terrible. Its primary reason for being was to offer a venue for comedy acts. While the comedy acts got a good reception, the tent’s almost universally bad reviews hopefully indicate it will be banished next year.

The opening day’s headliner was New Wave of British Heavy Metal heavyweights Iron Maiden, who rolled out a space-base themed backdrop and played a set heavy on their last three albums. If you were hoping for ‘Run For the Hills’, ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’ or ‘The Trooper’ you were bound for disappointment, though ‘Wraithchild’, ‘Iron Maiden’ and an encore with ‘Number of the Beast’ did something to placate the diehards. The crowd was also treated to the sight of frontman Bruce Dickinson bounding around like a man half his age.

July 7

Wednesday was kicked off by local country rockers Silver Creek. Elsewhere Ottawa blues woman Jesse Green made some soulful sounds at the Hard Rock Stage, tucked away near the river behind a roll of hills.

Early in the evening a surprisingly large crowd showed up for the evergreen Gipsy Kings in the mainstage area (the Claridge Stage, sponsored by a local real-estate developer, sits halfway down the War Museum’s front lawn, perpendicular to the big stage sponsored by MBNA, one of Canada’s “Big 5” banks).

The first big surprise of the day was a hot set from Montreal rockers Jonas & The Main Attraction, whose brawny rock overwhelmed Jonas’ occasionally cheesy posturing.

While Phil Leish and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead drew the tie-dye set to the main stage for a lengthy performance from their new project Furthur, British reggae giants Steel Pulse played one of the festival’s best sets of politically charged tunes.

Elsewhere, award-winning local blues trio Monkey Junk delighted their dedicated fans. Later in the evening Latin rockers (and frequent Prince accompanists) Grupo Fantasma played a well-regarded set in the Black Sheep Tent, wretched acoustics notwithstanding. Pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph & the Family Band also garnered rave reviews for their sanctified sound on the Hard Rock Stage.

July 8

Thursday was introduced by singer-songwriters Laurent Bourque on the Hard Rock Stage and the more sultry sounds of Lindsay Ferguson on the Claridge Stage.

More rocking sounds were heard from the Subway Stage - the largest of the side stages - where local punk rock veterans Good2Go played a punchy set abetted by guest guitar from Rolling Stones fancier Rob Bennett.

Things were not going quite as smoothly on other stages. Ethiopiques, a band dedicated to the popular CD series and featuring such Horn of Africa grandees as Alèmayèh Eshèté, saxophonist Gétatchèw Mèkurya and Mahmoud Ahmed probably deserved better than an opening slot in the Black Sheep Tent ... in fact, the should have been given the spot on the Claridge Stage occupied by The Bacon Brothers. Actor Kevin Bacon has had a praiseworthy movie career, but the music offered by his bar-band combo was all sizzle and no steak.

Far more compelling music was being played at the tiny Hard Rock Stage by Great Lakes Swimmers, whose plaintive country rock flows in a similar vein to that of Shearwater and Mark Kozelek’s. They were followed by violinist Andrew Bird, whose trickery with a looping pedal and a giant rotating horn was as engaging in 2010 as it was at a club date years earlier.

Unfortunately, hot and humid weather, the nearby Ottawa River and the stage’s lighting meant a cloud of bugs descended on him as the sun set.

Later that night, fans of classic rock were treated to sets by former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and folk rockers Renaissance. The B-52s finished the evening, but their performance was largely eclipsed by their opener the Moody Blues, who provided yet more fodder for the bevy of classic rock fans in attendance.

July 9

Friday’s lineup leaned hard on the main stage. Crowds did turn out for sets from Ottawa indie rockers the Soiree, Montreal ska combo the Planet Smashers, Australian acoustic guitar master John Butler and his trio, and Gord Downie, frontman for the Tragically Hip - likely Canada’s most popular band, but it was a girl’s night out with shows from headliner Joan Jett and mercurial rocker Courtney Love.

A good chunk of the people on hand for Love’s set were probably wondering if the infamously unpredictable performer would go bonkers, as she had at a Washington stop a week previously. Clothes were shed, songs mangled and audience members (those that stuck around) insulted. Unfortunately for the rubberneckers, Love kept her clothes in and her performance focused.

Joan Jett and The Blackhearts also played a tight set, and unlike festival openers Iron Maiden, Jett knew how to please a crowd with the hits while still playing the new stuff.Her set ranged through her glam influences (The Sweet's ‘AC/DC’), a couple of tunes from her days in the Runaways, ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘I Love Playin' With Fire’, as well as hits like ‘I Love Rock'n'Roll’, ‘Crimson and Clover’, ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’, the naughty ‘Fetish’, ‘Fake Friends’ and ‘Bad Reputation’. There was also a very Replacements sounding tune co-written with Paul Westerberg, ‘Backlash’. She finished with an encore of ‘Everyday People’.

July 10
Saturday’s lineup offered some interesting choices. The muscular rock of Big Jeezus Truck or the cabaret folk of L. Poushinsky? The indie rock of the Love Machine or the polyrhythmic Congo rhythms of Staff Benda Bilili, paraplegic musicians from Kinshasha who have gone from playing outside the zoo to international tours (just for the record, the latter choice was the correct one).

On the Subway Stage the Campbell Brothers offered an afternoon of sacred steel for those whose appetite was whetted by Robert Randolph. Kings Go Forth - fronted by dreadlocked 1970s soul survivor Black Wolf, kept things funky on the Claridge Stage.

Fanciers of rootsy blues enjoyed a set from festival regular Michael Jerome Brown at the Subway Stage (his audience stuck around for another bluesy set by Roy Rogers and the Delta River Kings), while local post-rockers That’s The Spirit played an unusually fiery set on the main stage.

Brooklyn dance rockers Bear In Heaven boast some interesting influences - Pink Floyd, krautrock, Animal Collective - but didn’t sound very compelling on the Hard Rock Stage. The punishing heat might have been taking its toll, but on the Claridge Stage Parisian techno-jazz band Caravan Palace were bouncing around with vigour. Despite being almost total unknowns on this side of the Atlantic, and quite dissimilar to just about every other band performing, they attracted and held a good-sized audience.

The younger crowd then had to choose between sets by rap-rockers Down With Webster at the Hard Rock Stage or repeat visitors Metric. A slightly later set by Texas steel guitarist Carolyn Wonderland attracted a slightly older crowd, as well as those intrigued by justified comparisons to Janis Joplin.

A surprise hit for all ages was former Supertramp voice Roger Hodgson. A genial stage presence and very sharp performer, his renditions of such classics as ‘Dreamer’ hit the spot with everyone who grew up listening to classic rock radio between 1975 and the early eighties, as well as a number of younger folk who couldn’t have been alive when Hodgson left Supertramp in 1983.

As fine a performance as he gave, his set - and indeed the entire festival - was overshadowed by the ebullient set by the Flaming Lips on the main stage. Their eye-popping set, started off with an unclad lady cavorting on the semi-circular backdrop behind them. The image sat down, spread her legs, and as strobing lights emitted from her nether regions, band emerged through the screen. Soon enough Wayne Coyne, in his trademark plastic ball, was rolling over the crowd. An explosion of confetti and plumes of coloured smoke, an avalanche of giant balloons, on stage dancers, Coyne balancing on the shoulders of a man in a bear suit, giant laser-emitting hands ... the band pulled out all the stops visually and produced on the music front too, culminating in an extended take of ‘Do You Realize?’ The plethora of on stage action combined with the deep rumble of bass left everyone in the crowd feeling giddy.

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