bluestest day one
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 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 July 5, 2003 1:28 AM

You have K-OS pegged wrong. Get the album. As far as hip hop goes he is holdin' it down. Not to mention receiving a Source award (the bible of Hip Hop). "And he seemed to be an intelligent guy?" You obliviously haven't read or heard any of his interviews. He is intelligent ... and the drummer isn't of African descent ... and you say he is the one that lacks insight?

Posted by Blanche at June 3, 2004 12:44 AM

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about the authors
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.

Emma Healey writes poems and essays in Toronto. She joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. This is her website and email her here.

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Dan Beirne wrote regularly for Said the Gramophone from August 2004 to December 2014. He is an actor and writer living in Toronto. Any claim he makes about his life on here is probably untrue. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.

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