RBC Bluesfest Press Images Photo: Mark Horton
With the final weekend of RBC Bluesfest at hand, everyone here in Ottawa looks for the festival to end with a bang. Well, Friday night started it off just right.
Another beautiful evening was upon us, with a cool breeze keeping the sun from slowing the fun down. The music began in the Barney Danson Theatre inside the Canadian War Museum with the Canadian Women’s Singer-Songwriter’s Showcase. A hidden gem of Bluesfest, the theatre provides those looking for an intimate musical experience with incredible acoustics, comfortable seating, and a little AC to recharge the batteries.
The showcase operated on a rotating format, with Shannon Rose & the Thorns kicking things off with the first couple songs. The crowd continued to trickle in and fill up the seats as they began to play, and immediately their music set the tone for the entire showcase. Beginning with the upbeat and irresistibly catchy tune “Wild Wind,” the lovely Shannon Rose enveloped the crowd with her vocals while guitarist Steve Matylewicz’s ethereal guitar tones blew us all away. They also performed a beautiful song called “Corners” that Shannon described was about forgiving and forgetting. Playing songs off their 2012 record Seasons, Shannon Rose & the Thorns’s full sound was as the band won over the audience instantly. The combination of evocative lyrics, instrumental parts that were gentle but demanded attention, and a stage presence that bridged the invisible barrier between stage and audience ultimately fostered a delicate atmosphere in the room. With all the dissonance of the music festival encroaching from all sides, Shannon Rose & the Thorns allowed the Barney Danson Theatre to become a place of repose from the outside world.
I was able to catch some of the next artist in the showcase before venturing back out onto the outdoor festival grounds. Kelly Prescott and her band really impressed and surprised me, as their folk-roots music caught me off guard in a good way. Kelly, who is also in a band called The Claytones, electrified the theatre with her crass words, impassioned demeanour, and robust vocals. Their style of music made me think of a simpler time, like I was at a bluegrass bar sipping on some whiskey watching them on stage. I particularly enjoyed the song Mississippi Moon, which is about the beautiful river their town of Almonte rests on. Kelly mentioned that the construction company Cavanaugh’s wants to build a power facility on the river, which would threaten the river’s cleanliness and compromise the area they live.
Heading back outside, Third Eye Blind had just taken the stage. I was one of those young dudes that liked Third Eye Blind when I was younger. I mean, they’re one of those quintessential 90s bands that have a few songs that linger over the years (mainly “Semi-Charmed Life”). One day in the late 90s I had a traumatic experience where I saw the band play some MTV awards show. It was a train wreck. Everything was off, the vocal harmonies, the instruments sounded terrible, and it seemed forced. I can still remember it to this day. It shook me up at the time, as my young, impressionable self got confused at how a band could sound so good on the radio but bomb it so bad live.
Radio-friendly bands life Third Eye Blind hardly made it out of the 90s alive, and as my musical senses developed over the years I realized that some bands just weren’t built for the stage. Afraid of reliving this experience, I found myself enjoying their live set at Bluesfest more than expected. It wasn’t the best Bluesfest performance in history, but they played songs like “Semi-Charmed Life”, “Never Let You Go”, and my personal favourite of theirs, “Jumper”. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins missed the mark on vocals a few obvious times during the set, but kept things going by having fun and not worrying too much about it. Overall, I think everyone enjoyed their performance. Except for the time-killing drum solo. No one needs a drum solo.
I walked by Yung Lean rapping on the Black Sheep Stage and didn’t get it. Apparently, he’s big in Japan.
Last, but not least, was July Talk. And boy did their set yield some unexpected things. With most of the night’s audience cramming themselves in front of the Bell Stage for Barenaked Ladies’s headlining set, a few thousand of us hunkered down at the River Stage to catch singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay get weird on stage.
I had seen July Talk perform once before at Cafe Dekcuf on December 17 last year, where they played an unexpected sold out show upon a cancellation of their P.E.I show due to a snow storm. It was a spectacle. Their first Ottawa show a few years back was a memorable one for July Talk, as it resulted in Peter’s guitar accidentally smoking Leah in the face and causing a pretty wicked gash on her face. They are a match made in hell, seething with sexual tension, aggression, and intensity on stage. I mean this all in the best way possible, because all the hair pulling and face palming gets the crowd going throughout the set. Their set at Bluesfest offered all this and more, as their on stage dynamic and damn good music cast away any hint of doubt in the band right away. On the album, Peter’s dark and raspy voice may not be for everyone, but on stage their in-your-face antics and music are a complete package. Basically, anyone who isn’t convinced that this band is one of the most exciting up and coming acts in Canada after listening to the record should just come out and see them live. Conversion guaranteed.
They played many songs from their debut album, such as “Guns & Ammunition,” “The Garden,” and my personal favourite “I’ve Rationed Well.” One of the best things ever happened during their performance of “Paper Girl.” My brother Nico and I really wanted to get our cousin Nick up crowdsurfing because no one had yet. So we did. Weighing in at 135 lbs, he is a prime candidate for successful crowdsurfs. Once we got him up, he quickly got carried through the crowd, people cheering and screaming as he rode the wave. Once the security guards got a hold of Nick, he got down and Leah Fay pointed at him and said “You! Get up here!”
He quickly jumped on stage with them and proceeded to dance around, flip off the entire crowd (in a funny way), get his Blue Jays hat taken by Leah and worn by her the rest of the set, get kissed by Peter on the lips, and get ordered to strip by Leah as she poured water all over him. The crowd roared with excitement as he played along for 3 or 4 minutes. Leah pulled him around by the hair too… the poor guy didn’t stand a chance. A great video of the whole episode is below.
After all was said and done, July Talk gave one of the stand out performances of the festival (even if my cousin hadn’t been toyed around with on stage. We hung around and talked to Peter after the show, shooting the shit about tour and good times. Nick never did get his hat back, but Peter gave him the rest of his beer – a fair trade, if you ask me.
NOTE – We went to House of Targ for the Mother’s Children album release party and Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies showed up. So even though we didn’t see their show, we got to see him shoot some mean pinball!