Features | Festivals

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2009

By Conrad Amenta, Calum Marsh, & Clayton Purdom | 29 July 2009

    Photos by Tina Hassannia and Cait Powers*

Part 1: In which C-rad owes Cal-dog a beer

Calum: Hey Conrad! Bluesfest decided to give us passes!

Conrad: Really?

Calum: Well…only after the rep offered a several-paragraph critique of the review you wrote last year explaining why it’s incoherent and in need of editing. But after I sweet-talked them a little? We’re going to Bluesfest! Wheeeeooooo! C-rad, you owe me a beer.

Conrad: Done. I can’t believe we’re going to a festival that features both Kingdom Shore and Stone Temple Pilots and also hates me! This is a mental black hole for me. I can’t wrap my head around it.

Calum: They’re putting Japandroids and the National on at the same fucking time. I’m going to bring a flask of Jim Beam.

The National

(Cait Powers)

Conrad: I’m going to print out my review from last year, complete with errors, and try to get the bands who are playing this year to review it.

Calum: Heh. KISS: “I want to read Cokemachineglow all night and party with Conrad everyday!”

Clayton: Yeah! Or, like, Ice Cube: “Fuck tha grammar police!”

Ice Cube
(Cait Powers)

Calum: …um.

Conrad: Uh…Clay? Where did you come from?

Calum: Yeah…how did you get into this article? Aren’t you in Chicago?

Clayton: I’m here to make sure you guys don’t fuck this up by writing all incoherently or ennui-ishly or whatever.

Calum: But you’re not really here, are you? In the sense of being at Bluesfest, I mean?

Clayton: No. I’m at home. I just took a shower, and now I’m highly ambivalent about doing the laundry. My balls are seriously fucking yearning to finally feel the sweet structuring presence of undergarments, but I think they’re resigned to their fate.

Conrad: …okay.

Clayton: So? How are we doing so far?

Conrad: My ambivalence about Bluesfest matches your ambivalence about doing laundry.

Clayton: I know, right? Laundry is so lame. Fuck what my balls want. Undergarments might give structure, but then you have to deal with adjusting around fabric and the occasional itch, just like Bluesfest might offer you a festival, but you’re constantly disappointed after all the sweat and pubic hair that mars an otherwise genial experience.

Calum: I thought you were here to make this less incoherent…

Part 2: In which Clay ensures an allegiance to coherence

(Cait Powers)

Clayton: I am. And along with ensuring coherence, I am also here to enforce some new editorial policies straight from Scott. First, we have been inspired by Bluesfest, and have decided that all our reviews will feature strategic product placement from now on. It doesn’t matter which one of us does it, but one of us has to mention Bud Light with Lime. As in, “after a rollicking 25-minute set by Finger Eleven, we all washed off the cool, refreshing BL Lime from our skin.”

Calum: But I wanted to talk about how lame Bud Light with Lime was! I had this whole bit planned! Also: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen! The revenge!

Clayton: Just as long as we get our product placement in. And second, we are now only providing positive coverage of festivals. So none of this “Bluesfest gave me the blues” bullshit, ‘kay? Conrad? How were you going to start this thing off?

Conrad: Uh…okay. Um…probably something like, “This is my third year covering the Ottawa Bluesfest, and my second year in which their promotional department went out of their way to make sure that I know that my writing isn’t very good, CMG’s coverage isn’t very good, our editing isn’t very good, and that I am essentially very, very lucky to even so much as sup at the diminishing runoff of good music from this corporate festival’s incoherent and increasingly hysterical lineup of the most mainstream, colorless garbage imaginable.”

Clayton: Hmm. Yeah, see? That’s what I’m talking about. I’m going to ixnay any suggestion that this festival is incoherent, simply to avoid using the word “incoherent” in the article. Also, I’m going to suggest we replace that “colorless” with “colorful” to turn that negative into a positive. Remember, guys: our goal as CMG staffers is to provide every event with the bestest coverage ever! Well…except for the event that is my balls, or course.

Conrad: Okay, but, I mean, this is a festival that features the Dodos, Sharon Jones, M83, John Vanderslice, Deer Tick, Neko Case, and Kingdom Shore, that also makes it pretty much impossible to see those bands in any logical fashion, despite the seemingly obvious fact that some people, at least, will want to see just those bands. This is also the sort of festival that charges $225 for a festival pass because KISS is in the lineup, and further charges an extra $20 for a day pass on the night KISS is playing, thus ensuring there’s no way you’ll ever get to see the National who are playing an hour earlier and one stage over. This is a festival that throws enough money at Stone Temple Pilots to ensure that their cash grab of a reunion tour takes a detour through fucking Ottawa. I mean, everything Bluesfest is doing places the sucker bull’s-eye squarely on its back. How is that not incoherent? Plus, this product-placement is making me uncomfortable, especially in the context of an article about a festival featuring huge Cisco Systems Banners under which I am forced to watch music that means something to me while simultaneously knowing that this company was fingered by Amnesty International for helping the Chinese Government build censorship software and palm devices that allow security officers to check individual internet search histories for words like “democracy.”

(Cait Powers)

Clayton: Chill out, C-rad! I’m not here to argue “philosophy” or whatever with you. Let’s just sum up all that shit you just mentioned as “brilliant strategic marketing” and move on.

Conrad: Can I at least make fun of the fact that they offer up steaming servings of middlebrow white rock like Styx and LIVE for people who can’t be bothered to get out of the folding chairs that they’ve dragged along with them?

Clayton: Just let me check. Um…the Glow is co-sponsoring Styx’s 15th reunion tour, so no.

Conrad: Can I complain about it in the context of Ottawa? Like how, above all, Bluesfest is maddening in the same way that Ottawa is?

Clayton: We have no endorsement deals with the municipality of Ottawa as far as I know, so pitch the copy.

Conrad: Um…how about, “Ottawa is a city which does, I swear, have a real city in it, but you just have to get through the great, complaining mediocrity of middle-class consumerism and rock nostalgia. I grew up in Ottawa, played music in it, wrote about music in it, and have great affection for and loyalty to Ottawa’s music scene. This is a city that, this year, doesn’t have a worthwhile show on the schedule for about four months in both directions, making Bluesfest, for us starving dogs in this desert summer, the only game in town. In this context Bluesfest should be an oasis. So why do I feel so burned?”

Clayton: Can’t you be nicer? Like, pretty please?

Conrad: I dunno: maybe my internal conflict arises from the fact that all insecurities have homes, and mine are in Ottawa? Festivals have a strange way of making their attendees feel beholden to the performers, right? Locals feel responsible for the festival itself even though all we did was walk up and get a ticket and then drink in the sun for a few hours. When a musician says that this is their first time in Ottawa I can’t help but look at the tents of cheap crap for sale and the people who refuse to stand up for music and think, “Yeah, but is this Ottawa?” And what does it mean if it is?

Clayton: I said “nicer.” Not “more contemplative.” Try to write this in a way that won’t have message boards lighting up with complaints about our inability to actually talk about the thing we are reviewing, ‘kay?

Conrad: Well…maybe I feel burned because it’s a seriously nice day outside? And, uh, I actually can’t wait to stand around and smoke 197 cigarettes in a row while watching the supremely good lineup sequencing that is the Holy Fuck/Iron and Wine tandem from 7:15 to 9:00.

Clayton: That’s better. So: go forth and experience, and meet back here with pleasant memories and a willingness to actually talk about the music you’ve witnessed. Capeesh?

Part 3: Later, where Conrad and Calum actually talk about the music. Sort of.

(Cait Powers)

Clayton: Alright! Cal, what do you have on tap?

Calum: There was a fifteen year old volunteer who attempted to take my six dollar plastic cup of domestic beer away while simultaneously allowing Conrad to go about his business as though he was my parent or guardian.

Clayton: No! I said “the music”! None of these random musings on funny little events that happened on the festival grounds.

Conrad: The only thing I have to say about Girl Talk, and when I think about it it’s all there is for me to say, is that I didn’t watch him because it started to rain. The only thing I have to say about the great John Vanderslice is that he deserved better than the weather.

Girl Talk
(Cait Powers)

Clayton: I just scratched my balls in disgust at that.

Conrad: Would you rather I talk about how the mental gymnastics required to understand the tendency of Lynyrd Skynyrd fans to bring a Confederate flag to their shows are increased several fold when those fans are Canadian and the show is in Ottawa and when Lynyrd Skynyrd are scheduled alongside a daylong gospel review for which several African-Canadians congress and generally outnumber everyone?

Clayton: I think you know the answer to that.

Conrad: Well, Sam Beam charmed us, essentially by kissing Ottawa’s ass: “A two-week-long festival. You guys must really like music.” Audience: “Whoo!” And that reminds me: it’s also really funny just how many bands started their set by saying “This is my first time in Ottawa.”

Calum: What a strange first impression this must make on them.

Conrad: Yeah! I mean, they’re paid well, I’m told, and given everything they need, and yet to ascend the stage and perform for a dozen or so people and some gathering parents waiting for a blues band who call themselves MonkeyJunk must spin the experience of getting to know Ottawa on its head. What must the Dodos think when MonkeyJunk’s show brings out people in droves from nowhere to dine on the complete derivativeness of blues music written specifically for white people?

Clayton: I’ve got monkey junk in droves here myself. Also: I can’t find any weed. I’m fucked.

Calum: You didn’t mention the best part about Iron and Wine! While they played they had, like, ten-story cross-fades of the Quebecois lakeside sunset and Sam Beam’s Beard projecting across two stadium-style screens flanking the stage on either side. Which was awesome, ‘cause here you have SAM BEAM’S BEARD AT BLUESFEST playing soft songs like “The Creek Drank the Cradle” accompanied by ludicrous projection screens and the bleed of Metric’s “Dead Disco” one Bud Light with Lime stage over. So Metric is playing for, like, the eighth year in succession, and Iron and Wine is trying to cover the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” which in itself is annoying because it’s like, “is this what you think the requisite closer should be for this weird composite crowd?”, and I’m already walking toward the front gates wondering why Iron and Wine hates me, and then Beam reaches the chorus and some shirtless doofus nearby perked up all, “hey, I know this song!” Why do Bluesfest’s attempts at indie programming always feel as transparent and awkward as Zach Braff’s? Why did we spend $5.50 for Rickard’s Red?

Clayton: Come on! Work with me here. There’s gotta be something that worked for you.

Conrad: At one point a man calling himself “Gonzo” from Virgin Radio asked a surprisingly rammed crowd if they were ready to “go crazy.” They abliged him with woos, and Holy Fuck, who continue to be consistently enjoyable live to an equal extent as they are unenjoyable recorded, took the stage and ran dutifully through their not-very-particular brand of imminently likable dance rock. They’re a must see who, after seeing them, become a band you describe as having already seen.

Also, they pulled off a heavily-attended, free-admission Arrested Development concert in the middle of downtown without a hitch. Which can’t have been easy, and which not only had all of the medical and accessibility accommodations necessary for something this complex but had them in spades—which also can’t have been cheap. The band performed what they described as “Positive Hip-Hop” which, to me, sounded like a mixture of Christian rap and songs that no one hates and yet no one truly likes any more, like “Redemption Song.” I liked that.

Clayton: Ok, keep going.

Conrad Thursday was, teasingly, a glimpse of what Bluesfest could be—a set of smaller, genre-specific festivals with knowing sequencing and a schedule that didn’t conflict. What could be salvaged from the festival at large, as usual, was that these acts over which I was salivating were broken up by bands that anyone would have an interest in seeing for their pure camp value and out of morbid curiosity. Like, say, Busta Rhymes.

Busta Rhymes
(Tina Hassannia)

Shout Out Out Out Out are, essentially, Holy Fuck: they shouldn’t be missed live, if only for the rock kicks, which are plentiful to border on absurdity, and the emphatic assertion that dance music needs live drums. Say what you will about their album (and we have), but the group has played Ottawa several times now (and were graduated to a main stage this year) and they continue to use their set time the way one juggles several essential tasks at once. There’s a degree to which you can tell when a band appreciates the opportunity to play music, to be treated (and, one presumes, paid) like professionals. For Shout Out X 4, the novelty hasn’t worn off.

Shout Out Out Out Out
(Tina Hassannia)

M83’s setup looked like the Genius Bar at an Apple Store, complete with what looked like a PowerMac G4 Cube hotwired with a flux capacitor so that when Anthony Gonzalez pushed a button on its side it played karaoke versions of songs from Saturdays = Youth (2008). The group, here a trio, was good in the sense that I love that album, and I love Gonzalez’s writing in general, and the two were represented fundamentally without variation on stage. They weren’t good in the sense that the few embellishments of their performance seemed like M83 enthusiasts adding dance drums and guitar wash to an already gorgeous album. I’m not sure what I was expecting, knowing that Gonzalez is essentially a writer for albums, but I’ve been surprised watching members of the laptop generation before. I was not surprised by M83, constrained as they were to the rigid confines of their pop songs and unbending bed tracks. They weren’t able to improvise, or to randomly insert songs (say, from the underrepresented Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts [2003]), and where they extended songs it was via repetition rather than diversion.

To state the obvious, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings effortlessly draw reactions out of a crowd that is there first and foremost to react. Most of us, converted throngs from previous Sharon Jones shows, might once have wondered how a band so tight and professional would take a backseat to anyone, but charisma’s a sticky thing, and Jones worked the crowd with it like Tony Robbins reaffirming masses of the downtrodden and insecure. The music had a tendency to bleed from one song to the next, but that didn’t much matter; it’s as if a Sharon Jones show is a perpetual testament to the inalienable appeal and accessibility of Motown, soul and funk music. Bluesfest features many artists whose music is so overbearingly self-important that it’s rendered absurd and hypocritical by the festival’s attendant commercialism and dilution (I’m looking at you, Sunparlour Players), but Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a—dare I say it—pure ability, derived of their lovingly performed tributes to 1965, to make all of that noise matter less.

Clayton: And

Conrad: Uh…the Dodos were pretty good, and the songs from their new album sounded great live even with a pretty crappy slot at 6:15 when most people had yet to get home from work and eat something let alone get out to the festival grounds. Okkervil River’s Will Robinson Sheff screamed his guts out for an hour while the piano, my friend pointed out, made the music sound like the opening theme from the UK version of The Office. He even, seemingly through the sheer force of positive thinking, managed to get people to clap while freestyling something about the sun setting on the river, which it was—

Clayton: —yes! Sounds exciting!

Conrad: —and then my girlfriend and I left.

Clayton: Sigh.

Okkervil River
(Tina Hassannia)

Conrad: We went to look for a restaurant downtown to eat and couldn’t help but feel that we had validated all the Ottawa wags who keep talking about how much business Bluesfest would bring to other local businesses. But we couldn’t help it. We were hungry. And they knew we would be.

Clayton: I don’t think the implicit gastronomical needs v. capitalism debate really falls into the “music” bracket. Although I am fucking hungry. And broke. But come on, guys.

Conrad: King Khan & BBQ Show were kind of neat, since they ejaculated the same sort of bluesy rock also emitted from all the shitty blues acts from the other side of the line of cool. King Khan licked his guitar and rolled around on stage and dressed funny and the other guitar player played a bass and snare drum with his feet, at once transcending and undermining the whole affair.

King Khan & BBQ Show
(Cait Powers)

Clayton: See: that was positive!

Conrad: Yeah, but anything born of that much cynicism and an insistence that one stands for nothing but posture and nostalgia is doomed to long-term failure. And the other side of that coin is just irrelevance, isn’t it? Like, I was excited for Woodhands after having seen them tear down a local club with Cadence Weapon several months ago, and theirs is an immediate charm that states they’d rather play for the fifty people who stood in the rain than hundreds of the mildly curious. So they banged their head against the brick wall of a rainy festival and made genuinely funny jokes, but in four years won’t they just be one of the better retro non-committal, campy joke bands that played dance punk in the latter half of this decade.

Clayton: Calum?

Calum: I have a good story about the Dodos.

Clayton: Finally!

Calum: As they hit the stage, my girlfriend Tina asked if I could procure some kind of photo pass from the media relations office so that she could snap a few pictures. I wandered inside the War Museum and upon finding the correct office I was immediately greeted by A.J., the man in charge of all media and hospitality. It was clear very quickly that A.J. was the single most helpful and enthusiastic member of the Bluesfest staff.

Clayton: I like where this is going…

Calum: So I brought Tina the official photo pass—literally just a pink piece of letter size paper adorned with A.J.‘s stamp of approval—and she scurried around the side of the Black Sheep Stage toward the VIP entrance. A few moments later, Tina returned disappointed: she’d been denied access to the photo pit by the Stage Manager. I went to inquire, and a volunteer scurried to the Stage Manager’s personal trailer in back of the stage.

After some back-and-forth, but no Stage Manager, a man in a buttondown black shirt and wraparound Ray-Ban sunglasses arrived to survey the situation and took swift action: “Dave has already explained this clearly to your photographer. We want no press in the pit during this set.” I mean, I was confused, right? This was the first set of the day, at the smallest stage on the festival grounds. Why would photographers not be admitted?

“Many reasons,” Ray-Ban stammered. “Firstly, photographers block the view of paying customers. We’ve had many complaints.” So I nodded silently. “If you want to complain about it, you should talk to A.J.,” Ray-Ban said, indicating A.J. as he approached our entrance, apparently attracted by the growing crowd of wearisome volunteers that had gathered around Ray-Ban and myself, I guess sensing an air of hostility to our conversation. I gave A.J. the long and short of it, stressing how badly I wanted shots of the Dodos and how confusing it was to me personally that I was being denied access to the very set he and I had just discussed a half-hour before.

Clayton: Yes…what happened?

Calum: Well, A.J. just waved us in after shutting down Ray-Ban’s protests, which was awesome, and Tina went and took some pictures. But it just goes to show how ludicrously disorganized the festival was that even people like A.J. who knew what was going on and had the power to hand out passes had to show up in person to validate those passes. What a fucking joke, eh?

The Dodos
(Tina Hassannia)

Clayton: I though you said this was a good story about the Dodos…

Calum: Oh. Whoops. Well, uh, I did see Dead Weather, who sounded like every one of the polished blues acts that the indie fans tried their best to ignore when walking from one stage to another. They were, in a term, perfectly terrible. Is it still impeccable if the performance chugs those same two chords, even if there is a Jack White flailing competently behind a drum set, or is it just impossible to really fuck up music like Dead Weather’s? Jack White talks a good game about music and tradition, and for whatever it’s worth I think his heart is in the right place, but his new projects have seemed more and more like uninvested tribute bands for those who seek unthinking style over a personality that is, yes, sometimes sad.

Dead Weather
(Tina Hassannia)

Clayton: Wow. Seriously, guys: you’d both better sum this shit up before I have an editorial hernia.

Conrad: For me, the festival ended up a series of climaxes both seen and unseen, happening right in front of me and happening elsewhere. Like me waiting for Kingdom Shore and for a fan of Ludacris that ends up watching Ludacris. At this point I will note that I missed Kingdom Shore because either I can’t read a schedule (entirely possible) or that the Bluesfest’s last minute changes screwed me again and again. Yet more evidence of the festival growing beyond its control, Tetsuo-like, so that the few people interested in seeing experimental string arrangements end up missing them.

Deer Tick
(Tina Hassannia)

Calum: Yeah, but for all our perceived disdain, BL with Limefest is frankly, though frustratingly, impossible to hate wholly, I think. When I stood in the heat and shine on Sunday afternoon, listening to Deer Tick mumble and moan through War Elephant favorites, I felt quite good about things. Because Deer Tick are a wonderful band, and “Ashamed” is a perfect song, and even without a soundcheck and without a captive audience and with a fat family of tourists spilling plastic cups of Smirnoff Ice in lawnchairs between the stage and me, this was good. And when I saw Kingdom Shore in the blackness of the Ted Danson Theatre on a relatively uneventful Friday afternoon, neither the clamor of curious pass-holders, the snickering of passing tweens, nor Conrad’s inability to read a schedule could mitigate my enjoyment of what was a plainly sublime performance. I sighed deeply, in resignation, and said these words to myself: “Bluesfest is not terrible.”

Clayton: I’m going to change that to “Bluesfest was awesome” in the final draft.