When we arrived onsite at Ottawa Bluesfest we were pleasantly surprised. (Full disclosure: it’s my first time at the festival.) As we mentioned in our fest preview, it’s a blues fest only in title; yes, there are blues acts, but with Solange, Killer Mike, and Animal Collective playing, it could’ve easily passed for Osheaga. Of course, it’s a fest whose identity shapeshifts over the course of a week—tonight, for example, Tragically Hip and Great Big Sea headline an event bustling with tried-and-true Cancon. But that’s tonight. Here’s what happened yesterday—in all its good, bad, and head-scratching glory.
Solange’s “unplugged” set. Photo: @xoines
Killer Mike might be the most likeable person in music. Though we arrived midway through his set, Killer Mike—a.k.a. Michael Render—was one of the highlights of the evening. Battling through significant sound problems, which had his mic and his DJ’s rig cutting out intermittently, the R.A.P. Music rapper wasn’t deterred. Rushing through faves like “Ric Flair” and Big Boi’s “Thom Pettie,” he finished most songs with a capella singalongs, thanked fans incessantly, and declared that he wasn’t a religious man, but nonetheless, “every time I go to rap concert, it’s my church.” To close his set, he leapt into the audience and shook hands with everyone who got close enough—and if that wasn’t charming enough, he would return to perform again with El-P. We missed it—bad call on our part—but it’s a sure bet the duo played song from their all-banger Run the Jewels. The opposite of bullshit? We think so.
Solange was worth the admission. Like Killer Mike, Solange had significant technical difficulties—it seemed as if she couldn’t hear half the instruments—which she declared was “the worst sound she’s ever had.” (To the festival’s credit, though, it didn’t sound nearly as bad from the audience.) But she continued with “an unplugged set” of rebooted r&b and motown from True, and it proved to be nothing short of magnetic. Predictably, she stirred up a crowd frenzy for “Losing You,” but her confident dance moves—which prompted one Twitter reveller to drop the strange comment that “Solange is basically Ashley Banks from Fresh Prince”—and undeniable chemistry with guitarist Dev Hynes made for one of the evening’s biggest surprises.
Animal Collective didn’t feel out of place. The Brookyln art-pop faves, now a decade into their career, are as far from blues music as it gets: 2012’s Centipede HZ and the follow-up Monkey Been to Burntown had the band moving deeper into abstract, electronic incantations. Yet surprisingly, despite the fact that the band didn’t once address the audience, it worked. A troupe of revelers emerged, clad in moose, shark, lion and unicorn costumes (see: the top of the page) to join the digital drum circle, and they were joined by dudes in all-black morphsuits. (Which, on a 30-degree day, sounds like utter torture. But hey, suffer for your art, right?) Strange as it might seem, their costumed troupe’s energy was infectious; a crowd had soon gathered, and by the time Animal Collective left stage—10 minutes early—it felt like a set sadly cut short.
Killer Mike battled sound problems. Photo: @evenkeaschuk
The sound straight-up sucked at the River Stage. Crankier artists, quite simply, wouldn’t have tolerated it. Both Killer Mike and Solange complained of their sound quality on the River Stage, and, in the former’s case, his set was audibly flat, even from the audience. Thankfully, it offered the most picturesque view of the entire festival. (It’s located on a river. Duh.)
Dan Deacon was over capacity. Upon arriving for Dan Deacon’s indoor set, sandwiched in between Solange and Weezer, in the Fest’s neighbouring Canadian War Museum, we encountered a 20-person deep lineup. Ultimately, it’s a good sign—somewhere, America, and all of Deacon’s mind-bending party tricks, were being enjoyed in an at-capacity venue. We listened to it happen from the museum’s lobby, blasted from loudspeakers—and suffice to say, we didn’t catch the full effect.
Weezer played a conservative, if crowd-pleasing, set. Photo: @kbash87
The food, surprisingly, is incredible. It wasn’t just the fresh BBQ, the local pizza joints, or the additive-free burgers—it was that things were reasonably priced. (A festival organizer, at one point, announced that the beer—craft fare provided by Mill Street—was cheaper than last year, too.) A $2 bottle of water isn’t cheap, per se, but at an outdoor concert, that’s priced to sell. Yo, other festivals, are you listening?
Weezer offered few surprises. A crowd-pleasing setlist by Weezer should, ideally, consist of this: 50 per cent Blue Album, 40 per cent Pinkerton, 5 per cent Maladroit, and “Island in the Sun.” Of course, that’s not how it went. True, Blue’s tracks—opener “My Name is Jonas,” mid-gamer “Surf Wax America,” faux-closer “Buddy Holly,” and real closers “Undone”—elicited genuine singalong moments. But starting with early-set track “Troublemaker,” the crowd started to hemorrhage, which continued with “I Want You To” and “Pork and Beans.” Heck, the usually polite cheering before the encore was barely audible. Which isn’t to say that Weezer was terrible—River Cuomo’s janky stage presence was authentically dorky, guitarist Brian Bell took over vocals on “Keep Fishin,’” and bassist Scott Shriner handled “Dope Nose” competently. But reality set in for much of the audience: For their competency, Weezer hasn’t put out a solid album since Maladroit, and their oldies—they only played one song from Pinkerton, their best album!—were too few, too far in between. Workmanlike? Sure. But memorable? Not quite.