I thought I’d throw together some notes from my time at Ottawa’s Bluesfest music festival, a twelve day binge of music at the reclaimed LeBreton Flats site, next to the War Museum, here in the capital. Today’s installment is the first half of the festival (days one through six, though I missed Friday) and next week I’ll put together my thoughts on the second half.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009:

– To begin, I saw The Black Keys kick it hard. Like seriously hard. Dan Auerbach (with a nicely trimmed beard, worthy of All-Star recognition) melted my face (not literally, Grandma, relax) with his bluesy-rock guitar. It made me simultaneously want to start playing guitar and to quit because there is no point now that Auerbach is already so good. Patrick Carney on drums was like an IT pro trying to maintain a system overload crash with the drums, you just couldn’t help but think at any moment steam might come out of his ears. Oh, and did I mention that both Auerbach and Carney performed AT THE FRONT OF THE STAGE. It’s hard to imagine, but at the festival I’ve seen a lot of acts perform from twenty feet deep, like they were worried about getting the cooties, or something. What’s more, is that The Black Keys wasted little time on chat and used their full set to play music. The lengthiest address to the audience from Auerbach was, and I am quoting in full verbatim: “You’re too kind. Thank you. Ya ya.” Awesome, awesome show.

– Later I moseyed on over to check out Jeff Beck. I liked his white jumpsuit. He played rock guitar. He played jazz guitar. He played reggae guitar. I got tired. I admired the man’s technical ability, but somewhere between his white jumpsuit and boots (in the style of Van Halen c.1985) and his non-emotion I couldn’t help but note the man has been playing guitar longer than my parents have been alive. After seeing Auerbach play the axe with raw blues-rock emotion I lamented for a time machine to take me back to a period in Beck’s career when he looked like he cared.

Thursday, July 9, 2009:

– I was pretty pressed for time, as I had other commitments before and after I dropped in at the festival, but I managed to check out Metric, one of the bands I had long wanted to see. A friend had mentioned that he had seen them a couple times and at each appearance Emily Haines looked like she was about to collapse or fall off the stage, but never did. He pegged the chances of her actually falling off the stage at 15-20% (“She’s due!”). Luckily for both Emily and I, it was not to be, and she seemed coherent, talkative, and energetic throughout. And what chops! Definitely amazed with her voice. Near the end she started crawling on the stage and talking about the band’s worldview or something incoherent. I only saw her drink water, so no idea what was happening, but it wasn’t anything close to Sarah Palin’s resignation speech in terms of embarrassing rambling.

Saturday, July 11, 2009:

– I hadn’t heard much of Hey Rosetta! before they were listed on the 2009 Polaris Prize shortlist for their album Into Your Lungs, so I did some digging and discovering and realised that they were a band that fit right into the pocket of indie rock that I really, really like, and must have been a fool to not have been into them earlier. Fool! All the stars also must have alligned as this past week on CBC3’s podcast they had Hey Rosetta! in session. That gave me a great primer on the band, beyond the music vids on youtube. So, based on all this, I parked myself ten feet from the stage for their show after a miserable day of thundershowers, hoping to see something decent. The weather worked in my favour as the crowd was thinner than usual. And what a show I got, indeed. The band was flawless. Their live sound was even better than their considerable recorded presence. To make things even more special, through one song (I want to say it was “We Made a Pact“, but my memory may be wrong) as the song’s tempo builds up and up, the sky opened up and rain began to pour on us, harder and harder, in perfect unison with the song. I am not kidding you. It was magic. Pure magic. Those hipster kids that were too cool to have an umbrella (or chose to get wet out of irony) just stood in the showers with their hands in the air and their head looking up to heaven. Not a bad rock show, eh?

– Friends dragged me to check out Matisyahu. You’ve never heard of Matisyahu? Me neither, no worries. The dude is an Orthodox Jew reggae star. You can’t make this shit up. He also had a pretty groove going on. Not really my thing, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Sunday, July 12, 2009:

– First thing I noticed was that they raised the price on premium beers at the garden. Fucking jerks. Yes, that time the F-bomb was justified. I had been rocking Creemore ale tall cans because they were $6.75 as opposed to the regular size cans for $6. Lots of other people had followed suit. Wednesday to Saturday. On Sunday, they jacked the price up to $7. Now, that isn’t really a big difference. That’s not the point. They could have raised the price by $0.01 and I would still have been mad. It is the principle. It is completely ridiculous to raise the price of something at a festival halfway into the festival solely based on the fact it was popular. Did the price of Creemore increase Saturday at midnight? I want answers.

– As I drank my over-priced (which it was to begin with, but was now slightly even more so) beer, I started the evening with Gregg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk. The copyright fair-use champion lit up the stage with his exuberent use of a laptop, surrounding himself with dancing fans, lights, leaf blowers shooting toilet paper rolls, all the while challenging the crowd to have as much fun as he does. Definitely the most energetic and interactive artist I’ve seen.

– I couldn’t stay too long at Girl Talk as I had to get my way over to see Neko Case. This woman has a fantastic rapport with the crowd and can actually strike up interesting conversation as opposed to the vacuity that sometimes comes. Case actually makes it enjoyable to hear some chatter. At one point she was discussing with the band about their setlist and someone started shouting out song titles, which she replied “Yeah, we’ll play that, after this next one.” and then intimated that she liked being yelled stuff, to which someone else yelled “Marry me, Neko!”, which she deadpanned: “I’m not the marrying kind, sir. I like the full bed to myself.” But the music is the reason I went to see her and she did not disappoint, playing a lot of songs off Middle Cyclone, with easily the best vocals I’ve heard live.

– To close the night, up on the big stage was living legend, Joe Cocker. You name the song you wanted to hear him sing, he sang it. “Feelin’ Alright”. Check. “With A Little Help From My Friends”. Check. “You Are So Beautiful”. Check. “Love Lift Us Up”. Check. “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. Check. And so on, and so forth. The man is a walking cover machine, but he makes them his own. His signature hand gestures, such as his air guitar, air piano, and pretend conducting were also delightful. He also talks like he sings.

Monday, July 13, 2009:

Stone Temple Pilots. Yep. I was pretty excited that this was the first band reunited after breaking up that I am old enough to remember (and care). After a decade apart, they reunited and are touring again, and according to Scott Weiland (wearing a Jeff Beck-approved white suit) at the concert, they plan to be finishing up a new album after the tour. He didn’t say it would be their best ever, but he did say it would be a “very special STP album”. I like his honesty. It’s hard to try and get back at it after ten years, and with such an awesome catalogue of songs on display during the concert it would be foolish to think they could match any of them. “Vaseline”, “Plush”, “Interstate Love Song”, et cetera, were all fantastic live. My hearing is slowly recovering….