Arriving to line-ups that wrapped around the hallways outside of the Algonquin Commons Theatre was a sure sign that it was going to be a Friday fans would remember. The lobby was buzzing with the VIP ONE OK ROCK fans who had just had a meet and greet with the band, and the crowd ran through open doors to get the best standing room spots. The first band up was New Jersey-based band Palisades who brought high energy to keep the already buzzing crowd in high anticipation. Set It Off was the second band, showing the crowd exactly how they got their name through jumps and crowd interaction. They held their intensity throughout, continuing the build up for the eagerly awaited headliners.
When ONE OK ROCK hit the stage the energy peaked as the crowds sang along to their catchy songs. In Japan, these guys sell out massive venues, and their music videos get tens of millions of views on YouTube. The fervour of the crowd was met with passionate stage presence, including high jumps and hair flips from the band. Needless to say, they made a lasting impression on everyone in the room.
It was a soaking wet night Friday night at RBC Bluesfest which saw sets cut short due to lightning crashes and torrential down pours.
The lightning had seemingly finally taken a break as headliner Live took the stage in the rain. They kicked things off with “All Over You” from their seminal sophomore album Throwing Copper with the opening line “Our love is like water,” which was very appropriate seeing as how the rain came down harder and harder. Hundreds of us decided to head to the beer tent for cover in hopes the rain would subside, but unfortunately it didn’t slow and the thunder returned. Three songs the band was pulled off stage and all the screens at the festival read “CAUTION” and asked us to exit the grounds. I was pretty disappointed, but completely understood. They had great energy and most likely would have put on a great show, but Mother Nature had other plans for that night. The following day organizers announced that anyone with a day pass for the Friday show could get free entry to either Saturday or Sunday which is quite a nice gesture given that the weather is completely out of their control.
Anderson .Paak was really into it at RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa. Photo: Els Durnford
Before Live and the terrible weather arrived, we grooved to Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals on the Claridge Stage. Paak is a little bit of everything—he is a singer, songwriter, rapper, record producer, ,very talented drummer, and an entertainer. Standing on an riser at the front of the stage, .Paak danced and smiled ear to ear the entire time. When he wasn’t dancing at the front of the stage he was behind the drum set for a couple songs showing that he is far from a one-trick pony. The crowd was feeling it and we were dancing up a storm to tracks from his hit album Malibu including the extremely popular “Come Down.” Unfortunately we must have been dancing too hard as the storm began to loom. .Paak was asked to leave the stage as a storm was coming, which he did hesitantly. I don’t remember that ever happening at a festival. Usually it a set is stopped due to inclement weather, not imminent weather. The lighting did eventually show itself and rain began to fall but not for another 10 minutes, which could have allowed 2 or 3 more songs. I know safety is very important but it didn’t seem consistent with other stages and acts.
During the pause the crowd broke out into a couple of sing alongs including “Twist and Shout.” Paak did return to the stage after about 20 minutes and clearly didn’t cool off. He jumped right back behind the drums and they launched into the super dancy and fun “Put Me Thru.” He then said “We don’t have much time so we are just going to skip right to the party” and played “Am I Wrong” as he stepped out from behind the drums and really got us all moving. It has been a while since I have danced this much at a festival show. Even with delays, .Paak and The Free Nationals were certainly my highlight of this year’s Bluesfest. This is the hip-hop I am looking for and the kind that is pushing the limits and creativity. I can only hope that it continues to grow and take space from trap, turning trap into a phase we will look back on like rap-metal.
Hugh Dillon of The Headstones rocking out at the RBC Bkluesfest in Ottawa. Photo: Els Durnford
Getting things started for me on this night was Kingston’s very own band The Headstones. Formed the year I was born (1987), the band is celebrating 30 years as one of Canada’s most influential alt-rock bands and provider of Can-con on radio stations across the country. Going into the show, I pretty sure I knew a few songs I could sing to, but once they started playing it was like riding a bike and I knew the words to almost every track. Lead-singer Hugh Dillon makes use of all the space at his disposition going all over on stage and off, heading into the camera pit by the second song to high-five fans and get closer to them. They threw in some excellent transitions to other great songs. For example, while playing “Settle” they flowed right into The Tragically Hip’s “Blow At High Dough” and later on they played a punk rock cover of Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler.” My highlight of the set was when Dillon went over to one of the camera men on stage and said “your shoulder must be tired let me take that for you,” taking the big camera onto his shoulder and pointing it at the crowd before the band played “Smile and Wave.” The band still rocks, still puts on a great show and I am very glad I caught them on this tour.
Wednesday’s weather forecast was a perfect summary of summer in Ottawa thus far. Rapidly oscillating between heat and cool, dry and wet, festival goers were not quite sure what to expect from the skies. That same sense of curiosity was also applicable to what many deemed the best night of the Ottawa Bluesfest schedule. Highlighted by bands that were the soundtrack to many of our upbringings, I still vividly recall the scene in Garden State where Zach Braff leans over to Natalie Portman in Garden State and plays her “New Slang” or the first time I heard the crescendo from Dance Yrself Clean. The nostalgia factor for those two bands alone was off the charts, but how would they sound in 2017 following lengthy hiatus periods?
To start the evening, Slack Bridges burst onto the Bluesville stage with incredible energy. The six-piece soul-funk band was propelled forward by their instrumentation, particularly the expanded brass section (they were joined on stage by special guest, the Texas Horns).
The song “Beholden” had the crowd beneath the tent moving and they played many new songs from their upcoming album, which comes out in October. Following their other recent sets at Jazzfest and the Ottawa Race Weekend, many in town are eagerly awaiting their what comes next.
Phantogram was up next. With their recent shift towards rockier and more hip hop elements, many fans of their older indie electronic sound were likely wondering if their music got them high anymore. Luckily, it mostly did, with new tracks like “Same Old Blues” resonating with the crowd both figuratively and literally (there was a hell of a lot of bass).
Lead singer Sarah Barthel’s energy is infectious and when classics like “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Don’t Move” come on, it’s impossible to not start moving. And the nostalgia was only just beginning.
It’s easy to forget just how many hit songs The Shins had during the early 2000’s. “Oh, Inverted World” and “Chutes Too Narrow” were monumental albums that defined many individual’s concepts of the sound of “Indie” and thankfully, the band did not shy away from playing what the crowd came to see.
Jumping right in with songs like “Phantom Limb”, “Turn On Me” and “Girl, Inform Me”, the older-crowd-seeking-nostalgia was responsive, while the band initially appeared slightly bored. Thankfully, that didn’t last long as they got into the swing of things. Recently released track “Name For You” and “Sleeping Lessons” (the incredible opener from Wincing the Night Away) were good enough to convert any new fans in the crowd (i.e. those who lived under a rock from the years 2001-2007).
As LCD Soundsystem took the stage, the Ottawa sky couldn’t quite decide whether it would let their set-up full of electronics remain fully functional. Hastily covered with tarps and cloth, the band defiantly pushed forward, starting the night with “Yr City’s a Sucker”, a dance-punk anthem for us self-deprecating citizens in the rain.
The band’s veteran presence was certainly felt, their tight instrumentation (shout outs to the cowbell) and focused energy made each swell of a crescendo hit with maximum impact. Their recently released tracks “Call The Police” and “American Dream” fit into their set perfectly and really highlighted how nice it is to have them making new music. That veteran presence was also felt when James Murphy shouted out foam rollers for those of us with back pain from all the standing.
As the rain eventually decided to fall, the crowd made the most of the circumstances, dancing themselves clean beneath a giant disco ball with all of their friends (old and new).
The Ottawa Jazz Festival saw its 37th year in downtown Ottawa this June. The festival, which takes place between Confederation Park, City Hall and the National Arts Centre, is committed every year to bringing world-class jazz and jazz-rooted music to the region. This year was no exception. With large-scale acts like Feist and Kenny Rogers headlining, local musician and jazz-lover Garett Bass focused on the lesser-known acts that shocked crowds with their instrumental prowess and heart. Read about his favourite moments below.
Thursday, June 22
Tanika is a soul singer from Toronto that I’ve been hoping to catch live for a while now. I was able to catch her band’s set, the very first of the festival, to a sit-down crowd in the Tartan Homes Stage. Though her and the band could have taken a few more risks or offered a bit more energy, it was enjoyable enough. Amongst a set of originals, they played funky covers of “Boots or Hearts” by the Hip and “Money” by Pink Floyd.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Fortunately the main stage had the energy I was looking for, and the rain even held off. For those who didn’t catch them at CityFolk in 2015, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are a new soul band in the style of the late 60s/early 70s era, with a talented and energy-fueled frontman. With a new and very different album behind them, I was interested to see if he could bring the same energy as he did touring his first record.
The first thing that was clear: the band has become more versed in the traditional appeals of soul music showmanship. They went through the classic intro: 1) band comes out hot with an instrumental jam, 2) horns break out into an epic fanfare, 3) introduce the singer with a cheesy radio voice, and 4) have the singer enter in a cape. The cape, of course, is a nod to the greats before him like James Brown and Elvis, but lead singer Paul Janeway’s giant and wrapped cape much more resembled something that a Game of Thrones character might wear.
From the point the cape hit the ground, Janeway was a ball of energy. He danced and belted out the tunes with a great ease, interacted with the band more frequently, and even had a David Byrne-ish moment in which he took one of the large red props from the back of the stage and began to roll around on the floor with it, tearing it apart piece by piece. All in all, it was a great way to start the festival.
Saturday, June 24
Lemon Bucket Orchestra
Saturday was a busy day, and I unfortunately didn’t make it out to see Kenny Rogers. Fortunately, I was able to make it just in time to see the Lemon Bucket Orchestra turn a 200 person crowd into true believers.
If you haven’t seen this klezmer dance party band from Toronto before- you’re missing out. They perform classic songs from the Balkans, Ukraine and Serbia with an intense energy. The show has become seamless as each band member is featured- one minute the bass trombone is soloing at the front, and the next the alto sax player is competing in a sexy dance solo with a belly dancer, and a minute later the crowd is being formed into a giant dance chain and pulled every which way.
My favourite part? For the encore, the band unplugged and literally jumped off the stage one by one, and proceeded to play a New Orleans style brass band cover of “I Like to Move It” in the center of the dance floor, with the lead singer shouting and playing police sirens on a megaphone.
Monday, June 26
When the band first started, I have to admit, it was a bit lackluster. I’ve been a huge fan of Mavis ever since seeing her sing on The Band’s “The Last Waltz,” and I had really been building this show up in my head. When the band simply walked on stage and started up with a tame, light-hearted reggae song, it seemed as though they were just going to play it safe.
But with every song, Mavis slowly offered more of her wisdom and her personality, telling stories of her wild adventures with the Staple Singers and her lifelong career. It was a slow burn in which we were treated to the Staples’ classics “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” her best solo hits, and a series of new songs with really great backstories. Mavis even let the stage for a moment to let her rhythm section treat us to a jam where, in a fun moment, the guitarist played his solo lighter and lighter until the guitar signal was all but gone; and then proceeded to play his unamplified telecaster into the microphone. In all, it was a really special show with a really special woman, and the NAC couldn’t have been a better venue.
To Ray, With Love: Maceo Parker & The Ray Charles Orchestra featuring the Raelettes
This performance was nailed. From the first 10 seconds, it was clear that Maceo was prepared to do a perfect impression of Ray Charles in its fullest- from his distinctive crooning to his style of adlibbing throughout each tune. If you let your guard down for even a second, you sometimes forgot it wasn’t the man himself up there.
If you’re a fan of Ray’s “Modern Sounds in Country & Western” era, this show hit home. From medium-tempo shuffles like Busted, slow crooner classics like How Long Has This Been Going On? and You Don’t Know Me, and finally fast swing like Oh What a Beautiful Morning- the first half of the set got through a surprising amount of material and played it exactly as its meant to be played.
The Ray Charles Orchestra, formed only of individuals who had played with Ray at some point in his career, featured a fantastic array of brass and woodwind, a great piano player who maybe was sometimes a little too tight for a Ray Charles show, and a solid swing rhythm section. Even the conductor was full of energy, waving his hands around wildly infront of the band in ways that a purist might snub as unnecessary. I’m going to personally use the word “endearing;” he was really fun to watch! On top of it all, Maceo picked up his alto for a couple instrumental takes, reminding us why his sax tone and chops are unmatched by most.
About 3/4 of the way through, Maceo introduced The Raelettes, who came out and sang on some classics like Hit the Road Jack and Look What They’ve Done to My Song. They did a great nailing the sound of the classic Raelettes, albeit they were the only part that felt a bit ‘canned.’ All in all, it was a great show and I think they were able to appeal to big fans and general listeners alike.
Robert Glasper Experiment
Following this show was the Robert Glasper Experiment. With their back catalogue often backing various singers and rappers, I was unsure of what to expect.
The set started off with a DJ playing Thundercat’s Them Changes slowly turned into Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” easing our expectations into the greasy R&B to come. The band took stage with Glasper on multiple keyboards, as well as a singer/saxophonist, bassist, and drummer. The DJ stayed on stage for various sounds and white noise. The singer loved his effects as he started the first tune off with a heavy autotune that worked well with his voice, a sound he would use most of the set. That same first song lasted about 8 minutes, with various members taking solos, and Glasper showcasing his classic Thelonious Monk-esque piano sounds. The second song went into a lighter instrumental that slowly built, with the singer jumping on an effect-dripping saxophone. After that, the band flip-flopped between a vocal tune and an instrumental for the rest of the set. The bassist was in the pocket, the drummer was tight, Glasper’s licks and fills were on point- everything you’d want in a jazz R&B show.
My one complaint would be that they didn’t interact with the audience much at all compared to most of the other acts at Jazz this year, whether through anecdotal stories or vocal singalongs. Otherwise, it was a slick, fun and experimental show!
Friday, June 30
I caught most of Bixiga 70’s set in the Tartan Homes tent. I will admit, they had a tough slot, with the excitement in the air bubbling about the upcoming Charles Bradley performance. But despite all that, this Brazillian powerhouse played as though they were the only band in town. Ottawa loves its afrobeat, and it was great to have a band in town that takes that sound and combines it with a spice of their own. From Willie Colon style brass harmonies to very tight latin rhythms, they made the sounds of Brazil, Puerto Rico and Cuba mesh so well with afrobeat that you’d think the genres had always been played that way together. My highlight was lenthy percussion solo played on the tiny percussion kit to the side, with four band members trading off one another and playing wild counter-rhythms. These guys were a great way to start off the night!
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
Charles Bradley is always a treat to see in Ottawa, but even moreso now that he has a few albums behind him. From the second that the pianist came out and gave his “are you ready?” style speech, it was on. Charles ditched the glitter disco suit from last time and this time came in a red 60s-style button up suit, like something from a Sgt Pepper video. The song arrangements weren’t much different than the record, and there wasn’t a lot of extra frills, but with Charles it doesn’t matter. His sheer passion is addictive for audiences, and every person in the audience was a fan whether they started as one or not. In fact, this was the first time I’ve ever seen large groups summoned from their chairs to dance like crazy at the front of the lawn chair section. Classic songs like “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” and “Changes” had the entire audience singing arm in arm.
As usual, I was extremely impressed by his Extraordinaires. Like any Daptones band, they were tight and to-the-point and let Charles do his thing. Their catalogue is also a lot more expansive than the last time he was in town- by the time they were at the last song, I was questioning what they possibly had left to encore with, and then he pulled out “Why Is It So Hard?” and took us all to church. What an incredible show by a true performer! With the recent loss of Sharon Jones to cancer, and Charles’ recent announcement that he is also struggling with a cancerous tumour, we can only hope every day that this man overcomes his illness and is able to continue what is obviously as important to him as it is to us. Stay healthy, Charles!
My favourite part about Jacob Collier was the crowd’s reaction to the first tune. I’ve been following this young guy’s (22!) work for a couple years, and was well aware of the talent. Placing him after a giant like Charles Bradley was an extremely wise move by Jazz Fest, as hundreds of music fans poured into the Tartan Homes tent without the slightest clue of what they were about to see.
The stage was littered with instruments: a grand piano, a couple synths, an electric upright bass, a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar, a drum kit and various percussion instruments on a stand. But when only Jacob Collier walked out wearing a wireless microphone, I could see confusion in the eyes of the crowd. Where were the other musicians? Within 4 minutes, Jacob had created a rich and righteous funk tune, running from one instrument to the next while singing in his usual high pitched way. I have to hand it to the people behind the scene, as I don’t think the audience truly respected the prowess in whoever had the task of creating these loops. Jacob would grab a tambourine and shake it wildly at a microphone, only to immediately have that tambourine join the song. Next he would strap on the Fender jazz bass and play a funky rhythm, which would be looped perfectly into the tune by the time he was putting it back on the stand. Once the structure of the song was sound, he would make it to the synth just in time for the hook, using his synthesizer to alter and harmonize his singing line.
The second song- a quiet and very Canadian-style fingerpicking piece (think Don Ross) played on acoustic, which at its peak saw Collier running to the grand piano to continue playing his lush, jazzy arrangement. It was totally different from the first song, and huge indication for how all-over-the-map the entire show would be.
Collier’s excitement to experiment is very obvious as he jumps around the stage, begging the audience to clap a complicated beat, only to jump on the drum kit and play a competing polyrhythm. Is it a novelty? Well, yes, a bit. After playing with Snarky Puppy in 2016, I’m sure that a jazz icon like Collier could easily find musicians to take the stage with him. But half the fun is seeing him run around the stage, caught in his own web of insanity. His energy left me wanting to listen to and play more jazz immediately, and if that isn’t the best outcome of a jazz performance, then I’m not sure what is.
NYC’s Fruit & Flowers made a quick tour stop in Ottawa on July 5th, playing an energetic show along with Sally Ride and Deathsticks at Pressed. Sally Ride—now known as Steve’s Job—opened the night with some meowing and gentle laughter as they transitioned into first song. The members of the band had nerves flowing through them but with their humour, banter, and strange aura of what’s possibly feigned confidence, they truly made it seem like they were naturals. Despite it being their second show, they perform as if they’ve been on stage countless times together. The band is one that kicks off everything summer is, and with their light and airy sound they sound like a redefined indie rock.
Sacha’s vocals are distorted and in the background, but very prominent at the same time. The almost monotone singing lulls you into a dreamy state but the guitars, drums, and keyboard bring you back to reality, keeping you on that edge. With intricate riffs, a strong bassline, and keyboard playing that sounds almost like synths, the band really ties it all together, almost like a gift that was chosen especially for you.
Not only do they play very well, but the band is one that’s impressive because of the versatility of instruments they switch to. With Hillary, who mainly plays the drums, switching to keyboard, up front and centre, and the guitarist and keyboard player switching to drums. The lot also know how to turn awkward banter funny, and get the crowd to participate in it as well, creating a more intimate feel to the entire set.
Fruit & Flowers, a band from Brooklyn, NY, began by introducing themselves with the classic riff from all those movies where people get on their surfboards and start shredding the wave, it started as surf rock. Don’t let this fool you though. The band itself is a very hipster looking band with an angry but equality elegant and beautiful sound. This band redefines anything you thought could be punk. They bring an entirely new set of sounds to the genre while playing with the classic sound that we love. The bass player and lead vocalist, Caroline, was up front and centre and her playing shook us to the core. She has a light and fairy-like aura but she shreds like there is no tomorrow.
Between the two guitars, her bass, and the drums, there is always a rhythm set while Ana plays intricate riffs over it, really setting a tone. Gentle vocals mixing with a fast doesn’t work, but the fast-paced bassline and prominent guitars make the crowd want to move, whether it is dancing, swaying, shifting foot to foot, or jumping up and down. They turn punk into a genre you can dance to. The solo’s fall nothing short of mesmerizing—impressive stage presence, with feedback, very quick playing, and smooth transitions back into the main verses. They bring in true punk energy mixed in with the quick pace that a band like The Misfits set.
The thing about Fruit & Flowers is that they also turn their sound into a psychedelic garage rock for some songs and it works because of the riffs played and the gentle and harmonic vocals. The band doesn’t restrict themselves to solely one genre which is really mind-blowing. Usually when every song on a record has a different take to it, it doesn’t work, but these guys have mastered it and have bent it to their will. The band is an absolute must see band if you ever find yourself itching to see a show packed with energy and artistic vision.
The last band to play was a band called Deathsticks. They are a duo but they sound far more numerous than that thanks to pedals and the drumming. The drum lines are ones that bring a new kick into it and truly encompass punk of the past, such as The Faith. They gave no mercy to the kit and the drumstick fell apart. The constant use of the ride and crash cymbal really set in the angry tone the band possessed, however the fact that she showed so much control while letting loose proved that Laura has truly mastered drumming. The guitar playing was absolutely wild in comparison to anything else I’d seen so far. It was all over the place, messy, but it sounded good. I’ve heard people say that punk noise sounds like shit, well let me tell you, this is very good shit in that case.
Matt’s slides and incredibly quick riffs turn into a muddle but listening to it closely, you can make out what he’s doing. The two have a Sonic Youth like dynamic around the vocals much like Thurston and Kim did but instead of singing they scream. Sometimes at the same time, other times not. They’ll have more spoken parts to songs like in Mountain Men and sometimes they’ll full out scream like in 30 Second Song. Had the setting been a dingy bar as opposed to Pressed Café, there would have been a mosh pit. The two play with feedback, letting it grow wild, and sometimes taking care of it when they planned to.
This is a band I’d go to see again—no doubt about it. If you want to throw yourself into a pit, experience the mind-and-eardrum blowing experience that is Deathsticks, please do so. I’ll probably see you there.
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.
This past weekend Rockfest in Montebello, QC, turned 12 years old and I was there to take it all in.
After three hours of sitting in the car the car slowly making our way through small neighbouring villages and ultimately right down Main St. in Montebello Thursday night, we set up our tent just as the torrential downpour began. This being my second Rockfest, we knew to expect the crazy long delays getting in, but let me tell you—knowing it would happen only barely makes it better.
Once we were all set up, everything was on the up and up from there. The festival was an absolute blast other than the crapshoot to get in and the poor sound during Meshuggah. I’m not sure why it only affected them, it was a shame given the highly technical nature of their music and this being their 30th anniversary as a band.
Below are my highlights from two days of rock, metal, punk, beer, mud, sun and hundreds of thousands of people.
10 Highlights of Rockfest 2017
Random cheer “waves” in the camping area.
Anyone who has ever camped at a big music festival like this knows exactly what I’m talking about. For everyone else, it is the phenomenon where one person or a small group of people yell out a random sound or the name of the festival and other pockets of people join in as it moves across the campgrounds just like a wave at a sporting event.
Fanny pack fashion.
They are back, they are useful, they are better for your posture and tan lines than a purse and people have gotten very creative with them. I saw some of all sizes, multiple zippers or simple, gold, silver—heck, there was one even shaped like a pineapple. I don’t know what drove people to bring them back, but I am all for them.
I’m a sucker for a good cover, always have been. But I love them even more when they are done live, and then that is all amplified when done on the big stage of a major festival like Rockfest. Some covers can be the entire song like Pennywise doing Minor Threat or Goldfinger with their cover of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Other times it can be a perfectly placed snippet of a classic during their own song like Wu Tang Clan throwing in some lines from “Come Together” by The Beatles, The Specials with “We are family,” or Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age throwing in a little Amy Winehouse “Rehab” during a song. These are not only great tributes, but also a lot of fun for the audience.
Hatred for Donald Trump.
The hatred for the current President of the United States was a constant theme over the two days. I first really noticed it when Pennywise mentioned it and then played their politically charge track “My Country.” But they were certainly not alone, Goldfinger started a fuck Donald Trump chant during their set, and Bad Religion’s “New Dark Ages” has never been more relevant… well, since President Bush at least. The Special dedicated their song “Message to Rudy,” (which most probably don’t associate with politics but it is a very political track) to Trump and complimented Prime Minister Trudeau. Other bands like Anti Flag, Dreadnaughts, Face to Face, and Down by Law also had their piece to say.
Less Than Jake.
One of the challenges of these festivals, is with five stages rolling, you sometimes have tough choices to make, but also some bands that usually play hour long sets get cut to 30 minutes. This is what happened to my beloved Less Than Jake, a ska band I have been into since grade school. They made the absolute most of their shortened time and it felt like they crafted a set list just for me, hitting on most of my favourites including “All My Best Friends are Metalheads,” “The Science of Selling Yourself Short,” “Johnny Quest (Thinks We’re Sellouts)” and more I most likely forgot to write down while I danced up a storm. They capped off their set inviting the brass section from The Real Big Fish on stage to join them. This was one of many skank-tastic moments of the festival with great ska.
Yeah we all know “Du Hast” the German industrial metal band’s big hit that brought them fame in North America, but this band has been wowing fans since their inception in Berlin since 1994. The music is good, actually much better than I expected given I don’t really listen to them and don’t speak German, but the show is what truly blows you away. There are fireworks and pyrotechnics throughout the entire thing. I read somewhere that their tour features more than 20 trucks just to pull off this spectacle. And I mean when you see a guitarist wearing what looks like a WWII gas mask that shoots 10-foot flames from the mouth area, you start to understand. It was almost more like going to see a foreign musical horror film than a live show, and I mean that as a compliment. Fireworks, flame throwers, fire-shooting masks, fire from the stage, crazy light show, explosions, elaborate costumes and devilishly good metal, Rammstein showed us why they are one of a kind. I wonder how many people had nightmares while camping that night.
(please note this is not our video, but we felt it was important to share the spectacle with everyone)
The Specials are one of the innovators of the English 2-Tone and ska movement of the 1970s, forming in 1977. I have loved this band since childhood thanks in part to my parents introducing them and ska and reggae to me at a very young age. The problem was, they broke up in the 80s, got back in the 90s, but I didn’t see them until a couple of years ago. Finally seeing The Special at Bluesfest was something else, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by poor sound and the lead-singer getting pissed off and throwing stuff at the soundman and storming off near the end. This time was very different. This time not only was the sound great, the sun shining and the band in a great mood, but I got to share the moment with my little brother. We danced up a storm skanking all over the place with smiles painted from ear to ear. Their set list was great, and as mentioned they dedicated “A Message To You Rudy” to Donald Trump, but also featured favourites like “Monkey Man” and “Too Much Too Young.”
PUP are simply one of Canada’s best bands right now, if not one of North America’s best exports. Their live shows are full of energy from start to finish and this set was no exception. The cloud of dust filled the air at the side stage as the band got started and never really settled, even when the band slowed things down a little. One hilarious thing was that someone brought a long an inflatable poo emoji which could be seen floating around for most of the set. They ripped through tracks off both their album not stopping for long in between songs to ensure no time was wasted. This may have been the first time I see them play where lead singer and guitarist Stefan Babcock didn’t crowd surf, but he did stand on the barrier surrounded by fans… it might have been a festival rule? Just see this band. I have been saying it now for years, stop taking my word and go learn for yourself how awesome PUP are.
Photo by Els Durnford
So I know I keep using the term “one of my favourites,” but hell, the festival did a good job gathering bands I love and Alexisonfire is certainly one of them. I never thought I would see this band again, I was pretty sure they would reunite, but I figured I would always miss out somehow and that I was destined to never see the band again. Why does that matter so much? Well, Alexisonfire completely changed how I perceived music and opened the door to much heavier sounds and styles—they were a gateway band of sorts for me. I’m also a bigger guy but love to dance, so being able to find space a little further back to throw down and not hurt anyone or myself while respecting others’ space was a nice bonus. Seeing them again was very special, and it could be the last time or I could see them five more times, who knows but it was epic.
Photo by Els Durnford
At the Drive-In.
Another one of those bands from my younger years, recently reunited and I went to go see them in Toronto and they were great there. They played Rockfest with that same energy and stage presence. One of the moments that stole the show, beyond their amazing music of course, was when lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala went on an anti-Bill Cosby and Hollywood rant. He simply stopped after one song and said “Fuck Bill Cosby. Fuck the Hollywood rape sympathizers. Fuck all of them while you sit around and watch their sitcoms and movies.” It was completely out of the blue, and don’t get me wrong, I 100% agree with him. I was just surprised when most of the hatred had funneled towards Trump over the past days. The set was tight, full of great songs we all wanted to hear, and was a great way to cap off another fun year at Rockfest.
Trails was the first band to play. Songwriter Allie O’Manique’s sweet melodic voice gently flowed through the air. As we watched Trails perform, we were absolutely entranced by the music. Soft, progressive and quite different from anything you’ve previously heard. The only instrument used was an electric guitar and other a gentle voice. A loop pedal was used in instances where there was a need to write a part of a song over the other.
It’s light, airy, but it’s nostalgic. For this reason it turns heads. It’s very psychedelic and lifts past memories as the performance progresses. It’s sound that makes you see colours, and swirls of them, blues of all sorts twirling around. As far as easy listening goes, this is it not only because there’s heart in the performance but because it’s so refreshing and ethereal. Trails produced harmonies with her voice and a loop pedal, singing over her own voice in different tones, creating something soothing. It’s beautifully haunting and will leave you wanting to hear more.
Next up was a band called Lake Urmia. Elsa’s vocals are smooth, high, and create a soft contrast with the sound of the band itself. They’re loud but at the same time they’re almost quiet and have a delay on the vocals so it gets distorted in the medley of music.
The sound is very refreshing and if you don’t like it at first, it’ll certainly grow on you. It’s a soft indie rock with its own flavour to it. The struggles they face are shown through the music, and although sounding happy, the lyrics represent something deeply rooted. They too allow the audience to see colours but more so violets and wine reds. They’re the perfect band to listen to as you sit by the window with a good book, and a cup of tea, listening to their sound intermingle with the rain.
The last band that I caught was a band from Bloomington, IN, by the name of Nice Try. The band is a pop rock band with vocals that strongly contrast the guitar. Their vocalist, Madelaine, has that sweet voice that you’d imagine wouldn’t work with a rock progression and a heavy drumline but the dynamic the band possesses makes everything fit together like puzzle pieces. The relationship they have with each other really adds to the fact that the music works so well. It’s something infectious that brings out the dancing shoes of the audience, and if they were sitting, they were swaying. The band is what should be classified as a feel good band, and the pure enthusiasm they have for what they do really draws the spectators in. Their live performances are a bit heavier than their recorded stuff but honestly, their sound is much more raw and untouched that it’s impossible not to love.
The last day of Ottawa Explosion really kicked it into high gear and didn’t let the impending tornado and storm warnings stop the party. They kicked it until the very end of it and all in all the day was sunny and warm much like the crowd of people there. So go down to Explosion next year and really get lost in the tunes. Trust me, once any band starts playing—even if your intention wasn’t to see them—you won’t want to leave.
I managed to get to Ottawa Explosion earlier than expected and in time to hear the very last bit of Preemptive Eulogy. I was greeted very kindly by Sacha of Sally Ride and we stood together as the previous band finished.
While local band Sally Ride began to set up, photographer Ming Wu and I sang to “Don’t Stop Believing” and got into the great ‘which movie is better’ debate. There wasn’t a moment that afternoon where I wasn’t smiling and enjoying myself.
As soon as Sally Ride began, I jumped to action. They’re quite the “go with the flow indie band” that seemed to hold fragments of a bohemian soul within their sound. It’s the perfect sound for long summer road trips. In fact, it’s probably what you’d play while rolling down your car window and driving through a deserted valley area somewhere warm. This was their first show, and despite how nervous they were, they hid it well. The music was infectious and it became impossible not to dance or sway to the beat of the songs.
The vocals were smooth but not in a perfect and polished way, which added character to the performance. There was a keyboard being played for the first little bit but that dropped off and got switched out for another guitar. To really set the tone of their performance and give off a taste f their personality, they played the theme tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and someone picked up the task of bubble blowing for them during their light and airy performance.
After Sally Ride came the Empty Nesters, another local band. They didn’t particularly move around too much but their music made a mark. It’s the sound of gritty rock attic demos recorded on a cassette tape. With these guys, no two EP’S or albums sound the same. This time, they were loud, garage rock with soft voices that resonated across the courtyard and down the street. The band has songs that get softer and quieter, reduced to vocals, only to pick up with a loud booming sound and jump right back into a fully energized performance.
They’re full of distorted fuzz but in the most lively way, and they manage to keep the energy contained. It’s the music that you sway to and give no shits about the fact that you’re holding your beer and might spill it. They take you into their own world and away from the one you’re currently in. A sound with much reverb, a boisterous drum beat, and the perfect amount of discord thrown in, it offers a refreshing the garage rock scene.
It’s noise but it’s the noise you want to hear. The noise that will leave old folks waving their fists in the air and saying “those darn kids!” and leave you wanting to hear more of their hypnotic tunes.
A band from Calgary, AB, by the name of The Shiverettes played promptly after. They’re an angry feminist punk band that’s out seeking justice for the misogyny faced day to day. They’re a band that get you on your toes, and jumping around. Their songs expel immense amounts of energy and anger that the audience feels down to the core.
The band consisting of three females and a male drummer conveys the struggles women face in life such as the things asked when a women reports sexual assault, the catcalling that they have to endure on the streets, and fundamental rights being taken away or not taken seriously. The anger and frustration in the screams of the lead singer really convey the emotions that women hold rooted deeply and it projects onto the crowd so well that despite the catchy and punk power chords there’s an impact left on every member of the crowd. They scream in favour of those who don’t have a voice or can’t speak up about the pressing issues in society.
They’re aggressive, but not in your face. Their points come across effectively, and loudly. If you think women don’t have voices, think twice because this band will blow you out of the water with how powerful theirs is.
Toxic Thoughts is loud, angry, in your face, and aggressive all with good reason. They voice the volatile thoughts that we have about ourselves, though it’s more so on a personal level with them. They get the crowd roaring and throwing themselves into a mosh pit at an alarming rate. The drums are well played and clearly a good part of the backbone of the song structure. The guitar seems to follow the bass line and the way the mass of noise comes together to form something so beautiful yet so full of frustration leaves you in mystery of how much anyone had to go through to be able to produce what’s essentially pain packed into music. The band toys with controlled feedback and they have managed to tame that beast. Not only is it difficult to produce it unless you have the right equipment, but it’s also very possible for it to get out of control. Their song “The Void” really showcases this, making the controlled feedback the spotlight of the song along with the bass lines.
The amount of talent that extends to minorities in music and the many different genres the festival showcases, there is something for everybody to come see. No stone should be left unturned when it comes to this festival as there is something for everybody.
During Ottawa Explosion’s fourth day, the outdoor stage at Club SAW was rocked by the Mint Records Showcase featuring The Smugglers, NEEDLES//PINS, Tough Age and Expanda Fuzz.
The iconic Canadian garage rock band The Smugglers headlined the wonderful evening. The band from Vancouver, BC existed from 1988 – 2004, and just recently reunited for select shows in 2017. Lead singer Grant Lawrence, who many know as a host on CBC Radio 3, is wildly energetic and engaging as a frontman. He kicked off the show by saying: “Ottawa, it is so good to be back in the city that birthed The White Wires, Stand GT, Resin Scrapers, The Creeps, Million Dollar Marxists, Tokyo Sex Whale and so many more!” That was quite the tribute to the locals here, and many of the aforementioned bands had members in the audience. He continued “Since the last time you saw us in Ottawa we have had nine children and one heart attack.
They call themselves a rock n’ roll band, which they most certainly are, with hints of surf and very danceable garage (maybe those terms weren’t cool back when they were). Their sound is amazing and infectious and had people dancing and singing along non-stop. I try to make a point to not comment on a band’s attire, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the full suit and rubber boots look sported by many of the members.
The band played a high energy 12-song set featuring “Vancouver BC,” which Lawrence mentioned “was almost a hit on Much Music,” the International Smuggler Dance Competition judged by the drummer of NEEDLES//PINS and “Booze” which was dedicated to the drummer of The Gruesomes, a band from Montreal that changed Lawrence’s life, who happened to be from Ottawa. They closed with “Rock n’ Roll Was Never This Fun” and thanked us all for attending what could be one of the last Smugglers shows ever. It is bittersweet that my first Smugglers show may be my last, but I’m ecstatic that I got to see them play my favourite festival.
NEEDLES//PINS took to the stage before The Smugglers and were full of apologies from the get go. After playing their opening song “Drop It” they said “Feels so good to be back, I can’t believe we missed an Explosion I’m sorry. We will never miss another.” I sure hope the Explosion team holds them to that as I love knowing I will see this band every year. Before launching into “Best Friend” they urged us all to high-five our best friend which was a really fun moment to watch happen all around them in the packed Club SAW courtyard.
They also played a bunch of music off their new record, Good Night, Tomorrow, which hadn’t been released yet but is now available. The new tracks sounded great and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the album. Their set featured one of the cutest and most heart-warming moments of the festival. Not everyone knows that even though the band is from BC, one of their members is from the Ottawa Valley. Emmanuel Sayer (OXW organizer) noticed some of the family members, mostly older, sitting by the stage during the set and ran them over some earplugs. What a gentleman. It is always awesome to see NEEDLES//PINS perform, they are incredibly talented but also just such nice and positive people.
Tough Age, formally from Vancouver and now based in Toronto, played Ottawa Explosion again and are becoming a festival mainstay. The new-ish, stripped down three-piece (formally a bigger band) have really embraced some post-punk influences and sound with their new music, such as the song “Not That Bad.” I, and a couple of people I was chatting with, really dig it. One of the things that blows me away about this band is how the guitarist and bass player just switch instruments back and forth throughout the set. I have massive respect and am in awe of bands that can do that, it’s just wild. Member Jarrett Samson said in closing, “I’m excited to see NEEDLES//PINS and if they don’t play “Drop It” I’m going to burn this tent to the ground.” Lucky for him and all of us, NEEDLES//PINS opened with “Drop It” as mentioned and we all avoided a catastrophe.
Opening the Mint Records Showcase was local duo Expanda Fuzz. I was unfortunately running late and missed some of their set, but as always what I did hear was most excellent. Their fuzzy and drone garage style sound has this perfect slow crawling build that leaves me wanting more. In a short time as a band, they have already released a bunch of great music, but I am constantly going back to the first song I heard them play “Flavour: Zombie.” Every time I see them perform that song I get a big smile on my face and have to bob my head. I’m glad that even arriving late, I managed to catch it.