I had some running around to do right after work last night so I wasn’t able to make it to Lebreton Flats Park as early as I wanted to be. I got there in the middle of all of the 6pm sets so rather than try to catch an act midway through their bit, I grabbed a bite to eat, a beer to gulp down, and walked about to get the lay of the land. There are some definite changes from last year and it may take a few days for me to decide whether they are for the better or not. Out are some of the usual food vendors like Mugena (Caribbean) and a good dependable burger joint (Fridays or Hintonburger) and in are LeSmoking, Bonita’s Cantina and Culinary Meltdown. It also feels like Molson has scaled back a bit on the variety of beers they are offering from their arsenal. Though I did find one beer tent selling “tall boy” cans of Heineken, it appears Rickard’s Red might be my drink of choice for the next week and a half.
Both of the sets I had planned on seeing last night were scheduled for the dark, intimate, and air conditioned Barney Danson Theatre inside the War Museum. (In case you didn’t know, the festival is held on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum and some of the shows happen indoors.) Perhaps you might find it funny that I spent the first night of an outdoor music festival at an indoor stage, especially after all poetry waxing I’ve done on the beauty of outdoor festivals, but I thought it was a lovely way to ease myself in. Interestingly, the theatre, too, was different this year. As opposed to the last few years, where they had the room set up with stadium style seating, they had tables set up cabaret style last night and yes, a bar! It meant a smaller than the already tiny capacity but it was well worth it. Especially when I saw they were selling bottles of Beau’s inside. “Bless you,” I told the volunteer server. She didn’t quite get my joke but I got my Beau’s.
For those attending this year, I must say that the Barney Danson Theatre is a nice change of pace from the outdoor stages and I recommend everyone check out at least one show on this stage during the fest. With the tables and chairs and candles, it’s all very civilized.
Tara Holloway, Barney Danson Theatre, 7:30pm
I had given Tara Holloway’s most recent record, “Little ghosts”, a cursory listen a few nights before when trying to decide who else to see last night and it was the voice that convinced me. Her sound is not my typical cup of tea, a blend of blues and country that I usually identify with Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, and perhaps even, kd lang. However, there was something in her vocals that grabbed me and pushed me to Barney Danson early.
Tara Holloway is local singer songwriter whose red hair and voice precedes her and that voice is even more intense live, and well worth the price of admission. For her Bluesfest performance, she gathered together a seven-piece band to back up her acoustic guitar, all local musicians that have their own full-time gigs, bringing a full sound built upon strings (beautifully executed by Colleen Searson), keys, backup vocals, and some devastating blues guitar by Blair Hogan. Holloway had an easy manner on stage, like she was playing to a group of friends in a living room rather than at the biggest festival the city has on offer. She mixed up her set with plodding ballads and stomping numbers, exuding fun and passion, laughing the whole night, like her playing Bluesfest was just like any other night at her local watering hole. I had a blast throughout but was completely caught up in the fun when she brought out local singing drag queen, China Doll, for a duet on a funkified cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”.
All that just in case we thought they were taking themselves too seriously. I definitely could’ve done worse for my first set of the festival.
Robyn Hitchcock, Barney Danson Theatre, 9:00pm
Another Ottawa area music blog suggested both Charles Bradley and Robyn Hitchcock in outlining its picks for the fest last night. I half-jokingly asked them on Twitter how to choose between the two given that their time slots overlapped and the best they could offer was to clone oneself. Such are the “problems” with music festivals when you have to choose between seeing two very different but talented artists. Luckily, the choice wasn’t as difficult for me. I had seen both artists perform before but it had been almost twenty years since I last saw Robyn Hitchcock perform a show with Billy Bragg in Toronto. And while Hitchcock is not quite the flashy showman that Charles Bradley is, his sets are no less brilliant, incredibly holding the room rapt with just his acoustic guitar and his intelligent, weird, and often hilarious lyrics. Truth be told, he was the main reason I went out to the festival last night.
Robyn Hitchcock has over forty years of music to pull from and he did, performing a set that represented his whole career, from his early years leading The Soft Boys (“I got the hots”), through his heyday with the Egyptians (“Queen Elvis”), right up to his recent solo work and that supported by the Venus 3 (“NY Doll”). This last song, an ode to the late bass player of the New York Dolls, Arthur Kane, is a particular favourite of mine and so I was super glad to hear it performed. But when you see such a talented and creative personality like Hitchcock perform, it’s not just about the music but also just to hear him speak. I believe I also said this about Billy Bragg the last time I saw him. Robyn Hitchcock’s a storyteller and ranter, seemingly speaking off the top of his head on subjects like the new iWatch and bass players and what it’s like when you die, weaving and wrapping us up in his tales before diving into the next song.
For his last three numbers, he brought out Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift to join him on stage and harmonize her soft vocals with his own. He thanked us all for spending time with him and off stage he went, the theatre’s stage manager turning on the lights and wishing us a good night, putting to rest any hopes of an encore. Nope, not a bad way to start this year’s Bluefest at all.