bluesfest taketwo
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


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 July 5, 2003 11:53 PM

Oh, come on now, how can you not like songs with lyrics like "pardon me, I've got someone to kill"? I found the show quite a lot of fun. Although I guess I can see how some of their stuff was "cheesy". Oh well.

Posted by Martin at July 6, 2003 11:51 PM

Actually, come to think of it, the show got less cheesy and more surfy as it went on. The last couple of songs were actually not very country at all, they were pure rawk. Too bad you missed it.

Posted by Martin at July 6, 2003 11:53 PM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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