This is a musicblog. Every weekday we post a couple of mp3s and write about them. Songs are only kept online for a short time. This is a page from our archives and thus the mp3s linked to may not longer be available. Visit our front page for new songs and words.

July 30, 2003

oh i see it's under the SUN

Who'd have thunk it - well, everyone but me. I'm a record-listening dweeb: Beyonce's Dangerously in Love sounds better outside (in sunshine) than in the dim computer-glow of my room. With sky and cloud overhead, open space around, other people, the pop music sounds like pop music. I'm like the shut-in who discovers real life is fun. I'm the idiot who forgot that fun music isn't for melancholy surroundings.

SARS-fest looks like a good time. Actually, you know what? It doesn't. I mean, I hate enormous concerts - and this one isn't just enormous, the equivalent of like 2% of our whole country is there. Yes, it would be fun to see Kathleen Edwards, Justin Timberlake, Sam Roberts, the Flaming Lips and heck, even the Rolling Stones. But no, it wouldn't be much fun to watch the Lips perform for fifteen minutes on a giant screen several hundred meters from the stage. And the transportation?! It's going to take the TTC ten hours to empty the park (that's if everyone takes public transit. we can assume that, oh, 25% won't. in which case, uh, only SEVEN AND A HALF hours.).

And not only that, a paltry buck (or whatever) from each ticket is going to the SARS charities, while Ticketmaster whips up $4/ticket=two million dollars. Doctors and nurses died, and the vile American beast that is Ticketmaster is dancing on the doubloons.

phew. needed to get that out of my system.

okay, i'm not done.

also: i hate paul martin, and he's going to be there.

also: people keep insulting the line-up, and it's really bugging me. because this lineup is pretty freakin' good. especially for a cheapo festival run by pathetically whitebread interests. i mean, there's the rock (AC/DC, Sam Roberts, the Tea Party), the adult contemporary (sass jordan, blue rodeo, kathleen edwards [sorry kathleen, but it's true!]), the pop (justin, flaming lips), the Big Acts (Rush, the Stones), and a handful of other genuinely-interesting sidemen (la chicane, dan akroyd, etc.). The indie kids are bitching that only the Flaming Lips are interesting (helLO, I would not turn down a justin timberlake or rolling stones concert, myself, and though i despise AC/DC i can't imagine that they wouldn't be a good time on par with watching Paradise Hotel, which is how I spent my evening). everyone else picks a target of scorn (justin, ac/dc, la chicane) and then piles it on. it's like they have no conception that the average $20 show involves, um, like two acts, one of which features that kid who sat beside you in high-school drawing pictures of cheese wedges with legs. (now he plays bass.)

that rant complete, i do realize that i just insulted the lineup several paragraphs above. but as i said earlier, i spent this evening feeling stressed, watching Paradise Hotel (and, in my defense, a documentary on Nixon), and then listening to 'angry' songs (don't ask), which, as I'm a big twee wuss, consist of tracks like Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," Weezer's "Undone," Arab Strap's "Love Detective," Bright Eyes' "Pull My Hair," Cake's "Is this Love" and Radiohead's "You and Whose Army." consequently, i'm feeling a little off-kilter. i could use a drink, but i have a feeling it would only make things worse.

but i'm fine, really. i just need to go to sleep, wake up, and listen to Four Tet.

Posted by Sean at 10:53 PM | Comments (4)

July 29, 2003

peas and queues

Beulah and John Vanderslice in Montreal, October 20th. Count me in - I missed John last time he was in town (with Spoon), and won't be so unwise again; especially if he's accompanied by the sunny California popsters. (Beulah is like the Delgados, but tanned.) Too bad the new Beulah record, Yoko, is so lacklustre. They tried to do something "different," and when "run-of-the-mill"="fun fun fun," "different" is bound to suck.

Watched half of the Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy last night, before the video cut out. Argh: I wanted to see a breakdown, dammit! All I got was foreshadowing and lengthy art shots!

The new Clientele record is driving me wild. It's everything I was supposed to like in the Eighties (ie, the sad, velvet rock of Felt, The Smiths, a touch of Joy Division), but haven't (so far). If I can spare a few moments, I'll try to whip out a review. Too bad the new Warsawpack is so disappointing: the political fire is still there, but that's the problem. They seem stuck in the same place they were last year - and the rabid anti-globo post-911 stuff, so unabashed and explicit, feels rather belaboured in 2003.

Things I am liking and listening to lotsandlots:
The Clientele: The Violet Hour
Four Tet: Rounds
Ron Sexsmith: Cobblestone Runway
Leonard Cohen: Best Of (yes, it seems I have finally discovered the good Leonard Cohen, the stuff that doesn't make me gag like tepid porridge. This shit is hot!)

Posted by Sean at 9:31 AM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2003

to the gaol with me!

I just got some wonderful feedback about my ancient review of Badly Drawn Boy's About a Boy soundtrack:

Some review. Just what one would expect from a twit critic with no talent and no ear.

Good luck in prison.

I don't understand the "prison" comment either, but I'll take it as a compliment.

I have to say; I expected listeners of acoustic, heart-fuzzying music to be a little more, um, nice.

Posted by Sean at 11:48 AM | Comments (4)

July 22, 2003

mercury rising

I stayed up far too late last night writing the Okkervil River review. I'd been ready to write it for more than a week - my feelings composed, some metaphors and things floating around... but it just wouldn't go. I tried last Monday and last Thursday, and simply got blocked. And last night it was a struggle too. Not because the music is boring to think (or write) about, but because I felt I simply couldn't articulate my thoughts on the record. It all came out as a muddle - and I imagine it still does. Oh well.

It didn't help that I got sidetracked while exploring Okkervil River's cover artist, William Schaff. He does beautiful, haunting work - themes of death and religion and literature. Okkervil River's last two album-covers, but also the last Songs:Ohia record, and the insert for Godspeed's Lift Your Skinny Fists.

The Mercury Music Prize nominees are out. Although many other people bash the "Booker" of British Music, I think that it's recognized some fine artists pver the past ten years (both as nominees and as winners): The Bees, Gomez, Doves, Talvin Singh, Badly Drawn Boy, The Streets, the Delgados, Pulp, Portishead, Kathryn Williams,

This year, the nominees are:
RADIOHEAD - 'Hail to the Thief'
DIZZEE RASCAL - 'Boy In Da Corner'
THE THRILLS - 'So Much for the City'
SOWETO KINCH - 'Conversations with the Unseen'
FLOETRY - 'Floetic'
THE DARKNESS - 'Permission to Land'
COLDPLAY - 'A Rush of Blood to the Head'
ELIZA CARTHY - 'Anglicana'
ATHLETE - 'Vehicles and Animals'
TERRI WALKER - 'Untitled'
LEMON JELLY - 'Lost Horizons'

I've only heard the Coldplay, Radiohead and Dizzee Rascal; Coldplay and Radiohead are apparently the favourites. While Coldplay was a worthy nominee for Parachutes, if they win for Rush of Blood, I'm going to have to put on some angry-music, if you know what I mean. Dizzee Rascal doesn't seem to be for me - the music's too mechanical and sharp, he descends too often into the crude - but I can hear the innovation in his sound. What I know of Eliza Carthy does not impress (pleasant-but-that's-all folk fusion), and Lemon Jelly hardly seems award-worthy. Ultimately, the only nominee I'm curious about is Athlete: has anyone heard the record?

Posted by Sean at 10:48 AM | Comments (4)

July 17, 2003


A new track from the upcoming Weakerthans record, on Epitaph. Sounds fine to me - but I'm not so sure about the softer, double-tracked chorus. Oh well - radio rock, here we come!

Posted by Sean at 10:55 AM | Comments (3)

July 14, 2003

and he falls into sleep

Day ten at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

I realized I messed up the "day x at Bluesfest" stuff, starting last Wednesday. Oops.

The Trachtenburg Family Slide-show Players: Cancelled. The cancellation is unexplained and maddening. It was to be the highlight of the day, and things looked pretty bleak without them.

Chris Brown and Kate Fenner: Suitably laid-back light pop. I had a very pleasant nap in the La-Z-Boy Lounge.

Dinner: At Carmellos on Cooper. Very good - linguini in olive-oil and garlic, with tomato concasse, sundried tomatoes, artichoke and grilled chicken.

Blue Rodeo: Like a middle-aged and blues-inflected Jim Bryson and the Occasionals, with a two-week dose of boring pills.

The Dirtbombs: rhythm-and-blues vocals atop heaving garage guitars. I wanted to like them but didn't have enough in me to withstand the rock'n'roll assault. Stayed for a few songs, then shakily made my way to the bus. (I made sure, of course, to give my pass to one of the sad souls clinging to the fence while the Dirtbombs made their noise.)

The big surprise of the day was Peter Green. I'm not exactly up on my blues lore, but I knew of Green's eminent history. ("Green is God" was spraypainted on walls in England, until Clapton came along and usurped the blues-guitar throne.) I, however, hate the blues, remember - and the last thing I expected to enjoy was the work of this famed electric guitar-player. It was strange, then, to find myself enraptured by the man's performance. His instrument sang things I didn't expect, soaring in precise, acheing ways. It was far from the loose-and-lazy guitar solos I'm used to hearing from blues-rockers. The band - "Peter Green's Splinter Group" - was a worthy accompaniment, spreading a patterned background of sounds, and demonstrating genuine originality in the swell and fade of the tunes. Green's voice is a flat, accented murmur - but it's fascinating, and a dignified alternative to the overly melismatic bluesmen I heard earlier in the week. Things only collapsed on the closing number, a "classic blues tune," and when the typical 12-bar form was resurrected, so was my boredom.

The question, now, is which blues do I like, and why?

Posted by Sean at 12:16 AM | Comments (3)

July 13, 2003

severin ate

Days seven and eight at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

Two long days, so there's only been time for one update..

Friday was foreboding. As I finished up at work, the sky was exploding with rain - sharp, small drops that pitted the sidewalk. By the time I arrived downtown, though, the flood had ceased, but there was still the smell of storm in the air, and the clouds were as stonegrey as ever.

Perfect conditions, in other words, for miss Nina Nastasia. Going into Bluesfest, she was perhaps my most-anticipated act, and despite some technical hiccups, my expectations were mostly met. The rain seemed to have either upset the wiring at the Birdman Stage, or invoked the soundman's incompetence, because for the first three quarters of the show, things were clicking and cutting-out in the speakers. It's to the testament of Nastasia's gifted-as-hell band that in the midst of this, they managed to carry her songs to some extraordinary heights - as the cello, violin and bass sawed, accordion murmuring in my ear, the images from Run to Ruin and The Blackened Air seemed to flicker into being in front of my eyes. Ash-filled streets, cackling seas, deaths and longing and creaking forests. Dirty Three's Jim White on drums, playing with careless, birdlike grace. And Nina? She was demure and sincere, she sang like someone who knows how to sing without thinking about it. Her songs are so strange: they appear in the air like steam, or smoke, dissipating suddenly in a fresh wind. The concert, and her albums, are like a wideopen sky, ringed with pines, clouds drifting through it. As Nastasia struggled through the sound problems (which I hear occurred in Montreal, too), they evoked moments of true awe. It was as I described the album:accordion, mandolin and saw paint glowing flowers, wooden porches, and then they waver, shudder, and are blasted apart by vigorous strokes of cello and violin. Something stringed screams behind the march of drums as Nastasia sings...

After dinner, we were honoured with the presence of Orchestra Baobab. Holy moly. Holy. Moly.

They were, to put it simply, tremendous. More than the typical world music act (commonly described with words like "energy," "jam," "fun," "spirited"), Orchestra Baobab was bold, soulful, skillful and mesmerising. They were a joy. There was such passion in the singing and playing - not spirit, passion: happy and sad, carrying a mighty force, a melodic - and intellectual - momentum. The musicians delivered songs that never grew tiring, their solo improvs (on guitar, sax, drums) genuinely good jazz - good, that is, for listening to, and not just for dancing to. But believe me, I was dancing. I turned off the wry part of my brain and turned on the clown - I let their cries and stories (of which I understood not a single word) take me home. The 90 minutes sped by, the crowd was euphoric, and all of us were transported - not the least of whom those who must have been Senegalese immigrants, celebrating with a fervour that made my heart swell.

Saturday, it was raining. A good Scottish drizzle. Listened to The Glads play some energetic yell-and-riff garage rock, then Mei Han & Randy Raine-Reusch played some traditional Chinese music on traditional asian instruments. The latter was pleasant, and fairly interesting, but lacked any real dynamics - it was best heard, as we did, while reclining on wooden La-Z-Boy chairs in the La-Z-Boy Tent (there was no view of the stage, but this wasn't a problem).

After four or five songs, we quit Le Nombre in order to grab a coffee and warm up, but they were mighty impressive. Garage stuff from Montreal, with riprooared vocals in French. The obvious touchstone is the Hives, but I don't want to sell the band short with an offhand reference. Their chops were topnotch, but more than that, they had the kind of electric sparkle that suggests the potential to Go Places. And the singer -- yowza!

Jim Bryson, solo, in a church. At first I thought the vocals were too loud, but in the end the immersive, all-around-you sound was pretty wonderful. Bryson's first album won a lot of acclaim - I enjoy it, but don't think it's a masterpiece - and his performance today justified his reputation among critics. He displayed honesty, sincerity and wit - add this to his earnest (not not too earnest) songwriting, the folkrock flames of his guitar, and, well, he's made himself a new fan. He was followed by Giant Sand's Howe Gelb (also solo), who lazed his way through an hourlong set, playing songs that didn't quite make sense, as songs, but charming me with his deep, brusque croon. (When he sang "rock-hard liquor," I felt a shiver.) There was something off-kilter about the performance, though: I don't think I quite understood what he was trying to do.

Dinner, and then we tried to squeeze to the front of the Mainstage for Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd doing their Blues-Brothers-but-not-Blues-Brothers bit. Lots and lots of surly old people, standing arms-crossed in front of their enormous deck-chairs, forbidding us kids from moving through/past them. "Tough shit," said one man, a smirk on his face. It made it worse that he looked like he made more than $100,000 a year.

But we made it within sight of the stage, at least until it began to pour again and umbrellas went up like bizarre biological responses to moisture. Ackroyd and Belushi had fun, it was entertaining to watch, but I couldn't get over the fact that we were listening to B-grade blues, whose appeal consisted of the celebrity pedigree of the performers. It was also very, very wet.

Antibalas followed, and although they sounded like a great deal of fun, I didn't have it in me to dance, and their afrobeat jams were much more repetitive than Orchestra Baobab - perfect for dancing, in other words, and not excessively rewarding for attentive listening. I stripped away from the crowd after a chorus of horns and a truncated percussion solo, moving to the Americana stage to see Jim Bryson and the Occasionals, that is, Bryson with a whole band.

And I was rewarded many times over for my choice. The band's performance outstripped their album many times over - the guitar solos came out as live things, agile and glorious; the singing was wistful, poignant; the twang was the sound of remembrance, of regret, and not just of the country. Much more indie rock than the album - braver, more intense - and it was exactly what I needed. I felt like I had cracked apart my chest, and that bright, silver-and-gold noise was filling me right up.

Howe Gelb showed up to watch. I think I heard him ask someone for cocaine. Then he joined Bryson for the last song. The crowd was roaring for a second encore but the curfew fell with a wet thump. I was happy, though. And maybe glowing.

Posted by Sean at 1:23 AM | Comments (0)

July 11, 2003

pick up sticks

Day six at the 2003 ottawa Bluesfest.

We sat happily and awaited White Cockatoo.

"White Cockatoo is a unique performing company that hails from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The artists are a group of senior Aboriginal men from the Mialili, Rembarrnga, Guningu, and Burrara language groups, who share the same social and family affiliations. Their corroboree (music, song and dance) is a part of one of the earth's oldest unbroken artistic traditions. Their homeland is the traditional birthplace of the Australian Aboriginal musical instrument the Didjeridu."
What eventually emerged was a white Australian man in a tuxedo. He welcomed us with jocular charm, talking about that "oldest unrboken artistic tradition" thing - blaming Australia's (initial) lack of invasion upon its desolation and absence of "tucker." He threw in a number of Australian colloquialisms, but also some words from aborigine language. Each of the latter was said with a little dramatic flourish. All things considered, I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Eventually he introduced one of the members of the troupe, who walked out wearing a red loincloth, his body covered in swathes of white paint. The man then played the didjeridu - his circular breathing was incredible (ie, he never stopped for air), but there was a perplexing lack of dynamics in his performance. For those of us who have heard so-called "professional" didj players, it's interesting to see that the original Aborigine tradition calls for very little of the fancy "barks" that people associate with expertise.

When the didjeridu player finished, our Colonialist Guide then introduced the rest of White Cockatoo - two singers ("songmen"), and two dancers. What followed were six or eight songs, each with sameish didjeridu playing, sameish wail-singing, sameish stick-hitting (each of the performers hit two pieces of wood together, with alternating rhythms), and sameish dancing. While some of the rest of the audience was bored by the (apparent) monotony, I found it mesmerising. Hearing the little differences in style and feeling, trying to understand the different way-of-thinking that abstracted these strange dances out of conventional stories. It was the dancing that was most wonderful - sudden, high-stepping movements; careless twisting of legs. If I didn't know better, I would have thought it was contemporary dance - surprising, moving, different.

Of course, my postcolonialist alarms were going off like crazy. I've read too many essays on cultural imperialism, subalterns, mimic-men and orientalism to be able to view this through a naive North American lens. There was something alternatingly infuriating and hilarious (such gall!) about the fact that a white man in a tuxedo was explaining each song, cracking light jokes about how different we are from the "noble" Aborigines (They believe in "devils," ha ha! And you can tell someone's not a devil because they eat or go to the toilet! Ha ha ha!). It's not that I think that the performers were innocant, oppressed, Pocahontas-like victims - how could I think that, having delved into Spivak, Said and Bhabha - but worse still, I couldn't imagine them in a sustained way as anything other that cynical, Coca-Cola-swilling, fully indoctrinated Australians. I pictured the members of White Cockatoo going backstage, scrubbing off the make-up, throwing on a pair of Levis and watching Survivor: The Amazon. Flashes of this image kept interrupting my viewing of the show. "Is that guy faking it?" I kept wondering. "Or are they playing us 'lovers of Culture' for fools?"

And I don't know the answer.

Later, we made our way to the front of the mainstage for Kool and the Gang. We only stayed for three songs, however. It was simply the cheesiest thing I've ever heard. While I had been hoping for some organic funk awesomeness, Kool and the Gang's performance was instead saturated with skyhigh eighties synths, the funk on par with the theme-song to Perfect Strangers (but without Balki's hilarious antics). What's more, 80% of the band was under 35 - this wasn't Kool and the Gang, it was Kool and the Gang of Kids Who Auditioned for the Record Label. The players were all competent, the fresh-faced singer charming, but the music was simply loathsome. A huge disappointment.

Hawksley Workman wasn't much better. "Oh, get over yourself," said Julian as Workman cooed and preened on-stage. I've never liked the guy's stuff, and my opinion goes unchanged. He's like a junkie Rufus Wainwright, and I like neither junkies nor Rufus.

I went home, and listened to Ron Sexsmith's "Cobblestone Runway", Elbow's Cast of Thousands and Doves' Last Broadcast using my new (blissful and comfy) headphone pads.

Posted by Sean at 1:55 PM | Comments (2)

July 9, 2003

when i marry mary mac

Day five at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

I'll say this about Great Big Sea: if I was harvesting souls, stalking the living and feeding upon the happy spirits of unsuspecting concert-goers, tonight would have been a bonanza.

Posted by Sean at 11:41 PM | Comments (7)

and on the fifth day...

Day five at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

Julian convinced me to go see jazz/blues pianist Michael Kaeshammer, and am I ever glad I did. He played an hour and a half of adventurous, knife-quick songs, ranging from toetapping boogie-woogie to lighter-touched, more lyrical stuff. He and his bandmates (on upright bass and drums) injected everything with flashes of contemporary wit and experimentalism, with unexpected flickers of high-notes, sudden splashes of cymbal. I don't find myself putting much jazz on at home, these days (except for Kind of Blue), but tonight's show reconfirmed my prior realization that live jazz kicks ass three ways to friday. Whereas in lots of other genres (rock, folk, hip hop), I seem to vastly prefer the album-listening experience, with jazz, a live setting is many times more exciting. Not only does the improv feel improvised, you're there to feel the temperature of the air, see the glances between musicians, behold the little things that make the music what it is, and drive it down its spontaneous little paths. You follow the artists' train-of-thought (at least to a higher degree), which lets them surprise you all the more with the harmonic flourishes, the false-endings, the sudden (glorious) resurrections of the melody. Though there were a few places where things were too straight-ahead blues for me (especially when Kaeshammer was singing along), and he sometimes held the same note patterns for too long, it was overall quite terrific.

Then we sauntered over to the mainstage, where 23,000 people were trying to make out Sheryl Crow on the giant screen (seeing her on the stage was a lost cause). The sound wasn't so good (it was quiet, first of all, way in the back), and the 6 or 8 songs we stayed for didn't make any impression. (I went nuts, though, trying to figure out who she was covering on "The First Cut is the Deepest." My exchange with Julian went like this:

[Sheryl is singing "The First Cut is the Deepest."]
Sean: Do you recognize this song?
Julian: No.
S: It's a cover, but I can't remember what.
J: Oh.
S: It's driving me crazy!
J: [shrugs]
[I spend five minutes making groaning sounds, rolling my eyes, singing the song to myself, making comments like "I think the original was sung by a black guy." ... "Maybe not." ... "It's either from a long time ago or really recent. Maybe." Julian is simply doing a lot of shrugging.]
S: Argh, what was it!?
J: How did it go, again?
S: Uh... "The first cut is the deepest, uh, baby I know... the first cut is the deepest. Um. Na na na."
J: Oh. That's Cat Stevens.
S: Yes! [slaps forehead] But you didn't recognize it when she was actually performing?
J: [shrugs]

All I know is that there will certainly be a lot (ie, several hundred) of disappointed people, tomorrow, who paid $35 to get into the grounds, only to witness a performance that they experienced in lesser quality than they would have at home on TV. And the beer was more money.

Posted by Sean at 12:44 AM | Comments (1)

July 7, 2003

dé 4

Day four at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

It's rainy and Sum 41 is playing. Thus: I am not there.

Listening to:

Beulah - Yoko (lacks the dusty heights of their last couple albums. less glittery, more shiny. or something.)

Four Tet - Rounds (i really like this. organic dance music that is neither too organic [Mum] nor too dance [St Germain]. comfortable, and exciting in the background.)

Ben Gibbard and Andrew Kenny - Split EP (since the Postal Service album, I've become addicted to Ben Gibbard's voice - and the acoustica on here feeds my craving better than Death Cab. Kenny's stuff is terribly ho-hum, though.)

The Decembrists - Castaways and Cutouts (not super-enthused, but the opening track is sweet-and-sour in a good way. i hear neutral milk hotel's name dropped a lot, but really this band sounds closest to John Vanderslice. which is good - he's a man who could use more imitatin'.)

Jay-Z [with Eminem] - "Renegade" (this is fun and intense in a "Gangsta's Paradise" sort of way [which is probably an awful thing to say, but it's the truth]. Eminem is so much more fascinating to listen to than Jay-Z. It has something to do with the way you can hear the force in his eyes, the passion in that stare. it's not superserious, though, at least i can't take it superseriously when they do that sliding "renegaaaaade!!!" thing at the chorus.)

I'm not going to rant about Harry Potter here - to sum up my position, they're enjoyable books, I haven't read the new one, and I have a lot of issues with the so-called "phenomenon". I couldn't let this article [NYT] by A.S. Byatt go without a link, however. Between it, Prospero's and grumblebee's comments in the resultant MetaFilter thread, my feelings are expressed perfectly - and far more articulately than i could have done myself. go read!

Posted by Sean at 11:26 PM | Comments (0)

July 6, 2003

and on the third day, He created the Gordo

Day three at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

the lowdown:

the torture king: caught most of another set by this crazyman. this time he ate glass again, poked the needle through his head, but failed to swallow the sword (he tried four or five times, but he said he'd been doing it too much over the past few days). to make up for it, though, he swallowed a long piece of string, then made an incision in his belly with a scalpel, and pulled the string out of his own body with some forceps. what's mindblowing about all this lunatic nonsense is that he's doing it a few feet of in front of you, and there's very very little room for trickery (you could see his skin being pulled by the string, etc.) he's a little low on the charm, but his feats of daring are, er, daring indeed.

gordon downie and the country of miracles: in "coax me," chris murphy (Sloan) sang the now-famous words: "it's not the band I hate / it's their fans." And the Canadian band towards which that statement has most often been launched is none-other than Gord Downie's Tragically Hip. Today proved the addage absolutely true. I somehow managed to find a seat at the very front of the mainstage area, a couple meters away from mr downie himself (and, more importantly, the lovely ms julie doiron). sad thing was, some drunken, stoned, exuberant Hip fans were also nearby. i swear, they spent the entirety of the hour-long set yelling "gordo!" i watched with gritted teeth as downie tried first to ignore them (assuming they'd give up trying to get him to look at them), and then tried to appease them with some token smiles and glances. unfortunately, this only egged them on. though it was really nice to hear songs like "chancellor" and "vancouver divorce" (from downie's excellent first solo record, coke machine glow), their appeal was substantially undermined by audience contributions such as "gordooooooooo!" and "gordo! yeaaaah! woo! gordo! beer!". I haven't yet heard Downie's new one, Battle of the Nudes, but i hope that it's not the rock-and-roll album that much of his performance hinted at. save that crap for filler on tragically hip records, gord, and leave the offkilter poetry for us. (one of the Hip fans described coke machine glow as "really fucking wild, man. it's such a trip.") "steeplechase" and "into the night" are the new songs i'll need to seek out. i continue to believe that downie is one of canada's finest and most fascinating artists - a fine singer (like a more vicious Michael Stipe), a talented lyricist. i'd love to see him in a more intimate environment. as it is, the set floundered in the noisy bits (though these were the parts the hip-fans loved), as subtlety was tossed aside for chugging guitar noise. julie doiron contributed a ton of backup vocals, though, and it was wonderful to hear her singing so loud and free. she even looked like she was having a good time.

cesaria evora: given the forty-five minutes it took Ms Evora's people to set up (and given how much my legs were acheing), I was expecting a pretty fine show. instead, it was mostly disappointing. cesaria paled in comparison to her reputation - it's not that she's not a good singer, but rather that in her old age her voice no longer has much verve, and her interpretations of the songs were lacklustre at best. like reciting words from memory, the emotion disconnected. (it didn't help that she had all the stage-presence of a peanut.) her band presented a lush folky backdrop, but cesaria simply failed to convince me that she cared, or to create a laid-back groove. I enjoyed hearing some classic songs performed in-the-flesh ("Besame Mucho," for instance), but i don't think i was the only one in the crowd who left nonplussed.

cinematic orchestra: pleasant. certainly more adventurous than the new deal, whom I heard a few songs from earlier in the day. both of these bands, though, are essentially dance music, so it doesn't seem fair to evaluate them from a purely concert-listener perspective. a pity no one was dancing! (does this say something about the bands?) I liked Cinematic Orchestra's sax player - he did some really nice improvs (my jazz knowledge is a little truncated, but if i say he was doing like miles on the bari sax - short, midrange phrases - i figure you'll get my drift) - and filled the choruses with passion and restraint. i was disappointed by the singer, however - the cooing was a little too typical. the smattering of lyrics didn't help - vapid housemusicspeak ("come on home / to the hot red fire / come on home ...": that sort of thing).

I realize it sounds like every band I've been hearing has been middling-at-best. that's not actually true: but talking about someone's fabulousness is boring - it's much for fun to write about the niggling little flaws.

Posted by Sean at 11:51 PM | Comments (5)

July 5, 2003

bluesfest taketwo

Day two at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

I've always suspected that what brings you to a festival is the headliners, and what keeps you is the unexpected surprises. That was certainly the case today, where semirandom sampling proved far more successful than safe bets.

I arrived solo in the afternoon, my stated intention to hear Ottawa's Golden Famile. The program described them like so:

Their sound is distinctly Canadian, mixing porch tales and folk tradition with guitar dramatics. At times soft and soothing and at others hard and storming, this music falls like rain making everything shiny and wet. The tools are various as the group collaborates to set the GOLDEN Famile's dark-woods mood.
In essence, it said: "This band's Canadian, but it sounds like Okkervil River." At least to my eye.

Unfortunately, they didn't. The group was capable, certainly, at playing its
shy, country-tinged rock. What they lacked, however, was the lovesick intimacy of a band like Royal City, and the wildness, passion and experimentalism of someone like Okkervil River. The so-called "guitar dramatics" were noteworthy - the best part of the show - but Golden Famile was in the habit of ceasing them almost as soon as they began. It was as if they had stumbled across this great, feedbacky, rave-up sound, but weren't aware of the way it could rise into a bona fide climax, drums in tow. Someone should lend them some Sonic Youth, Mogwai and Velvet Underground records.

Since the program had guided me so well before (he rolls his eyes sarcastically), I decided to follow its advice again. Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs was described as

Carnivalesque country-western music from the concrete jungle called New York. Hard to describe?weird but wonderful!
The Sean translation? "They sound like Tom Waits."

And you know what? They did.

Part of me wonders why the "evil circus music" subgenre is so small - Tom Waits, Mr Bungle, Squirrel Nut Zippers, are there any others?... - but then I realized it's really kinda because Tom Waits has it well in hand. Hearing another band "do" the Tom Waits thing sounds mostly excruciating, so it's to Reverend Glasseye's credit that their act was pretty darn terrific. Decked out in blood-red shirt and night-black suit, the Reverend was joined by the newsie-meets-sailor Wooden Legs on upright bass, trumpet, organ and drums. The singing was warbly and schizoid: Tom Waits, yes, but with a good dash of Jack White. It was polka with stomp and bite and whirling organ-lines, the lyrics a delicious mix of blood, threats, and spitfire ranting.

I also saw the Torture King sideshow act. Though he looked a little past his sell-by-date, the guy lived up to his name. In a good way. I watched as this pudgy grey-haired ponytailed man chewed on a lightbulb; swallowed a sword; walked, jumped and lay on broken glass (and was in turn walked and jumped upon as he lay there); and, finally, drove bicycle spokes through the middle of his bicep, and through the bottom of his head, from the soft palate to under the chin. No trickery, just madness. I won't try his stunts at home.

I went home for dinner, and showed up later to catch (in theory) Elvis Costello. After hunting for parking forever, Julian and I went in to the show ten minutes late. The whole mainstage area was already packed. Neither of us knew Costello's oeuvre, so we hung around in the far rear, squinting at the stage, and mildly nodding along. I wasn't exactly blown away. With very little discussion, we agreed to go wander over to the Birdman Stage, to check out the Deadly Snakes. I had heard a lot about them, but I was nervous that they were going to be boringly screechy garage-blues-punk, something hardcore and hollow.

Thankfully, I was dead wrong - the Snakes are the highlight of the festival thus far: a rearing, frenzied, soulful blast. Guitar, bass, organ, drums, trumpet, sax, and a heckload of tamborine, bleed together to lift garage bluesy rock'n'roll into something nearly transcendent. The chorus of sounds, of passionate yelling and genuine singing, even hints at gospel. The Who meets the White Stripes; Clinic tries to sing down the angels. And they're from Toronto!

The other Toronto act for the evening was the Sadies. I didn't stick around for the whole set - though I had heard a lot about the band's "psych-country," I found it disappointingly low on the psych, disappointingly high on the cheeseball Merle Haggard country. They played two types of songs: authentic country-western in the vein of early Johnny Cash, and crazy 40-second country-surf instrumentals. The latter were fresh and fun - exquisitely played, gnashingly delivered - but the former had me nodding off. As much as I enjoy the last few Johnny Cash albums - and as much as I'm loving a lot of twangy music, these days - that kind of thing remains hokey and stale, and it only seems to be able to connect with me on an ironic level.

Tomorrow: Gordon Downie and Cesaria Evora.

Posted by Sean at 11:53 PM | Comments (2)

bluestest day one

Day One at the 2003 Ottawa Bluesfest.

I met Julian at 6 and sat down on the grass outside the grounds with a "vegetarian noodle bowl to-go". I had assumed that this would be a bowl of noodles (to go), but instead found it to be, to put it glibly, soup. The soup tasted like miso, I suppose, if miso was a brand of cardboard, but the bigger problem was the whole hot-thick-liquid thing. The air in Ottawa, you see, is going through a hot, thick and liquid phase. Muggy doesn't begin to describe it: so humid that the slightest breeze feels like a terrifically frosty blast of winter.

Anyway, you don't care about soup, I suppose, and I'm not going to turn into one of those bloggers who rambles on and on about what they had for lunch (or for dinner, in this case). Allow me to make a quick segue, then: After finishing some small portion of my dinner, Julian and I entered the City Hall/Bluesfest grounds, collected our bracelet passes, and sat down on the grass in front of the Main Stage.

There, we waited, and sooner or later, a man named K-OS came out, accompanied by the typical white, sunglasses-wearing guitar-player, and the typical black, po-faced percussionist. After years of going to shows, I think it must be impossible to have a white percussionist and still maintain your street-cred. Witness Kinnie Starr (who had a white guy on djembe when she visited Montreal in 2001) - she is now ululating as part of Cirque du Soleil.

But please don't let me start racially profiling the musicians who I see perform. Suffice it to say - both of K-os' sidemen were superb, by far the best part of the show. Though K-os rhymes aren't particularly electric, the backup instrumentation is - the guitarist suprised me by coaxing out bar after bar of Indian and flamenco-tinged thrum, while the percussionist did genuinely exciting things with his tablas, snare (and everything else). K-os performs what the kids call "conscious" hip-hop: this means that he writes songs that insult bling-blinging MCs, that he does a lot of Buddhist name-dropping, and that he feels the need to do a barely passable adaptation of McCartney's "Yesterday." K-os' version, rather than mourning love lost, mourns the death of, well, other "conscious" hip-hop.

I shouldn't be so hard on him - K-os seemed an intelligent guy, the music was good, but the songs lacked any genuine insight. When I listen to hip-hop, as with jazz, I expect the MC to surprise me with a deft turn-of-phrase; a sharp, wise or funny rhyme. K-os kept throwing out references to oneness, love, struggling, revolution, but not in words that made the ideas seem fresh, or even powerful. It didn't help that all of his tunes followed the same pattern: upbeat rapping (and his flow was a real letdown - it rarely followed the beat, the syllables always seemed to be racing to catch up [and I say this as someone who enjoys the rhythm-ignoring flow of The Streets]), followed by a melodic, soul-singer chorus. K-os had a great voice - somewhere between dancehall and Marvin Gaye - but he kept using it in precisely the same ways, at precisely the same part of each song.

After K-os, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. A few years ago, I was an enormous fan of Mr. Harper. The guy could write, sing, and play guitar in songs that ran from folk to blues to pop, rock and back. Beauties like "Glory and Consequence" or the inimitable "Steal Your Kisses" made a real impact.

His new album, however, sucked. Diamonds on the Inside is boring, scattered, and self-indulgent. Vapid electric funk tracks, lacklustre ballads. Better/Worse still, it caused me to reevaluate Harper's back-catalog, and seeing the show today, I couldn't help but accept how little I care about the man's work any more. Though it's still skillful and passionate and appealingly romantic, Harper's running on fumes. The skill is certainly there, but Ben Harper always seems to be passionate about precisely the same things; he's always appealingly romantic in precisely the same ways. His vocabulary is small, and he challenges himself (or more importantly, the listener) very rarely. I've heard enough slow-cresting songs about worshipping a perfect, bejewelled lover, or calling for strength from the Lord.

The Ben Harper show was enjoyable - his band is tight, the sweaty-and-enormous crowd was in love, the set-list was superb (70% older material). Still, Julian and I both grew bored well before the encore. I could only bop my knees to so many earnest reggae tunes, or listen to so many seems-political-but-actually-isn't speeches. Please, Ben: prove that you can make new, fearsome art.

We stripped off from the megacrowd and caught the second two-thirds of Oh Susanna's set. She's a twangy singer from Vancouver, with a voice as thick as resin. Country-blues, folk, open-hearted ache - I have her first, self-titled EP, which is lovely. In concert, though, she let me down a bit. Accompanied by an additional electric guitar, electric piano and drums, her acoustic strum lost its urgency - the songs came out as country&western yawners, slight cliches. The set was very short - though Ben Harper started 90 minutes earlier, both acts finished at around the same time - but Susanna redeemed herself by closing with a haunting rendition of "Roll Me On Home," which left me yearning for some stars overhead and a hand in mine.

It wasn't exactly an auspicious beginning to a week of music, but it wasn't bad, either. I have high hopes for some of the next couple of days' acts.

Posted by Sean at 1:28 AM | Comments (1)

July 2, 2003

from glowing heights

canada day.

saw no concerts, except for pitchblack men with drums and smiles and drums drums drums. the NAC symphony show was full-up. u2-producer or no, i wasn't about to sit through a daniel lanois show.

mucked about downtown then went to a barbecue, washed away by sudden (thrashing) rain. gareth put on Sublime (part of the pantheon of summer bbq music, along with Cake and the Tragically Hip [particularly Phantom Power]). later, the beta band's 3 eps, then some album by roni size (it had too many beats. frenetic. for dancing or spazzing.). I had no idea roni size sounded like that. for some reason, had the delusion that they were a new-wave-meets-hip-hop kind of crew, or something. the talking heads crossed with kardinall offishall. i must be going crazy.

later, caught patches of fireworks through the trees and between buildings. people stood on Bank Street, necks craned, squinting at streaks of blue, snippets of gold. airplanes circled overhead. the smoke pushed off westward; i could see it far longer, far better, than i could the rainbow lightbursts from the hill.

on the bus down bank (towards downtown), people wore glownecklaces and canadaflag capes. enormous foam mapleleaf hats. drunken grins. eyes flicked and made contact - happy canada day happy canada day. everyone was leaning into the aisle, smiling, quiet. boom. we could feel the thunder more clearly than we could see the source. everyone trying to glimpse a splash of firedust.

later, took the bus down carling. this was away from the fireworks, away from the crowds and the noise and the national anthem. onboard: the people not hanging around to see the fancy lights. no flagcapes. no foamhats. fireworks were still booming. sputtering behind us. the bus was mostly empty. no one looked at each other. faces down. people sitting solo. me too.

my soundtrack today, when alone, was the new okkervil river record. at first (yesterday, two days ago), i was unhappy. it is less folky, this one, less dusty. the will robinson sheff band, instead of an ensemble. but listening today, there are bits so spectacular that i forgot my past criticisms. the songwriting is so fine. so very fine. songs soar, break hearts, tumble, shatter, gleam. i'll write a review soon.

Posted by Sean at 12:03 AM | Comments (0)