RBC Ottawa Bluesfest kicked off the 2017 edition in style Thursday night at Lebreton Flats with Death From Above, Pokey Lafarge, Telecomo and Pony Girl.
Death From Above (they are no longer using “1979,” but still having it written on their drum kit) made a triumphant return to Ottawa after having to cancel their 2016 appearance. The noisy rocking duo from Toronto consists of Sebastien Grainger on vocals and drums and Jesse Keeler on bass and keys, and they closed out the night at the Black Sheep Stage and stirred the crowd into a frenzy. The band incited the first mosh pit of the festival and possibly the first crowd surfers. After two songs, Keeler got on the mic and said “Thank you we are Toby Keith,” which garnered a good chuckle from the crowd and a Toby Keith chant. Keith was playing on the main stage at the same time.
In the early going the set seemed focused on songs from their latest album The Physical World, but fans of their earlier work didn’t have to wait too long. Grainger whispered “You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine” before launching into the song of the same title. The nearly two-hour long set was their second show in nine months. On the eve of the full moon, they took off from there and went on to play everything a fan could ask for including “Black History Month,” “Little Girl,” “Cold War,” “Romantic Rights”—ok those are all off of 2004’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, but they are classics. They also played a few more songs off of The Physical World such as “White is Red” and their new single “Freeze Me,” which they struggled with a little being that is was the second time they ever played it live. But that meant Ottawa got the second and the third-ever performances due to a quick re-start. The new stuff is quite a bit dancier but they still find time to have Keeler rock out and bring that gritty bass into it.
It wouldn’t be Death From Above set without a story by Grainger. During the set he told his this lovely piece about how for Canada’s 125th, he was 13 and in Ottawa at base the peace tower when a motorcade rolled up and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came out. Grainger shook his hands and then shook his son’s hand “who grew up to have great hair plugs…I mean they probably aren’t hair plugs” he said laughing. He continued “and then another nicer motorcade pulled up a Trudeau came out and I shook his hand and then shook JT’s hand. Back then I thought to myself that he would one day be a great…snow board instructor or substitute teacher.” Many laughs were had and they got back to rocking. What a great set and an awesome way to cap off night one.
Unfortunately there was overlap on Pokey Lafarge and Death From Above so I only caught a few songs but they were excellent. Pokey and his band are simply exceptional. I mean, the act features a harmonica, brass, a stand up bass and the occasional washboard or banjo on top of the usual guitar and drums. With songs like “Close the Door,” “Something in the Water” and “Riot in the Streets” (which he all played while I was there) you get transported to a quaint bar in the southern states. His music would be perfectly accompanied with a nice tall glass of bourbon. Even without the bourbon, they had people singing, clapping and dancing under the new Bluesville tent—a great new feature—which has replaced the River Stage.
I took in a double dose of locals to start off my festival catching Telecomo on the Black Sheep Stage and Pony Girl in the Barney Danson Theatre. Telecomo are a garage rock three-piece made up of very familiar faces in the Ottawa music scene. Adam Saikaley (vocals, guitar), Gary Franks (bass), and Pat Johnson (drums) have played in bands such as The Acorn, Silkken Laumman, Bondar and countless others. As I walked over to the stage, we were greeted by the Gary Franks’ undeniable bass line from the opening track “Long Gone” off their debut full length release For Sale. Anyone in attendance who didn’t know about the album before the show, certainly knows about it know as Saikeley took a few moments to mention it and hold up a record to show people what it looked like. It was pretty effective as he sold a copy right on stage to a very enthusiastic concert-goer in the front row.
For most bands the showman is the lead singer or lead guitarist, but in this band it’s the bass player. Franks is never still and can often be seen striking quite the poses. My favorite is the very close stare down of Saikeley while he sings. Franks could have the voice of an angel but I kind of hope he never gets stuck behind a mic as his wondering is such a great addition to the performance. I’m pretty sure the band played all their entire catalogue and even included 2 new songs during their 50 minute set. I love garage rock.
Getting everything started was Pony Girl‘s performance in the standing room only Barney Danson Theater. It was great to see them pack the room. They certainly put on a show to merit the audience. A Pony Girl set features something most live acts don’t, a clarinet. Every time I see them, I am reminded of how underutilized and undervalued this instrument it. The band made full use of the space on stage and also bringing the show to the crowd singing and playing the clarinet in the first couple of rows. What is sometimes forgotten or lost in the wonders of the duel vocals is just how talented of musicians they are. Beyond the clarinet and the excellent guitar and bass work, the drummer always blows me away with all the subtle fill,s and the little extra he does that just add so much. Just as I was thinking of this, they put it all on display during an incredible instrumental lead by clarinet and drums dancing around each other which was beautifully amplified by the guitar and bass. It has been awesome to follow this band for years now and still be so impressed.