severin ate
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.


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 July 13, 2003 1:23 AM
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"And I shall watch the ferry-boats / and they'll get high on a bluer ocean / against tomorrow's sky / and I will never grow so old again."
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.

Jeff Miller is a Montreal-based writer and zinemaker. He is the author of Ghost Pine: All Stories True and a bunch of other stories. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Say hello on Twitter or email.

Mitz Takahashi is originally from Osaka, Japan who now lives and works as a furniture designer/maker in Montreal. English is not his first language so please forgive his glamour grammar mistakes. He is trying. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Reach him by email here.

Site design and header typography by Neale McDavitt-Van Fleet. The header graphic is randomized: this one is by Neale McDavitt-Van Fleet.
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.

Jordan Himelfarb wrote for Said the Gramophone from November 2004 to March 2012. He lives in Toronto. He is an opinion editor at the Toronto Star. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.
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