For the past five years, Arboretum Festival has been a crucial part of Ottawa’s music infrastructure. It’s beginnings as a boutique music festival in the capital followed the spirit of other small-scale indie fests across the country, such as Sappyfest, Hillside Festival, and Camp Wavelength. However, those of us who have had the joy of experiencing or being a part of Arboretum Festival know one thing’s for sure—this is no ordinary music festival. In fact, music is just one component of this celebration of all that is local. Gastronomy. Craft Beer. Fashion. It’s all been represented at Arboretum over the years.
This year will be different, as organizers have opted for a scaled back lineup (less is more), as well as a brand new rural location just outside Ottawa at Rideau Pines Farm on August 18th & 19th.
Showbox is once again honoured to be partnering up with Arboretum Festival to co-present the emerging artist stage this year, fondly dubbed the “Bang Bang Barn.” Emerging local music is sort of our jam… okay, it’s what we live and die for. Joining us as co-presenter of this stage is NAC Presents, an organization that supports music locally and all across Canada year after year. We couldn’t be more excited about the lineup, which includes some faces that are new and some we’ve seen before. But each one was hang-picked for their outstanding songwriting and performance capabilities, and what better place to see a great show than in a barn under the stars?
The final day of Bluesfest saw a lot of local groups, including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Claude Munson, Isaac Valentin, The Riot Police, and Soul Jazz Orchestra take the stage and impress audiences.
The second last night of Bluesfest was actually dry…yes, you heard that correctly. Dry. The beautiful sunny day held in there through the night and concertgoers came out in the thousands to enjoy some vitamin D and live music. The night was packed full of electrifying sets by Mushy Gushy, Night Lovell, Dead Obies, Wide Mouth Mason, and MUSE. Check out some incredible shots by our photographer Els Durnford.
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.
The first Saturday of Bluesfest brought healthy crowds to see a diverse collection of musicians.
The first group I caught were Too Slim and the Taildraggers. I was initially apprehensive when each member of the band walked onstage wearing a cowboy hat, but my assumptions quickly turned out to be unfounded when the group launched into some riff-heavy blues rock. Their guitar player certainly knew his way around the instrument, and the vocals rarely strayed into the realm of twang. There were a couple tracks featuring a harmonica as well – which I personally love. With frequent solos and instrumental break, Too Slim and the Taildraggers put on a great show; the only thing more impressive than the guitarist’s riffs was his sideburns.
Also in the early evening was Tegan & Sara, bringing their brand of queer bubblegum indie. I’ve seen T&S several times at Bluesfest over the years, and it’s been interesting to watch them grow up. With every album their music has become more mainstream, and with a growing fan base they now play one of the main stages. With giant inflatable letters spelling “T & S” as their stage décor, there was no mistaking who was playing. The crowd was mostly young adults, happy to oblige in synchronized arm waving when requested. T&S played their hits and told a couple stories, including one of their first times they playing the region – at a summer camp in Hull. In summary, the camp wasn’t the best experience, but they seemed to hold no grudges and sent a humorous shout-out to our sister city.
Next up was local group Flight Distance, which can be described as hip-hop with the DJ bringing the occasional EDM track. This was their third time playing Bluesfest, and in my opinion, they were the July 8 highlight. Flight Distance worked hard to energize the crowd, which isn’t an easy feat at an outdoor festival before sunset. A particularly memorable interaction was when one of the vocalists encouraged everyone in the audience to “make a weird noise”. From the moment they took the stage to their closing track which remixed ACDC’s “Thunderstruck”, they brought their A-Game. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for future shows by these guys.
The last artist I saw was 50 Cent—about which I was cautiously optimistic—given the fairly high attendance and the nostalgic potential. Many in the crowd were dancing like they were in da club, and there was a tight crush of people close to the stage. I was a little further back, which was a good vantage point to watch the action. 50 Cent accurately busted out hits like 2005’s “Candy Shop,” and the show felt appropriately old-school. Still, I was unimpressed when he left the stage for about 5 minutes halfway through his set. I suppose the purpose was to build hype or stretch out his admittedly limited scope of material, but it came across as arrogant. Still, it was an entertaining set – if shorter than the majority of the festival’s headliners.
Ottawa Bluesfest kept the excitement coming on Friday night with some strong performances by Matt Andersen, DJ Mustard, Anna Lunoe, Eddie Quotez, and many more. Our photographer Els Durnford captured some stunning shots of the action on day two of Bluesfest, check out the photos in the gallery below.
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.