Well, the first five days of the RBC Bluesfest 2015 has come and gone. Today is mercifully an off day, where the festivalgoers get to recharge their batteries. It’s also been fairly hot and the past few days humid, so the reprieve is most welcome (thanks Mark Monahan and gang!).
It’s also a good opportunity to reflect back on the first five days. The main headliners have been huge draws for the festival with an estimated 25,000 people filling the grounds to see Kanye West while between 12,000 to 20,000 watched Jason Aldean, Iggy Azalea, Blue Rodeo, and Skirllex’s Full Flex Express. Our favourite shows, however, are often those on the side stages. They’re more intimate, the artists are often more engaging, and the crowd more appreciative of the artistry and musicianship. Below are some of our – Ben’s and Darren’s – favourite shows from the first five days of RBC Bluesfest 2015. The list is in chronological order. The photos are by Darren, who will be sharing more extensive photo essays once Bluesfest has been completed, which is 6 days from now. Words mostly by Ben unless otherwise specified.
Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires (Thursday, July 9, 9:30 PM, Canadian Stage)
We’ve both seen Charles Bradley a few times previously. And while he has the same dance moves and continues to tease and entertain the audience with his seductive gestures, his shows are always extraordinary. Part of it is his presence on stage. He commands your attention when he arrives, yet at the same time he reels the audience in with his dance antics (such as during “Lovin’ You, Baby”) and sometimes playful dialogue. The second part was, of course, his voice. Once a James Brown impersonator, Bradley on several occasions let out the powerful wail we’ve come to know and love, such as on “Hurricane”. The third element was his talented backing band The Extraordinaires, who played a handful of tracks without Bradley yet provided the musical palette for the soul man to show his stuff.
Another noticeable element of the show was that the constant touring of the past four years is starting to catch up with Bradley, specifically his voice. While his vocals remain strong, his speaking voice is more raspy. Who knows how much longer the 66-year old soul singer will continue to perform, but for now he’s enjoying every minute and so are his fans. Ending the night with a group hug with Bradley was the perfect ending.
Langhorne Slim & The Law (Friday, July 10, 7:15 PM, Canadian Stage)
No matter how well you know an artist’s work, there’s something special about seeing her or him live. On Friday night, Langhorne Slim & The Law‘s set was something unexpected. While his soulful combination of Americana, alt-country, and folk was expected, Sean Scolnick, the man behind Langhorne Slim, emitted an energy that only few artists could match. He and his backing band put together an action-band, energy-filled 30-minute performance.
From inducing the audience to sing along with him, even if we didn’t know the words, to constantly jumping off the stage to sing on the rail to playing through Chance the Rapper’s noise bleed during the stirring “Song for Sid” (a song dedicated to his late grandfather), Langhorne Slim’s show was intimate, engaging, and a wonderfully fun time. It left everyone, including the young kids standing next to me (Ben), amazed and in fine spirits. The father of the kids said to them, “You won’t see this even in the best bars in North America”, which was an apt description of the show.
Obviously, everyone wanted the show to go on. We instead settled with chatting with Scolnick for several minutes after the show, at which time he signed CDs and other things, took photos, hugged people, and shared laughs. Can’t wait to see him again less than two weeks from now at Newport Folkfest.
Alvvays, Shakey Graves, The Growlers, Family of the Year, and Reverb Syndicate (Saturday, July 11, Canadian Stage)
To pick one act on this day was impossible, as the 6+ hours of music was fantastic. It started off with Ottawa’s The Reverb Syndicate, whose surf- / spy-rock had the crowd dancing in the heat and imagining what James Bond would look like chasing a villain on a surfboard. There was also a little bit of extra energy from the band, as the show marked the quartet’s last one for a little while, as guitarist James Rossiter and his wife Katie (one of the two Go-Go Dancers) will be heading to the UK to start a new life.
Los Angeles quintet Family of the Year followed. Their popularity soared when their single “Hero” was used in the movie Boyhood, but on this afternoon they showed they were more than just a one-trick pony. Their earlier songs resonated with the spirit of Wilco with frontman Joseph Keefe’s voice sounding like a young Jeff Tweedy. And plenty of kudos to Keefe for playing with a cast on his right hand, which he recently broken, but it didn’t take away from the band’s performance. They also played their latest track, “Make You Mine”, which was well-received and had more of a pop-rock spin.
The Growlers don’t get enough credit for being a huge influence on today’s indie music with their blend of surf rock, jangle pop, garage rock, and punk-pop. Their style can be hear in indie artists ranging from Mac DeMarco to HOMESHAKE to Real Estate. On this day, they covered tracks mostly from their latest album, Chinese Fountain, while also covering some back catalog singles. The band didn’t do much talking, although frontman Brooks Nielsen on several occasions shouted out to a young kid decked out in a red Bat Kid outfit. Instead, they let their music do all the talking, playing solidly for nearly an hour with little interruption. They might be a self-described “beach goth” band, but on stage they are tight.
It’s been fun to watch the rise of Alejandro Rose-Garcia – a.k.a. Shakey Graves. When he played Bluesfest two years ago, he had a 6:00 weekday slot, and there were maybe a couple of hundred people there (Ben included). He performed solo at the time, accompanied only by his makeshift bass drum, a couple of acoustic guitars, and a harmonica. On this occasion, a few thousand people turned out to watch Rose-Garcia; his friend and producer Chris Boosahda, who doubles as Shakey Graves’ drummer; and Aaron Thomas Robinson on second guitar. However, unlike his show at Newport Folkfest last year, Rose-Garcia spent most of the time on stage solo for what was a blistering, high-energy, and remarkable affair, playing everything from “Dearly Departed”, the earth-moving “Roll the Bones”, and one of the first songs he wrote, “Tomorrow”, which he dedicated to his shitty 16-year old self and that same person who resides in all of us. His set lasted roughly 40 minutes in what might be the show of the festival. He’ll be headlining one of the side stages in the very near future.
Canadian indie darlings Alvvays closed the Canadian Stage. While it took the band a couple of songs to catch their groove, their and the audience’s energy levels picked up after “The Agency Group” and really took off after “Marry Me, Archie”. Their cover of Deerhunter’s “Nosebleed” was another highlight that had Deerhunter fans in a celebratory mood. The band also broke out a cover of Krista MacColl’s “He’s on the Beach”, which the quintet seemed to enjoy the most playing. The karaoke rendition of “Red Planet”, which opened the encore and had Molly Rankin singing alone on stage to a synth-driven melody, was brilliant, and closing with The Primitives’ “Out of Reach” was another fine call. It seems like for the past 18 months everything the Nova Scotia-Prince Edward Island band has done has been golden.
Willie Nile, The Glorious Sons, Philip Sayce, Sticky Fingers, and Silvergun & Spleen (Sunday, July 12)
It’s always tough having the opening slot on the weekend, especially when it’s 30+ degrees and humid and only the hardest, most dedicated festivalgoers are there. Yet, Ottawa’s Silvergun & Spleen didn’t just do an admirable job but a terrific one. Frontwoman Marie-Eve Mallet, sporting a sleeveless t-shirt that showcased her guns from working in Alberta’s oilsands in order to raise funds for their next album, was the catalyst, often breaking out into a wild dance, jumping on stage, or encouraging the audience to dance and sing. Her sister Veronique similarly was thrashing – and one time withering – on stage and demonstrating some fine guitar work. Musically, they covered tracks from their debut album, Semi-Truck, including the awesome title track and a few covers, such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Gold Lion”. With their power rock-pop, the quartet showed why they could follow fellow local band The Balconies and achieve stardom. For now, they’ll have to settle for putting an extra charge into a hot Sunday afternoon.
Every year, there’s a band that arrives at Bluesfest with little fanfare yet when the festival is finished people can’t stop speaking about them. Through the first five days, Australian quintet Sticky Fingers wins the award. With their mix of rock reggae, roots-rock, and psychedelic rock, their one-hour set was nothing short of mind-blowing. The show was everything from a beach party to a fist-pumping, neck-spraining, rock show. The closer, “Bootleg Rascal” (thanks to fan Michelle for the info), had the jam power of My Morning Jacket. Brilliant! It was easy to see why Sticky Fingers have established a huge following in Australia and a niche fan base in Canada. With shows like this, which marked their first in Canada, their following should quickly be an intercontinental affair. They hit Montreal tonight, Toronto on Wednesday, and then back through the US for two more weeks. Tour dates can be found here.
If Canada was looking for an heir to The Tragically Hip, we don’t have to look any further than fellow Kingston, Ontario sextet The Glorious Sons. With their blistering rock ‘n roll and southern rock (think Kings of Leon and The Whigs), it was like a bar show broke out with most of the members of The Glorious Sons prancing around the stage or doing something that would catch your eye. Frontman Brett Emmons, in particular, was a fireball, and his presence commanded everyone’s attention. He’s like a young Axel Rose, where he just exudes energy and personality yet beneath the party mentality is a thoughtful songwriter. Kingston’s secret will soon be one of Canada’s great exports.
Back over at the Bell Stage, Darren was witnessing Toronto blues and roots rocker Philip Sayce. He was not a complete surprise (although remains under-the-radar to most music fans) because he blew me (Darren) away when he played Bluesfest in 2009. Wow, has it really been that long!? Even going in with the great memories of that performance, he did not let me down. His performance was nothing short of spectacular and for me was a standout amongst the other good performances. It’s a real shame that it was opposite The Glorious Sons, who I always wanted to see and apparently also put on an excellent performance.
Following Sayce on the Monster Energy Stage was Willie Nile, the classic rocker from Buffalo and a musician our (Ben and his wife Carol’s) friends Beth and Jeff have long shouted his exploits (Nile was the headliner at their 2013 house show, which we unfortunately missed). Although there hasn’t been too much classic rock this year, Willie Nile sure made up for it all by himself with his extremely talented band. It was just an old fashion rock ‘n roll show, as the foursome blistered through a high-energy, one-hour set. Loyal fans soaked in every minute of the gig, shouting back at Nile and singing along. The energy on the stage was tremendous, resulting in the Bluesfest organizers inviting Nile and his band back to do an unexpected encore, where they launched through a spectacular cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”.
Throughout the set, each band member was able to showcase their immense talents – Matt Hogan’s soaring guitar solos; Johnny Pisano’s deep basslines and his classic pose a la the greats; and drummer Alex Alexander’s tight and controlled rhythms. Nile, meanwhile, also showcased his great guitar work. However, he’ll be remembered most for his humble but engaging personality, rare qualities you see in a rock star. What a show! What a man!
Five days down, six more to go!
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