Patrick Langston – The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa Blues Festival delivers a full musical feast — from blues-rock to pop to psyche-funk
Bookended by contrasts, with everything from musical soup to nuts in between, and with the weatherman on side, the Cisco Systems Bluesfest sailed into its first full day of music yesterday.
The Asylum Street Spankers of Austin, Texas opened yesterday’s outdoor bill with an all-acoustic mid-day show on the
mbna Stage. They specialize in acoustic blues and jazz circa 1920s and ’30s.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bonnie Raitt, queen of contemporary electric blues and outspoken political and environmental activist, closed out the night as the main stage headliner.
Her red hair a brilliant flame of colour in the spotlights, Raitt opened with the big, funky Unnecessarily Mercenary from last year’s Souls Alike, jumped into the older Thing Called Love and rolled into God Was in the Water, again from the new album and which she dedicated to the still-displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Losing no time in taking a stand, Raitt then said, “I salute this festival for running on bio-diesel (the fuel source for Bluesfest’s generators this year). Just like my bus. Get us the hell out of the Middle East!”
All this, of course, went down like candy with Raitt’s audience.
Cooled by a breeze on a perfect summer’s evening, they cheered her every note and word.
Folks in the 500 reserved seats (new this year and $50 a pop) immediately in front of the stage had the best spot to enjoy Raitt and her band, but no matter where you were in last night’s packed Festival Plaza, Raitt, who Bluesfest has been trying to book for years, sounded terrific.
Between Raitt and the noon hour Asylum Street Spankers, the music ranged from blues-rock to pop to psyche-funk.
And with something for everyone, Bluesfest, which yesterday drew an estimated 20,000-plus music fans, shows no signs of losing its status as the world’s second largest blues festival, outpaced only by Chicago.
Just ask Susan Olszynko.
Basking in the sun in front of the main stage by 12:30 along with several dozen other ultra-early birds, Olszynko and family had already claimed a prime spot for their lawn chairs.
“We plan our whole year around this,” said Olszynko, who hasn’t missed a Bluesfest in the event’s 13-year history. “I love the blues. It’s deep soul music, it’s raunchy, it gets down to the gut.”
Armed with Bluesfest essentials — food and refreshments, an umbrella, blankets, and, most importantly on a July day, a big bottle of suntan lotion — Olszynko said, “I love this hot, steamy weather. It just goes with the blues.”
In fact, a steady breeze made yesterday afternoon comfortable for the shorts- and sandals-wearing crowd, friendly and in no hurry to get anywhere, gradually building at the side stages.
Over at the MBNA Stage, several hundred spectators clearly enjoyed the ironically named Brazilian Girls. The four-person band, whose heavily textured and electrifying music incorporates electronics, funk, reggae and everything else, is neither Brazilian nor, with the exception of lead singer Sabina Sciubba, female.
Sporting heels, culottes, a lacy face veil and a black fedora jammed low over her eyes, Sciubba slunk sensuously around the stage as she performed tunes like Sing to the Ball, which is exactly what she did, singing to her soccer ball purse.
The MBNA Stage, newly moved to a generous area south of Lisgar Collegiate, seems to be a success despite reported long lineups at the entrance Friday night. Ringed by its own food, beer and other vendors, the grassy venue is an oasis that has escaped the sound bleed that can plague Bluesfest shows.
While Sciubba was vamping on the
MBNA Stage, ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro played to a much smaller — but equally appreciative — crowd at the Black Sheep Stage.
Fleet-fingered, the slight Hawaiian, who performs again today, coaxed a symphony of sound from his tiny instrument including a jazzy, edgy version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Gravelly voiced Otis Taylor, meanwhile, delivered hard-edged electric blues on the Blues ‘Til Dusk Stage.
“Don’t forget to put your beer cups in the recycling sleeves,” reminded the emcee as Taylor wrapped up, referring to the plastic cylinders attached to garbage pails for the countless compostable beer cups drained during the festival. It’s messy for those who have to empty the sleeves, with beer sloshing over their gloved hands, but it’s part of Bluesfest’s greener philosophy that includes the use of bio-diesel that Raitt lauded.
Other side-stage performers yesterday afternoon included Detroit’s Deadstring Brothers, a little too close to Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones to be really interesting, and Elvis Perkins, the son of the late actor Anthony Perkins and the photographer Berry Berenson who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.
Hard to say if his tragic family background adds to the apparent appeal of his tame songs and his bearded good looks, but Perkins, wearing torn and incredibly grubby blue jeans, was a particular favourite of young, tank-topped women in the audience.
One of the best afternoon shows was Walter Trout & the Radicals. A one-time sideman with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Canned Heat and others, Trout is a master of electric blues, his guitar work effortless and sublime.
Grammy-winning Keb’ Mo’ performed before Raitt. A huge crowd-pleaser who played Bluesfest two years ago, Keb’ Mo’ was last night accompanied by a full band on his rock, pop and country-infused blues.
Tonight’s main stage lineup includes Sue Foley, Ani DiFranco and Michael Franti & Spearhead.
Bluesfest continues until July 16. Tickets and times, 613-599-3267 or www.capitaltickets.ca
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