The second day of Ottawa Bluesfest dawned on us as we shuffled into Lebreton Flats, gazing somewhat fearfully up at the sky as it daunted us with dark, looming clouds. At that point, you either comes to terms with the fact that you’ll probably get soaked or you turn back. My friend and I took the “it’s-probably-going-to-be-damp” option.
Seeing as I had to miss Bluesfest last year due to out-of-town family commitments, it was so refreshing to be back on-site. There was an excitement in the air as the gathering crowd meandered around, reacquainting themselves with the territory at the Flats. It’s quite an experience walking into Bluesfest and hearing The Heavy Medicine Band cap of their early set, which I unfortunately had to miss most of because of work. But over in the distance, I could see Keturah Johnson electrifying the crowd that had gathered in front of the Claridge Stage, enchanting them with her masterful vocal abilities.
The City stage glittered with a gold backdrop, and what little sunlight was left came through the clouds to welcome Coeur de Pirate. Songwriter Béatrice Martin came out and immediately offered her warmth to the crowd, and the crowd reciprocated the love. The beginning of their set started off with energy, and irresistibly catchy songs like “Undone” and “The Way Back Home” off the new album Roses enveloped the crowd.
Martin’s graceful movements on stage added some flair to the set, moving off her piano bench and dancing with whispy hand and body movements. The set consisted of a lot of newer songs, both in French and English. The band has clearly hit their stride, and they sounded incredible together live. The impressive harmonies melded together intricately, not missing one note. Without a doubt, we were all in Martin’s gaze throughout the set, and she had us in the palm of her hand. Adults and children alike offered their appreciation after each song.
As she got set to play the song “Saint-Laurent” off 2011’s Blonde, Martin admitted “This is a song about Saint-Laurent in Montréal, but it could apply to the one in Ottawa too”. The crowd chuckled, as we all know that Ottawa’s St. Laurent doesn’t really compare. As the set came to a close, we were enthralled.
Next up was Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals over at the Claridge Stage, and the clouds kept holding out for us as we nestled in nice and close to the stage. Their much anticipated new album Call It What It Is came out in April of this year, and their set consisted of some new tracks as well as a healthy dose of older ones we all know and love.
Setting the tone early, the group played a great live version of “Burn To Shine” off of the band’s first album together by the same name. It was something special to see the original crew still kicking out songs on stage, albeit a little bit older and greyer. But age didn’t get the best of them during this set, sounding on-point the whole time. We could all tell they were having fun up there. They went into the tried-and-true classic “Steal My Kisses,” which started off with percussionist David Leach teasing us with a fun bongo intro. The crowd indulged the band by singing along gleefully.
The tone turned sombre for a few minutes during the performance of the new single “Call It What It Is.” Starting off with a mean slide guitar riff, the song is about police violence against black people – a song which is especially poignant given the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police over the past few weeks. No message could be more important right now than addressing the systemic racism that continues to exist in police forces – particularly in the US. With the crowd sending positive vibes to the stage, the band finished off their set with “Burn One Down.”
The last act of the night for us was Kristian Matsson, a.k.a The Tallest Man On Earth, down at the Monster Stage. Monster had some weird green area to sit at the back that was distracting, so most people went away from it and went close to the stage. The Tallest Man On Earth’s latest album Dark Bird Is Home was recorded with a full band and has a fuller sound than his previous three releases, and this Bluesfest set was a nice balance of him playing alone as well as with the group.
He opened with “Wind and Walls” off of 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, followed by the crowd-pleasing “1904.” With each song his energy grew, and with each lyrics he became more passionate. At 9:30, about a third through the set, Noel Gallagher started playing on the City Stage. The loudness definitely put a damper on the set, as the booming noise from the big stage could be heard over the softer songs being played by Matsson.
“I’m just going to put my finger in my one ear,” Matsson joked, plugging the ear closest to Gallagher’s. “He’s got his wind machine blowing right at us.”
For a guy that wears what could be the tightest pants ever sold, Matsson kept moving freely and easily across the stage, continuing to put on an amazing show despite the distractions. His beautiful fingerpicking, distinctive vocal style, and natural ability to capture his crowd made this the most memorable one of the night.