For the first time in the history of the RBC Bluesfest, a two-day break has been provided. In some respect, it is disappointing to not be heading out to the grounds of the War Museum and anticipating hearing a new artists. At the same time, the two days allows everyone to recharge their batteries, get errands done (like wash the kids and feed the pets), and, for writers and photographers, to reflect back on the first four days. Here are our – Darren, Dina, and Ben – thoughts on the RBC Bluesfest 2016 – First Half. Unfortunately, we couldn’t attend every gig, but that’s the nature of festivals.
The majority of photos are by Darren. Words are mostly by Ben with Darren and Dina also sharing their thoughts on specific acts. We have decided to only offer quick highlights since we saw over 25 acts over these four days. However, we did not catch enough of the sets by The Head & The Heart, Bahari, Ginkgoa, and Yukon Blonde, but Darren was able to grab a few photos of these artists.
Day 1 – Thursday, July 7th
The first day of Bluesfest was a microcosm of what the festival has become. It showcased local talent, stars who were topping the charts between the 70s and 90s, and indie stars from afar.
We kicked things off with Lost To The River, the Ottawa-based rock band who, as expected, entertained us with their indie-rock sound. And while we mentioned them in the same breath as Hollarado, their tight show was akin to a legendary band – The Black Crowes.
The venerable Joe Jackson was next. The 70s/80s new wave-artist-turned-modern-day-crooner showed that he still has the vocal chops as he sounded fantastic. He started the show solo behind the keyboard and was joined by Graham Maby for “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Then the rest of the band joined him for what would eventually be a total of sixteen songs, which was a great offering for all his fans in attendance.
Thirty minutes after Jackson started, Boy & Bear took to the Monster Energy Stage. Playing songs across their four-album discography, including singles “Limit of Love” and “Walk the Wire” from their latest release, Limit of Love, the band’s summery vibe turned the War Museum grounds into a campground. All we needed was a bonfire and some S’mores.
Singer-songwriter Son Little – a.k.a. Aaron Earl Livingston – gave festivalgoers more than they came for, walking on stage shirtless and decked out in a cowboy hat, which drew a few whistles. While Son Little is known for his fantastic storytelling and genre-blending music, it was his and his band’s impeccable musicianship that stood out along with their affable personalities. The smiles of the foursome were also infectious, where even during the more sombre songs, like the gorgeous “O Mother”, the audience was beaming.
PB&J’s set can be described as a blast. The disco-pop focus of their last album Breaking Point (hear it on SoundCloud), Peter’s constant guitar kicks and frequent visits to the rail (including a walk through the crowd), and Bjorn’s Statue of Library poses will likely stick out in most people’s memories. For us, however, the show will remembered for two things. First, during their show, Peter noticed a couple on the rail, who had the band’s album and were waving a Brazilian flag, and said he would sign the album. After the show, he spent some with the lucky fans. Second, the performance of their hit single, “Young Folks” was memorable, as the band transformed the catchy tune into a laid-back, summery, surf-pop tune.
Billy Idol, meanwhile, drew the largest crowd of the night to no one’s surprise. He played a fine collection of his hits from his glory years and a couple newer songs that are strong enough to hold their own among the classics. Steve Stevens wowed the audience with an impressive and sometimes humorous romp through various tunes in his solo. It is hard to believe Billy Idol is 60 years old, but he is in great shape, which allows him to perform at the level we remember him for. The energy and attitude were present all night and you can bet there was plenty of fist shaking and sneering to please every fan.
Day 2 – Friday, July 8th
There was quite a bit of stage hopping on this day, as we wanted to catch a number of shows and similar ones at that. The Heavy Medicine Band were our choice at 6:00 PM. As this band has evolved over time, they have become what can best be described as a dark-notic, indie rock band. Their music is brooding but yet entrancing. Could they turn into Ottawa’s version of Daughter?
Coeur de Pirate was more than we had hoped. Her Francophone and Anglophone piano pop songs were infectious and intimate, but what surprised us was her on-stage activity. Despite never having any formal dance training, Martin showed the grace of a ballerina. Her presence on stage, too, was incredible, where her amusing banter and constant smile brought us warmth.
The Revivalists were one of our picks this day and boy did they deliver. The New Orleans-based band’s set was easily one of the – if not THE – best show of the four days. The band was a tour de force during their one-hour set. From their mix of roots, blues, and southern rock with a dash of funk and hip hop to the exploits of all seven member (and just frontman David Shaw who repeatedly went to the rail and took selfies with overzealous fans), the crowd was blown away. People will still be talking about this set long after the Festival’s conclusion.
Shortly after The Revivalists completed their set, young Aussie Tal Wilkenfeld was busy delighting the crowd, showcasing the bass guitar prowess she is known for. Her take on The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” was memorable and one of the highlights of the weekend. Wilkenfeld is currently working on mixing and mastering her debut vocal album, and she happily stating that she had almost reached her goal through pledges to make it a reality. Could a return to Bluesfest be on the horizon?
One of the headliners to see this night was Kristian Matsson – a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth. The Swedish indie-folk star dazzled the crowd with his self-professed “sad songs” and his finger-plucking skills. Whether during the quiet moments or the most “uplifting” songs, such as “1904” and “Sagres”, every single eye was fixated on Matsson throughout his 75-minute set. It was a treat to watch a tremendous talent and masterful showman at work.
On the City Stage, Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds were performing. Though the set consisted of 20 songs, Gallagher paused and bantered with the audience, cracked a joke or two, and even dedicated a couple songs to a Mother/Daughter pair near the front of the crowd. It’s a different side of Gallagher we don’t have hear about. There was an entertaining mingling of newer material and Oasis tracks; the lyrics of “Champagne Supernova” seemed as fresh as they were in the mid-’90s. The rain started to fall towards the end of the set, though it didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm as we were flying high alongside Gallagher and his band.
Day 3 – Saturday, July 9th
Saturday was a very wet day, so we often took shelter mostly to stay warm (it was a very cool July day). The day commenced with catching Algerian-born, Ottawa-based musician Medhi Cayenne, who put on a terrific performance despite the low turnout and dreary conditions. It was impossible not to be pulled into his performance and enjoy his set, as his positivism and joy was completely contagious. Maybe he could very well be the next Manu Chao?
New York City, blues-rock group The London Souls were next. As expected, The London Souls’ setlist was filled with scorching numbers and the intensity of the two brought more people out into the rain. It was definitely one the best of the day (Darren’s favorite anyway). Tash Neal and Chris St. Hiliare are extremely underrated and underappreciated for their talents on guitar and drums, respectively, as well as a power duo. They are the best thing to happen to blues-rock since The Black Keys arrived over a decade ago. Now if only more people too notice.
Over the next few hours, we zigzagged between stages, catching brief sets of Aussie folk singer Archer; emerging, Ottawa hip hop artist Yusso; East Coast folk legend John Campbelljohn; and future troubadour Tor Miller. We tried to catch Jill Zmud, but alas we were too late.
The Cult was the evening’s highlight for a good portion of the audience, evidenced by the crowd stretching halfway to the other end. The ’80s stars brought their power rock sound, offering the noticeably older crowd a chance to relive their youth (including us). The biggest roar (and out came the cellphones), not surprisingly, came when the band broke out “She Sells Sanctuary”, and everyone danced and jumped like it was 1985. Given the excitement, maybe The Cult should have closed the evening.
While The Lumineers were the headliners, we opted for Calgary quartet Preoccupations. While their debut album Viet Cong was one of the most cathartic and mind-blowing records in recent memory, it is only live where you can truly appreciate the talents of Matt Flegel, Mike Wallace, Scott Munro, and Daniel Christiansen, who are fantastic musicians. Their set featured old song and four new tracks The quartet shared new songs from their forthcoming, sophomore LP, Anxiety, including the title track. It was the set’s finale, “Death”, however, where Preoccupations blew the crowd’s mind. It revealed the brilliance and crippling power of one of Canada’s great bands.
Day 4 – Sunday, July 10th
The sun eventually came out on this day and with it was the Festival’s best lineup so far. Consequently, there was a lot of stage hopping. New Orleans-based, Ukranian gypsy band Debauche, however, made us stop for their entire set. They informed us their songs were about “widows, orphans, whores and lesbians.” We and likely most of the crowd had no idea how accurate the statement was since the lyrics were all Russian, but it doesn’t matter as music is universal and their gypsy-style music was outlandish fun. Well, one song was about a Mexican Jewish wedding, so their original comment wasn’t quite accurate. Nonetheless, their presence was a taste of the world music that the festival once showcased in greater quantity.
Rapper and hip hop artist Belly made a triumphant return to his hometown. While we do not cover much within this genre, it wasn’t Belly’s freestyle prowess or showmanship that caught our attention, but his thoughtful lyrics. Whether he was speaking about growing up in poverty, being surrounded by pretenders and fake people once the money started rolling in, or Donald Trump, Belly showed that he is an artist who must use his fame to raise awareness about the key issues of the day. His set was really special, which only got better when Travi$ Scott made an appearance.
Speaking of showtoppers, there was the incomparable Steve Hill. What can one say about the award-winning, one-man band from Trois-Rivières? Somehow, the man is able to simultaneously play the guitar, drums and cymbals while also singing and rocking hard. His presence and skills are so impressive that the crowd applauded and roared during his soundcheck. As one audience member said, “Best soundcheck ever!”. Heck, Hill might be the best one-man band around and definitely one of blues-rock’s great artists.
Further adding to the rock vibe of the evening was JD McPherson. From roots rock to old school rock ‘n roll, McPherson had the audience at the City Stage moving. The highlight was “Precious”, which showed that McPherson and his talented band are not merely a band to bring to the party but one that can also make us weep a little inside.
One of our collective favorites, Wild Child, meanwhile, were making their debut Bluesfest appearance on the Monster Energy Stage. While the band arrived that morning from Winnipeg, their one-hour set was pure joy. Their intimate folk-pop ballads and euphoric Americana (such as on “Fools”) left people grinning ear-to-ear and laughing during the humorous interplay between the band’s two leaders, Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins. They are one of Austin’s most dynamic bands and a rising star on the indie scene, who one day will be headlining one of the Festival’s stages in the near future.
There was no shortage of options in terms of headliners, as the three scheduled this night offered something for everyone. Most went to see John Fogerty, but the three of us opted for the other options. Darren and Dina headed to the Black Sheep stage to see electronic producer Madeon. The area was packed with teenagers and young adults, who came to see the latest sensation in EDM. The native of Nantes, France delivered what was exactly expected – a high-energy, high-intensity show full of light effects, pulsating beats, and endless samples.
In the intimate Barney Danson Theatre, New York City octet San Fermin were making their Bluesfest debut. The band has long amazed us with their creativity, combining various genres into a single composition. Their music, however, must be witnessed live, as you can observe the talents of each member, the chemistry that exists between them, and how this frenetic and often chaotic mix can create lead to something that is either dazzling, euphoric, mesmerizing, or all of the above. Old favorites like “Astronaut”, “Ladies Mary”, and “Jackrabbit” sounded fresh while new songs from the band’s forthcoming new album (date TBA) – the dark, sultry “Dead”; the Cat Power-esque “August”; the breathtaking spectacle that is “Emery” (name uncertain); and the jazz-pop tune “Blue” – further demonstrated the band’s creative brilliance. What a way to end four nights of non-stop music.
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