Monday, July 8, 2013

Ottawa Bluesfest, Day 4: There was some fun. to be had

DAY 4: Everlast, Shakey Graves, Joy Formidable, Hearts and Mines, Wu-Tang Clan, Rocky Lawrence, Tegan and Sarah, Diamond Rings, Eric Burdon, fun.


And then - FINALLY - we had some fun. 'Nuff said.

We'd been anticipating it all day, and we were definitely not dissapointed. Those guys (fun.) put on an incredible show, and were incredibly caught up in the moment. Frontman Nate Ruess poured his soul out onstage to the point where the show almost felt like his autobiography, more like a rock opera about an insecure, depression-addled musician spending "most nights" lying awake and wondering if he'll ever become anything more than he is.

Backed by the Brian May-esque high-pitched guitar flourishes and interactive drumming of his bandmates, Ruess was visibly moved almost to tears at several times during the show, proclaiming this the biggest crowd they had ever played for and often just stopping to take it all in. There were times when it looked like he was fighting it all back and was unable to continue for a moment, as though it was almost too much.
It was a moving display of a musician appreciating the moment and a poignant reminder of the magic that can happen at any time at a music festival, for both fans and artist alike. But it took a long, slog of a day to get there. Let me start from the beginning.

I had trouble with this day of the Bluesfest right from the get-go. I knew I had to go see fun., but didnt really have much else that piqued my interest. We arrived early in the afternoon for Everlast, despite the bleak and rainy weather, who always puts on a good show. Sure enough, we got to hear his two big songs, Ends and What It's Like, and had a good time.

And then, we began to wander.

Let me be clear - i love music festivals. They're my favourite place to be. Period. And i love wandering around and discovering new bands, listening to things ive never heard before, enjoying the experience of being outside and drinking beer and listening to music of all kinds. It's just that the offerings at yesterday's Bluesfest were so sparse, and so uninteresting to me, that i actually found myself NOT HAVING A GOOD TIME. And i was very disheartened, because that has literally NEVER happened to me before.

From Austin, Texas' one-man-blues-band Shakey Graves (mildly entertaining), over to vanilla gangsta-rapper Watsky, to the Billy Talent-style rock of Afghan war vets and Ottawa locals Hearts and Mines, to the wall of static sound put up by Joy Formidable, we were looking for something to hook us and nothing ever did.

And then, it was time for Wu-Tang.

Believe me - we tried. We listened as long as we could, but after the 642nd "mother fucker" i could take no more. Twenty minutes or so was enough to confirm that this was, in fact, the opposite of the music i like. Ah well, it happens. There will be other great music to listen to, we figured, as an alternative to Wu-Tang. We went to see aging bluesman Rocky Lawrence, and ended up spending the whole show there just because there was nothing else to go to. He was nothing to write home about but definitely has a lifetime of blues stories to share with the crowd.

Im going to fast-forward through the next 2.5 hours because it was really boring. Not being a fan of Tegan and Sarah (I dont like their radio stuff and their live show lacked a hook or some sort of excitement to keep a non-fan interested), we literally spent 2+ checking out watches and spending money on beer in an effort to have a good time.

Fortunately, fun. saved the day. They turned this day from a total write-off into likely one of the most memorable shows of the festival, and maybe in the recent history of Bluesfest, period.

For the record, it was one of the loudest crowds ive ever heard - not just at Bluefest - and an incredible show, featuring a cover the Rolling Stones You Cant Always Get What You Want and the first real encore of the festival (that went till almost 1130pm!!!!), as well as one of the coolest light and visual displays ive seen in my years of Bluesfest attendance.

It was, really, a special thing to be a part of.

(...dont say it...)

It was a lot of fu-

Ottawa Bluesfest, Day 2: Country rock? Crossover? Yes!

DAY 2: Frank Turner, Dawes, Flogging Molly, She & Him, Zac Brown Band


Bluesfest's first Friday kicked off the weekend in rollicking style. England's hiply-accented Frank Turner was my first show of the day, getting the energy flowing, and Dawes set the stage with a hint of the genre-blending that was to come. Their psychedelic country alt-rock was refreshing, laid back, danceable and very enjoyable to listen to. These guys are up-and-coming stars (check out the cover of last month's Relix magazine for the proof) and now i understand why. They're a band ill actively try to see again.

After a catching more than enough of Flogging Molly (a few minutes' worth), we staked out a spot for ZBB and partied for two hours! These guys just straight-up know how to have a good time, whether you call them country, rock, crossover, jam-band, or whatever. They seem to be a country-rock group on the surface, but the beautiful melodies and soaring uplifting jams say otherwise - not to mention a medley cover of Van Morrison's Into the Mystic and, later, an awesome version of Metallica's Enter Sandman (would a country band try THAT???). Not to be outdone, their encore consisted of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir and closed out with Charlie Daniels' The Devil Went Down to Georgia. which had most of the crowd in a frenzy.

Any way you slice it, ZBB puts on a highly entertaining show. Even the die-hard AC/DC fan in front of me was having a good time, which is saying something. Overall, it was a solid B+ of a day with one new discovery for me (Dawes) and one crazy-good-time of headlining show - which is really all you can ask for out of a fest.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ottawa Bluesfest, Day 1: The Black Keys, Redux

DAY 1: Femi Kuti, Jimmy Eat World, Cat Empire, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Keys


Two years ago, the Black Keys came to Ottawa Bluesfest and were nearly drowned/swept away in a torrential downpour that postponed their show for nearly an hour. Chanting fans finally got their gig away after a furious stage-squeegee-ing, and they proceeded to rock our socks off with a concentrated hour of sound of fury, Black Keys style.

As a result, there was a lot of anticipation for there return to Bluesfest, and the chance to see the Akron, Ohio due with a more diverse setlist. Well, as Thursday broke, the black sky and humidity threatened thunderstorms yet again - "it wouldnt be the Keys at Bluesfest without a thunderstorm," I may have remarked - but we were spared. Weather on Day 1 was fantastic. The sound, unfortunately, wasnt.

Nobody could hear what Dan Auerbach was saying through the first four songs, except for the blasts of feedback and volume as someone presumably fiddled with some knobs somewhere. It was an unacceptable mishap for a veteran band and world-class festival. Even once the sound was sorted out, it never seemed to get loud enough - chants of "Turn it up!" continued throughout the show, and it was a more tense crowd as people talked through the show or sang along loudly, to the chagrin of the surrounding people who COULD ACTUALLY HEAR IT ALL because the band wasnt loud enough.

With that said, it was a great show - despite the audio problems. I expect more, though.

Perhaps something on the lines of the show that ended 15 minutes earlier, when the Cat Empire threw a party for a few hundred people at the small River Stage, their reggae/klezmer/big band/funk style creating much revelry and festivity in the crowd. This show was a lot of fun and sold me on this band as a future live show destination. These Australians (like all Aussies, it seems) know how to have a good time.

Femi Kuti was my festival opener, and his son-of-Africa's-Bob-Marley schtick was both familiar and fresh, with his simple messages of peaceful revolution and taking politics back for the people backed up by three flamboyant dancers and a hint of a Caribbean-style fiesta.

Other shows on this included quintessential rockers Grand Funk Railroad (hearing American Band was a bit of a thrill, thought that's ALL I needed to hear), Bahamas, Jimmy Eat World (I didnt really like them when i was in high school, so...), Alex Clare and Adventure Club, for the E crowd. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Alabama Shakes concert an empowering experience

Alabama Shakes @ Echo Beach, Toronto – June 20, 2013

Unpretentious. Workmanlike. Relatable. The performance by Alabama Shakes at Toronto’s Echo Beach on Thursday, June 20 was all of the above. And yet, while front-woman Brittany Howard appears inconspicuous, on stage she becomes a presence that elevates the Shakes from hook-driven soul and blues-rock to cultural phenomenon.

In a crowd that was about three-quarters female – one of the only shows I’ve ever been to where I actually DID NOT feel short – the female empowerment vibes were hard to ignore. The emotional delivery of songs like the sultry Boys & Girls (“Oh why did I let them drive a wedge between, well I watched it, and I didn't say nothing, and now I'm crying when I sleep”), was clearly a resonant experience for the female-centric audience. Cries of “She’s SO amazing!” were met with “I know – isn’t she just SO GREAT?!” throughout the crowd after every song. For what it’s worth, the men there heartily agreed.

Standing barefoot in the sand of Echo Beach (there is an actual sand pit in the middle of the crowd area, with shoe-check available for those who want to it between their toes) this show was the perfect way to kick off the official coming of summer. There was a warm, affirmative, lean-on-me kind of vibe, as befitting a beautiful evening on the banks of Lake Ontario.

From the slow-burning opener of Rise to the Sun – which perfectly set the stage for their epic duo of Hang Loose and Hold On (my personal favourite) – Always Alright and I Found You led into the album-sequenced Heartbreaker, Boys & Girls, and Be Mine. Closing the set with the smashing, barreling-forward Heavy Chevy, Howard’s intro of “He asked me not to go so fast!” whipped the crowd into one last screaming frenzy that had her band mates racing to keep up.  

While there’s no doubting the musicianship of the Shakes – guitarist Howard, bassist Zach Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and second guitar Heath Fogg – the rest of the band seems to provide a canvas for Howard to work her magic. She is Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger and Ferris Beuller rolled into one, a dynamo in a understated sun dress playing guitar like you would if you were trying to impersonate the greats in a karaoke bar. Except she’s actually playing.

Howard acts like any fun-loving, confident, bar-rockin’ male guitar player would, one who is clearly having a blast playing music – but she does it with such swagger and natural showmanship that she cant help but become a standard-bearer for women in rock. A morally upstanding and wholesome rock-and-roll model for the many young women (and children) in the crowd.

Experiencing this show and feeing how the crowd connected with the simple yet relatable subject matter of Howard’s songs, as well as her crystal clear, soul-filled delivery, it seems that Alabama Shakes has hit upon a winning combination. With concepts everyone can relate to – love, self-worth, heartbreak, resentment, perseverance – woven into tunes few ears can ignore, this is the perfect family or couple’s concert. Canada wants more Alabama Shakes!

Monday, April 29, 2013

James takes off Jacket, suits up for wide-ranging solo show in Toronto

Jim James @ the Phoenix Theatre, Toronto, April 24, 2013

In Toronto’s storied Phoenix Theatre last Wednesday, April 24, as I watched My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James conduct his band through an emotional roller-coaster of a set, I was struck by a thought: this is what I wanted last month’s Sigur Ros show to sound like.

James brought his Regions of Light and Sound of God solo tour to an adoring and appreciative Canadian audience that was both receptive and restless. We were grateful for the chance to see the enigmatic James, who always puts on a good show, but there was an underlying sense of wanting more. With opening act Cold Specks – from nearby Etobicoke, Ontario – warming up the crowd, James and Co. sauntered onto the stage around 9:20pm looking loose and relaxed.

Without preamble, James launched into material from his first solo album with a measured sort of pace. It was loosely tight, with jams designed to showcase the range of James’ musical oeuvre and the spectrum of styles in which he can compose the music. Jams that on this night, even had band-mates watching and cheering each other on with nods of approval.

I use the term compose because, as he meandered around the stage, James not only observed his fellow musicians but directed them, cueing up a keyboard solo here, opening a deep hole for a bass line there, or clearing out of the way of a triple-percussion rhythm. I felt that if James was a film director, he’d be a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B. De Mille.

Tracks like State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U) and A New Life evoked lilting, soulful and sorrowful lows; they mingled with feelings of yearning and a kind of apprehension of the unknown, the sort of suspense Hitchcock knew came from the subconscious – the unseen and powerful forces James draws on in his music. This darkness was juxtaposed by the dense, flood-like harmonies of Actress and All is Forgiven, the powerful and evocative crescendos like DeMille’s climaxes, all sensory overload in full technicolour.

What this first set showed, more than anything else, was James ability to create contrasts – the haunting harmonies and the bluegrass boogies, soaring crescendos and cascading cavalcades of sound. There was a Jimmy Buffet-like island rhythm, some African-inspired beats and jazzy, 50s era swing sounds.

The type of experimentation James does on stage is reserved for only the most investigative and risk-taking of artists, in that it doesn’t always sound good – it’s not always pleasing, per se – but guys like Jack White and Jim James can get away with it. There was an almost scrupulous commitment to anti-harmonies, off-beat notes and clashing tempos that can split heads or summon angels. It felt as though he was challenging the crowd to find the meaning in the white noise.

After the complete-album first set, James began the second with an MMJ cover of Wonderful (The Way I Feel) and then worked through some Monsters of Folk material, including Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.), His Master’s Voice and Losin Yo Head, the song that I think came closest to capturing that MMJ-outdoor-festival vibe. While it was cool to see this material live, it felt almost anti-climactic compared to the first set. This was more accessible, folksy material about prayer, love and spirituality and it seemed a bit…simple…when it was called on to follow up James’ solo stuff.

Having seen My Morning Jacket several times, I couldn’t help but observe a more subdued and level-headed Jim James than I’d seen in the past. There was hardly a hint of the cavorting wild-man, the vampire-cape wearing, slide-guitar animal I was expecting.

Instead, a suited-up James was purely in control on this night, stretching his wings and stepping out from behind the equal-opportunity of his other band and into solo territory of his own making. As he gathered in the love from the Toronto crowd – wielding a golden, praying-bear statue for fans to rub and presenting a single finger for the fist-bumping fans to touch – he seemed content with his offering to the hungry Canadian masses.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Flora and Fauna groove to Plants and Animals

The Montreal "post-classic rockers" whizzed through Wakefield and Ottawa on a cross-Canada tour and stopped just long enough to storm two of the area's most popular venues - Wakefield's Black Sheep Inn and Ritual in downtown Ottawa. Check out my full review of the two shows here at, the one and only Relix Magazine blog for all things jam.