In its early days, Ottawa Bluesfest was held in a small park across from city hall and attracted 5,000 people. The headliner was the late Clarence Clemons, and it lived up to its name with a solid blues-oriented lineup.
Seventeen years later, Ottawa Bluesfest lasts 10 days and attracts around 330,000 people to its five stages spread around LeBreton Flats and a theatre in the capital’s war museum. And though there is still a fair amount of blues to be had, the festival has begun swinging toward younger and younger acts.

For some, the 2011 edition of Bluesfest was a bit of a letdown. The 2010 edition boasted a number of huge names, notably Iron Maiden, Rush, Carlos Santana, the Flaming Lips and Weezer. For the 2011, cash-in reunions by Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction provided headliners, as did veteran rockers Steve Miller and John Fogerty, with younger acts such as My Morning Jacket and the Black Keys and perennial Canuck rock faves Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip filling in some of the gaps. Entertaining acts to be sure, but not the legends some were expecting, particularly after Metallica and U2 both announced tours that conspicuously bypassed the festival.

Still, a shortage of starpower doesn’t mean a shortage of diversity.

On the first Tuesday, aside from the aforementioned Soundgarden (who struggled through some bad sound on their first few songs) and Flaming Lips, who reprised their mindblowing set from 2010, you had local reggae man Ras Lee, soul-singer Lindsay Ferguson, afrobeat exponent Elage Mbaye, bluesrockers Loudlove, 11-piece U.S. indie rockers Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes (a first day highlight) and sisterly folk duo Tegan Sara.

Day two showed off a new direction for the festival. After a performance by Girl Talk went over gangbusters in 2010, the festival not only had him back for a main stage, they loaded up on DJs and dance music acts, with Keys & Krates and Skrillex attracting large crowds. So large, in the case of Skrillex, that the crazed audience shoved over the barriers in front of the stage.

Elsewhere, vaguely rootsy music was in vogue with Oasis tourmates Alberta Cross, New Country Rehab and Gentlemen Husbands attracting brief attention. As always with festivals, sometimes two acts get scheduled at the same time. In the choice between the Roots and Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters fame, the former would likely have been the wiser choice, because the sound coming over the hill from noisy (and good!) indie rockers Whale Tooth quite overwhelmed Kozelek’s careworn acoustic tunes. In other news, headliner Ben Harper is still boring, except on the too-rare occasions when he turns up the guitars.

Day three offered up a good slate of local and Canadian rock, with Ottawa’s Ornaments, Big Jeezus Truck and Ukrainia renewing their respective fanclubs. The most exciting find of the day was the Jimmy Bowskill Band, a power trio that could have landed on a bill with the Groundhogs or Cream back in the 1970s. Fuzzy Canadian rock duo PS I Love You have impressed before, but their National Bank Stage performance was distinctly lacklustre. The youngsters much preferred to bounce around to Infected Mushroom (whose two namesake stage props are among the ugliest I’ve seen) and Girl Talk. At night's end, festival goers could choose between classic rockers Steve Miller (who put on a hits-filled show) and David Clayton-Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears, reggae with Stephen Marley (son of Bob, natch) or Sierra Maestra, one of many Latin rock acts to headline The National Bank Stage.

Day four was one of two days where the weather truly turned nasty, but up until 9 things were looking quite nice, with whiskey-soaked bar-rocker Eamon McGrath and glam rockers the Watters Brothers both playing ear-catching sets. A real festival highlight was provided by Cage The Elephant, whose grungy sounds ended with frontman Matthew Shultz crowdsurfing from the front to back of the enthusiastic audience. Australia’s Blue King Brown snagged a large crowd with their political reggae last year; they sounded better in 2011 but didn’t have the same pull. The nicest find of the day was Toronto’s Cavaliers, whose generic name (how many people thought they were skipping a 1970's soul revival outfit ... or a garage rock group?) hid a tuneful and harmonious quartet.

Unfortunately gusty, cold and rainy weather blew in, pouring an immediate damper on the tail end of Wanda Jackson’s raucous performance of ‘Riot In Cell Block No. 9’ and shutting up the Black Keys (the day's headliners) as well. Diehards who shivered in the cold for an hour were treated to an eventual return. Jackson, for one, treated the crowd to amusing anecdotes from her lengthy career as arguably the first female rock’n’roller, between songs both new and old.

A bit too much sleep on the first Saturday meant missing all but the final moments of compelling terror-electronics duo Myths and highly praised country rockers Dawes. The presence of singing competition winner Justin Nozuka’s nu-soul was not much consolation. More compelling was spectral Brooklynites Callers and wildly enthusiastic dance rocker Rich Aucoin. The Greenhornes’ garage-rock excited many, possibly due to a drought of guitar-oriented music up to that point, but didn’t seem terribly compelling. Motown guitar titan Dennis Coffey kept things funky with a tight band, while Michael Powers threw a bone to hardcore blues fans. Erykah Badu managed to be both entertaining and annoying, keeping the fans waiting a half-hour before coming out to play a hot set.

Canadian rock favourites the Tragically Hip (or just ‘The Hip”, to their fans) rocked the main stage, and The Shpongletron Experience provided more dance music on The Subway Stage, while more laidback music fans filtered over to the National Bank Stage to see M. Ward drawl through a set of classics of rock, folk and blues such as ‘Rave On’ and ‘Helicopter’, interspersed with his own tunes, that culminated with ‘Roll Over Beethoven’

The festival’s first week ended on a high note, starting with a largely solo set from folk-singer Jodie Holland and interesting sets from postpunk quintet Paramedics and one man new wave king Diamond Rings. Worldbeat combo Spam Allstars also provided some tasty sounds, while Jim Suhler satisfied the souls of those who miss Stevie Ray Vaughan. Veteran New Orleans funk combo the Meters put on a sharp set, tucked away at The Hard Rock Stage. Those jonesing for Canadian indie rock could enjoy the many-membered Library Voices, who provide a lot of entertainment value with their saxophone-tossing and running about, or the more straightforward Yukon Blonde.

The highlight of the day, and the festival, I would argue, was Leon Russell. Unlike some legends who tour the festival circuit with bands intended to fade away from the spotlight, Russell employs a killer band which tore through a fabulous set of classics, given that inimitable Russell twist, such as Bob Dylan's ‘A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall’, his well known medley of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Paint It Black’, as well as his own ‘A Song For You’. By coincidence, he ended with ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, just as M. Ward had the night before, in a medley with ‘Great Balls of Fire’. His ace guitarist Chris Simmons also turned in a fine version of ‘Walking Blues’.

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