As Bluesfest rolled along, the much-anticipated seventh day finally arrived. Chicago rapper Noname was definitely one of the buzz acts of this year’s festival, as she has begun to take the hip hop world by storm. If you haven’t seen her NPR Tiny Desk concert session, you should go do that right now. Blue Rodeo also headlined the night, a band that can play Bluesfest almost every year and still draw a crowd of dedicated fans each time. Els took some great shots, have a look below.
Bluesfest has changed a lot for me. And how could it not? Over the last ten years I’ve been psyched to see artists like The Weakerthans, The Tragically Hip, Roger Hodgson (yes I love Supertramp, fight me), Attack In Black, King Khan, The Aggrolites, etc, etc. Naturally the festival has changed a lot, and so have I.
When this year’s lineup announced that people like Foo Fighters and Courtney Barnett were coming, I knew I’d have to go. But I hoped they would play on the same day so I wouldn’t have to endure the massive crowds, overpriced beers and sweltering heat for any more time than absolutely necessary. Also the new “no ins-and-outs” policy is stupid for a number of reasons, but mainly that I couldn’t hop across to Hull and pound a few tall cans on the bike path before going back to the festival (I’m spoiled, I know but whatever let me complain a little). Nonetheless, I was beyond stoked to go see an all-time favourite, and a more recent new favourite artist perform in my hometown.
Since I’ve gotten more involved in the local independent music community in Ottawa in more recent years, I’ve lost a lot of interest in seeing a lot of big stadium-sized concerts and have really prioritized going to “shows” over “concerts” if ya know what I mean. I realize a certain amount of hipster snobbery could be inferred by that, but really I just have more interest in supporting my music community and being part of small, intimate shows where you can actually see the band and meet them and they’re actually real people. That’s become way more appealing than giving more money and attention to massive acts who already have plenty of those things. It’s not a steadfast rule, more of an emerging tendency I guess. Screw the hipster punk purity, I’m allowed to like some stadium rock. Let me have this one.
It had been ten years since my sister and I went to see Foo Fighters play at the Corel Centre (I know it’s not called that, save it for the comment section, ya dingus). Against Me! were opening that tour, and I had recently become a mega fan of that band so it was super rad but a little weird to see them play in that place. Anyway, that was maybe the best rock show I’d ever seen at that point. So part of seeing this show was very sentimental because I went with my sister again, and we loved it — “YASS DAVE” became our phrase of the night. Dave Grohl’s energy is still pretty impressive considering he’s almost 50. I always forget how many hits this band has. You can’t deny the commercial appeal that Foo Fighters have maintained over the 23-ish years of being a band, but hey, some people make the same argument about Nickelback so take that how you will.
The Foos were slotted for a 3-hour set, which seemed like a lot so despite their many hits, I wondered how they’d actually fill the time. Turned out they planned a nearly 40-minute section of introducing the band (all 6 members) and playing a song that each member started, including cheesey ass renditions of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” and a blues jam that probably sounded like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Sweet Little Baby.” It was so forced, bordering on hack. But hey, big crowds love being pandered to, and I do believe that rule #1 of show business is to give the people what they want.
Thinking about this brings me back to talking about community, and prizing community over industry, and how I don’t like that that kind of pandering and cheesy shit is often part of appealing to larger crowds, which is just part of the business. But the Foo Fighters didn’t get to where they are by saying “fuck business, fuck what you wanna hear.” I don’t hate on the Foos though, I actually have much respect. I think they’re kinda keeping rock & roll alive in the mainstream in a way that very few other bands are these days. Also, the lineup has some serious punk roots in terms of members’ past projects, and I respect that they’ve all become millionaires after beginnings in bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, No Use For A Name, ummm… THE GERMS, and of course, Nirvana.
Anyway, My 18 year-old self was satisfied and I think I still like this band enough to feel ok about the Foo Fighters tattoo I have (sshhh, don’t tell the punx).
When I came back the next day to see Courtney Barnett, the crowds were way more manageable. I’d heard that the only sold-out day of the festival was for Foo Fighters. And it sure felt like it. It took me an hour to get through the lines, and the whole field was like sardines. I can handle that in small clubs and mid-sized venues, but in a wide open field, it was not that pleasant. I had a much easier time finding and keeping a comfortable spot close to the Black Sheep stage for Courtney’s set.
She kicked off her set with a few tracks from her new record Tell Me How You Really Feel, and had a healthy sprinkling of tracks from her debut full-length as well. She carried herself with a very casual energy that still had some urgency, and she didn’t seem to give a shit about really “performing” and hamming it up for the crowd (a refreshing change from Dave’s relentless approval-seeking the night before). And wouldn’t ya know it but introducing her band only took a minute between songs. How about that? But the crowd was eating out of the palm of her hand the whole set (at least my friends and I were). She closed perfectly with the big banger off her first record “Pedestrian At Best,” and it brought the house down. She rules, go listen to her records.
What’s the best way to cure the Monday blues… well a rock show of course. Black Pistol Fireand Thunderpussy took over the Algonquin Commons Theatre a few weeks back with enough guitar and drums to shake the depths of Nepean to its core.
Touting their debut self-titled album, Thunderpussy—an all-female rock band from Seattle—started the night off with a sound that instantly demanded the crowd’s attention. Frontwoman Molly Sides, with her dynamic voice, belted out songs exuding power and pure rock n’ roll. All the while, she commanded the stage with moves that kept the audience glued to her every step, kick, and head bang. Lead guitarist, Whitney Petty, hit the stage decked out in metallic clothing, and played riff after riff, complemented perfectly by Leah Julius on bass, who took her place on the other side of the stage. The drums were no different. Ruby Dunphy, punished her drum kit, and kept the ground shaking as the rock quartet showed that their presence in Ottawa would not soon be forgotten. All in all, Thunderpussy slayed their set and had everyone in the crowd amped up and dreaming of hitting their level of rad.
Shortly after 9pm, Black Pistol Fire took the stage to an audience that was full of anticipation. The Canadian duo, originating from Toronto, are known for their unbelievable high-powered live performances. I knew they would be good, but hell, I didn’t know they would be mind-shattering. The pair, Kevin McKeown, guitar and lead vocals, and drummer Eric Owen, played harder, louder, and with more intensity than could ever be imagined from a two-piece rock band, on a Monday night. With influence from bands like the Black Keys and The White Strips, Black Pistol Fire has made their mark on rock n’ roll. Their hit song, Lost Cause, from their 2017 album called Deadbeat Graffiti dominated, having secured the number one spot on Billboard’s Canada Rock National Airplay for several weeks running.
That Monday night McKeown surpassed all the hype that surrounds his stage presence. He tore through guitar solos that had the crowd mesmerized and jumping along with him. His stomps of sheer energy bled off the stage as he climbed over the security gates and joined the crowd, never once missing a chord. Every solo brought more intensity and ignited roaring cheers.
Owens, who of course went shirtless, was no different. He pounded his drum kit and kept us focused on his larger than life beats. Playing off each other’s energy, Owens triumphantly led a full-blown attack throughout every song, leaving no survivors. Owens left it all on the stage and brought moments that will be impossible to forget, such as jamming out with a maraca in one hand, while still pounding his drum kit with the other, hitting every beat with impeccable precision.
Black Pistol Fire struck a perfect balance between blues, soul, and rock n’ roll, with songs like “Speak of the Devil,” that satisfied your craving for their unique sound, while dishing out flawless guitar riffs. Playing “Bully” as their pre-encore set, the duo victoriously tore through guitar solos paired with drum beats that reverberated through your spine. Owens tossed his drum stick to eager fans and exited, with McKeown by his side, only to be summoned back by a chant of “BPF.” As the guys played one last song, I could still feel the blood pulsing through my temples—looking around the room, I knew I wasn’t alone. Dazed and confused, in a moment of haze and amazement, my ears ringing and heart pumping, I could tell the crowd was awestruck. If you appreciate raw unearthed talent paired with an energy that will keep you on the edge, begging for one more song, BPF is the band for you.
RBC Ottawa Bluesfest wrapped up the first weekend’s programming with sets by The Strumbellas, Larkin Poe, Amos the Transparent, Keys N Krates, and many more. Our photographer Els Durnford caught the action, have a look at her gallery below.
The busy weekend continued with thousands of people from the region coming out to experience RBC Ottawa Bluesfest. Artists such as Shawn Mendes, Ghostface Killah, and Chromeo headlined the big Saturday lineup, and they did not disappoint. Our photographer Els Durnford was out and about and caught some great shots of the action. Have a look below.
BROCKHAMPTON, hereafter styled “Brockhampton,” were in Ottawa on Friday night, with a diverse and complex boy band show. They even call themselves a boy band, something that hasn’t been attempted in a while, and the relatively new Brockhampton out of Texas appears to be pulling it off quite well.
Emerging to screams wearing matching white t-shirts, the group was in fine form on one of the more tolerable days of Bluesfest, weather-wise. They definitely pull off the boy band aesthetic. Each of their personalities is on full display at all times, whether they’re making goofy faces or hyping up the crowd, each one of them is working the entire time. This is no pace-around-the-stage-slowly-and-spit-the-occasional-verse affair. No. These guys work out.
Another way their personalities played a central role was in the audio-visual department, centred on a screen behind the band that featured a looping, long video of the band playing with a camera phone in a dressing room. It’s possible they understand the power of their very salient personalities, but it’s also possible they just like messing with people. Perhaps that’s the beauty of Brockhampton.
Brockhampton dropped a brand new song, likely from their new LP, in Ottawa on the banks of the river. The song was called “1999 WILDFIRE,” and features an example of the cell phone dressing room footage I was talking about earlier.
Incidentally that song is now number #30 on YouTube’s trending ladder. That’s kind of a big deal for anyone, let alone a bunch of kids from Texas who decided to do something a little bit different with the hip hop thing.
These guys have only been active since 2015 and already, perhaps through the big deal that is Kevin Abstract, one of the group’s most prominent members, Brockhampton has obtained international fame through the release of a bunch of albums that have been critically praised and welcomed by fans.
Their songs are full of excellent beats and catchy hooks, clever lyrics and interesting production. They also put on a very good show. The crowd was a mix of generations: some in their 20s, some 30s, many in their teens. They had a fairly committed moshpit and had no trouble working the crowd.
“Hands up!” shouted Abstract, gesturing. The crowd definitely obeyed. And when they dropped “1999 WILDFIRE,” the crowd was so into it, I swear I saw some lighters.
Every year brings a very different Ottawa Jazz Festival than the last, and this year was no exception. With the festival no longer happening in the heart of Confederation Park, the main stage had been moved to City Hall (much like to the early Bluesfest days). The Late Night Tent was initially put behind City Hall, which seemed like a great idea, but after a few days the noise complaints from local residents caused the Late Night shows to be moved to a small stage on the edge of Confederation Park. My apologies to the Jazz Fest for all that they had to put up with this year, and I hope that it goes more smoothly to you folks next year.
As always, I was able to see a lot of amazing groups this year. Here they are in order of date:
Friday, June 21st
Joe Sullivan Big Band It was a treat to start the festival off with the Joe Sullivan Big Band. This is a serious contender for the tightest swing band in Canada. Everyone was firing on all cylinders, with great swinging leads, ripping solos from every player, and disgustingly sly harmonies speckled throughout every solo section. Always great to hear Al McLean take a tenor solo and this show was no exception.
Boz Scaggs I didn’t catch the entire Boz Scaggs show, but what I did see was in good form. It’s always a treat seeing an act that you forget has such an extensive catalogue. He played it all- tracks from the Boz Scaggs record (with Duane Allman) to the famous Silk Degrees. The band was fairly tight and Boz himself still has some strong crooning left in him. Now I did miss a couple tunes, so he could have snuck it in—but I spent most of the set hoping he would play “Look What You’ve Done To Me.” Next time!
I had missed Moon Hooch last time they came through Jazz Fest in 2015, so I was really excited to see this group. I was fortunate enough to catch Too Many ZooZ in Ottawa earlier this year- a band who often is compared to Moon Hooch due to their saxophone-house sounds and NYC busking habits. While MH weren’t as nonstop sweaty dance party as ZooZ, I was really impressed with their variety. Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen hopped consistently between synthesizer and saxophone (tenor, bari and soprano), highlighting their strengths the entire show and hyping up the crowd. Occasionally McGowen would play his signature “giant construction pylon in a bari sax” which just has a monster sound. By far, though, the highlight of the show was when drummer James Muschler broke out a soprano sax and joined the other two during a long delay-ridden solo section. Awesome!
Monday, June 25th
Now let’s be clear about something: Chaka Khan is 65 years old. I heard a lot of people talking about pitchiness and low stage energy afterwards, but seriously—she’s 65 and she’s earned her keep.
Moreover, her very few pitchy moments were not a deal-breaker because she simply did not phone-in the show. I was wildly impressed how many times many times she went for the high notes and really owned her trademark wails. With that said, I think that she was wise to bring the group that she did. Her three background singers did an incredible job nailing her classic lines while she ad-libbed over top. Ronald Bruner Jr. had no trouble reminding us all how much of a beast he is behind the drummers—and it was awesome to hear his trademark “hats on the toms” sound as he shredded 80’s fills all night.
KNOWER did what everyone expected—they put on a gigantic sweaty dance party in the late night tent, sparkly jumpsuits and all. They play such an interesting combination of electronic music and funky jams that it’s hard to tell where each groove ends and the next begins. If anything I would say it was a bit too chaotic for me at times, with not a lot of silence between instruments, but it definitely amped up the crowd. They knew their crowd well as they wrapped up the night by medleying “The Government Knows” into “Overtime,” both tunes off their new album that were sure to get people fired up.
Tuesday June 26th
This was potentially the show I was most excited about at Jazz Fest this year. Ghost-Note is a small percussion-fueled instrumental group operated by two members of Snarky Puppy: Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth. Like Snarky, the group features a who’s who of Dallas players.
I had been listening to their 2015 debut Fortified for a few years when they were announced, and was immediately disappointed to hear that they wouldn’t be touring with Snarky keyboardist Shaun Martin with them on this tour. However, after hearing the growth on their Swagism record, and hearing the arrival of MonoNeon on bass, I knew this was going to be something special. The show started off with a half-full tent, but they weren’t concerned as they dove right into it. They played songs off both of their releases with extended jams, synthy breakdowns and great solos by all. It’s always great to see a group where percussion gets the spotlight, as it meant for a lot of dirty percussion breakdowns that meant business. Also, it was really cool to see MonoNeon in this kind of environment, as he knew exactly when to keep it in the pocket and when to unleash the percussive slap fury. His array of filters and fuzzes was super tasteful. Check out Ghost-Note.
Thursday, June 28th
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones
Man! What a show.
First of all, I remember the last time The Flecktones played Ottawa, and it was in 2005 when Bluesfest was still at City Hall. That actually meant that this year they returned after 13 years to the exact same spot, which is pretty cool. Secondly, if you haven’t been following the Flecktones closely the past few years, you probably reacted like I did: “where’s Jeff Coffin?” I had no idea that going full-time with Dave Matthews Band had meant he no longer played with Bela.
After a little research, I learned that his replacement was actually his predecessor—Howard Levy—originally played harmonica and piano for the Flecktones’ early years. Howard was far from a disappointment. His technique to play beyond the diatonic scale on a blues harp is stupendous—every time I heard a Stevie Wonder-esque line I immediately went searching for the chromatic harmonica. His ability to play beautiful melodies and harmonies alike was incredible. Bela and Victor were in usual great form, rifling through their classics with a general ease. It’s always great to hear both play. Bela mentioned that they “never quite know where these songs are going to go each night,” and I can concur. Most songs eventually graduated into a lengthy jam that was always interesting and never meandering. Lastly, Futureman’s Drumitar just keeps getting more and more legitimate as time goes on. It looks and sounds a lot different since they last came through in 2005, but the concept of playing full beats and fills with his hands hasn’t changed. Truly a group of musical inventors and philosophers, this show hit home more than I expected, and I for one couldn’t wait to get home and play (isn’t that the point of jazz music?)
Afterwards, I slipped over to Tanya Tagaq, who I’d yet to have seen. On this tour, she was accompanied by a drummer and a soundscaping violinist.
Unfortunately, I was on a bit of a time crunch and she was the opposite. After coming out a little late, Tanya expressed to the audience that she was feeling a bit nervous and anxious, and told stories and anecdotes for ten minutes or so. When she did start, we were all blown away by how theatrical her performance was. I remember reading that she refers to herself as a “sound sculptor” instead of a musician, and I totally can agree. Even the musicians she brought spent most of the time creating strange sounds while she offered a combination of throatsinging and art singing. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for long and had to duck out after the first couple songs.
Friday, June 29th
I was eager to see The Commotions on Friday as they just released a new record that has been doing exceptionally well. Brian Asselin did a great job assembling the group, featuring a who’s who of Ottawa musicians. I am always impressed by Jeff Rogers and Rebecca Noelle as performers, so I knew I would enjoy a band in which they trade off front-person duties. This show was no exception, even in a heatwave. Their calm and collective banter and vocal trade-offs were a nice touch to their stellar individual performances. Rebecca’s knack to start strutting before the count is even finished is truly amicable. Mackenzie Di Millo stood by to add extra harmonies, and keyboardist Clayton Connell really shone on the organ. All in all, a great big original soul group.
Saturday June 30th
Mack & Ben
This couldn’t have been a better night to finish off the festival. I was able to catch the second half of Mack & Ben’s set at the Confederation Park stage. They played to a full tent and put on a great performance despite the incredible heat and a seated audience. The three-point harmonies between siblings Mackenzie & Ben DiMillo and local songerwriter extraordinaire Sarah Bradley were dead on. This was their second show and the audience didn’t seem to believe it.
Their final tune was a cover of Rich Girl by Hall and Oates. I snuck out halfway to head to the Herbie show, and found myself smiling the entire way as I watched every passerby singing along.
I specifically didn’t read up on Herbie’s band for this show to keep it a surprise, but to say I was surprised when a four-piece walked out (including Herbie) was an understatement. It was really elating to see one of my legends playing with such a small group, and their chemistry really made it sound like we were sitting in on a practise rather than a giant concert.
Bassist James Genus (the bassist from the Saturday Night Live Band) definitely takes the cake for the most in the pocket player of the festival. His calm and groovy playing really made the show, as it allowed Herbie and guitarist Lionel Loueke to really work their magic. A combination of banter and variety taught us a lot about Loueke throughout the show. A guitarist originally from Benin, sections of songs were often intersperse with amazing vocals in various languages, sometimes with Herbie singing along. His guitar work was very interesting, often with a Niles Rodgers-esque percussive palm-muting approach to his grooves. Herbie was on his A-game, with extended solos on piano and synth, and a few vocoder breakdowns. It was great to see him in such a small and calm group as he hopped between songs and stories all night. We all got a good chuckle when he quoted the hook from Chameleon twice in the middle of a long jam.The pre-encore tune was a really great medley of Canteloupe Island and other extended jams. I did have to calm the grump in me as they came back out to play Chameleon (I thought it was more sly to reference it earlier and drop it), but it was harmless fun.
Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles
**Important Precursor: It may have taken the entire festival, but Jazz Fest were extremely smart about this show. While Herbie was playing, they moved all of the tables and chairs to the outskirts of the Confederation Park tent. This allowed people to remain seated and still see the band, while the rest of us slammed into the middle ready to dance.
The second Snarky Puppy link to the festival- many festival goers were excited to see Snarky’s most admirable soloist play with his own group, myself included. However, I’m not sure we expected what we got.. which was an insanely good variety act of epic sweaty-dance-party proportions
One of the best ideas Cory had with this group was to hire a second synth player. With the chords being comped throughout, it allowed him to really shine as a performer. He seamlessly ran around the stage, ripped organ solos, played tambourines, and sang his heart out, all while hyping the crowd nonstop. After a couple songs, he brought out two female singers who helped him ramp up the party with an amazing cover of the Beegees’s Stayin’ Alive (I too, before this night, though that was impossible). But it was really the variety of Cory’s set that made the night. His ability to weave between Al Green-esque slow jams into hardhitting R&B funk fusion was highly impressive, and left the crowd hanging off of his every action. Rather than explain it any more, I recommend that you watch this clip of a very similar set in Frankfurt—a great way to end a festival!
Last But Not Least: The Lawn Chair Conundrum I would like to mention the issue of lawn chairs at the main stage. While there was a large area specifically designated for lawn chairs, many people continued to set up lawn chairs hours in advance in a section clearly labelled for standing. This meant that upon entering the standing section, you often felt like you were blocking sitters, and they often expressed it. This was further bothersome because there simply was no longer a way to stand at the back and still see the stage and screen as in previous years. Many young people expressed that, despite paying a hefty ticket price, they felt there was no real spot for them to enjoy the show.
I’m confident that this issue will continue to get solved as Jazz Fest and its patrons get used to the new area.