published: 31 /
In the first week of Ottawa's annual Bluesfest, Andrew Carver watches performances from acts including the Black Keys, Grand Funk Railroad, Sharon Van Etten, the Joy Formidable and Wu-Tang Clan...
For 2013, Ottawa’s Bluesfest returned with sticky weather and a slimmed-down lineup. The venerable festival trimmed a day from its line-up and cut a stage (one frequently accused of excess sound bleed), and backpedalled slightly from its sudden injection of a large amount of DJ and dub-step acts in 2012. It also benefited from the simultaneous Toronto Urban Roots Festival which brought a number of indie rock acts (most notably Belle & Sebastian and She & Him) to the festival.
As in previous years, the festival found a home at LeBreton Flats, a wide lawn surrounding Canada’s War Museum situated on a bend in the Ottawa River. Two stages were placed in front of the museum, allowing an immediate switchover between acts, while another two stages - the River Stage and Black Sheep Stage - sit beside the river and behind the museum.
Thursday’s headlining act, the Black Keys, drew a huge, early crowd to the festival, which opened with a set by the Split, a soulful combo fronted by the Brothers Chaffey, a popular country-rock duo whose superior chops had been put more and more in the service of an Otis Redding style sound in recent years.
Afrobeat progeny Femi Kuti also drew a good crowd at the River Stage, but the real beneficiary of the Black Keys drawing power was rootsy former Feist sideman Afie Jurvanen, whose Bahamas nearly filled the bowl and slope at the Black Sleep Stage.
Fans of groovier music could then check out Australia’s Cat Empire at the River Stage, or perhaps stick around at the Black Sheep to listen to loud thudding noises courtesy of DVBSS.
The older generation, and fans of ‘The Simpsons’ hoping for “the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher” and “the competent drumwork of Don Brewer,” largely headed back to the main stage area to catch veteran Detroit rockers Grand Funk Railroad (Mark Farner, author of the “wild, shirtless lyrics” adulated by Homer Simpson last toured with the band in the 1990s). The original unthinking man’s power trio is still going strong, with the addition of 38 Special vocalist Max Carl, ex-Kiss man Bruce Kulick and keyboardist Tom Cashion. They played a very capable set featuring a bunch of Detroit-centric songs, including ‘The Locomotion’, and finished off with their big hit, ‘We’re an American Band’.
Since their last Bluesfest appearance, the Black Keys have added three other musicians to round out their live sound. It needed all the help it could get for the first couple of songs, with the crowd chanting “Turn it up! Turn it up!” as Dan Auerbach’s voice struggled to emerge from the mix.
British singer Alex Clare also drew a good crowd to the River Stage, but the pop tunes from his latest work seem a bit blander than his earlier stuff with Major Lazer.
The second day of Bluesfest kicked off with a brief but torrential downpour. Camera Obscura took the blame for the rain -“This is what you get for inviting Glaswegians,” joked Tracyanne Campbell - before launching into a fine set with a lot of amusing banter between songs. The ongoing drizzle was fended off with some strategic plastic. "We don't mind if we get electrocuted, but the gear is precious."
New York rocker Garland Jeffreys played a loose but capable set over at the Black Sheep Stage, with plenty of vocal riffing on his streetwise songs.
Zooey DesChanel and Matt Ward’s project She & Him also played a chirpy headlining set on the River Stage, with a distinct 1960s pop flavour burnished by a cover of The Miracles’ ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’.
Saturday provided a few more festival highlights and a very diverse line-up, starting with a zippy set of power-pop from locals Camp Radio. Youthful Australian guitar whiz Joe Robinson also made a favourable impression on the main stage. He was followed on the main stage by blind Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, looking resplendent in bright red outfits and playing the same hypnotic rhythms that entranced the crowd at their first Bluesfest appearance in 2006.
Danceable Los Angeles combo Fitz and the Tantrums had the crowd jumping and clapping along with their pop tunes, as well as a cover of the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’.
Back on the main stage alt-country heroine Neko Case wowed the crowd with a bunch of new material from her upcoming record. Best of all for pop fans, Belle & Sebastian finally made a trip to Ottawa and played an entirely killer set with many charming between-song asides from frontman Stuart Murdoch.
A raucous set from Sharon Van Etten on the River Stage provided an excellent capper to the day, with Van Etten trying her hand at bass for the first time live on a new song.
Sunday’s opportunities weren’t quite as plentiful, but the Joy Formidable started things off on a high - and extremely loud - note, with front woman Roxie Bryan having a grand time throwing her guitar about while coaxing ever-more feedback from her amps.
Hip hop legends Wu-Tang Clan also provided an energizing set on the main stage, with virtually all of the combo’s rappers making an appearance to delight the crowd with old favourites. Old school bluesman and former Honeyboy Edwards sideman Rocky Lawrence also proved that despite its eclectic lineups, there’s still some blues at Bluesfest.