On July 9th, 2006 I attended a long and splendid Sunday at the wonderful Ottawa Bluesfest, just a pittance along the picturesque Rideau Canal from my Harvey Street home to the temporary venue surrounding our city hall.
I arrived shortly after the gates opened and saw tons of artists including the Brazilian Girls, Jamie Lidell, Jake Shimabukuro, Detroit Women, Spearhead, Amadou & Miriam, and Ani DiFranco but one act looms large in my memory.
(Now, that’s not very nice.)
I’ll never forget seeing the great Solomon Burke on a small-ish stage way out back of the city hall complex (so “out back” that the stage might have actually been on the adjoining high school’s soccer pitch). In the centre of the stage sat a large throne – yes, a throne, part of regal theatrics that Burke had been consistently employing in his concerts since the ’60’s – surrounded on all sides by a plethora of R&B musicians ready to back up one of the most celebrated singers of the genre.
Now, I’m not going to bore you by outlining the music and legacy of Solomon Burke ‘cuz if you don’t already know it you probably ain’t interested, but one thing I should explain is that the King of Rock ’n’ Soul was a big, big man. And it wasn’t just the man’s legacy that loomed large, let me tell you. When the crowned giant somehow shuffled on stage in his black sequin tuxedo and took his rightful place upon his heavily reinforced velvet throne, well he really took up a lot of attention. And sightlines. I mean, he must have been, what, maybe six hundred pounds? He looked like a suave Jabba the Hutt fronting a wedding band. It was visually amazing.
Oh, and the music was great. The Detroit Women (a collection of Detroit’s busiest singing sideladies) joined him on stage too.
Y’know, Solomon Burke died on an airplane on his way to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Can you imagine the trouble that must have caused? The more I think about it the more my mind reels.
I headed to the Black Sheep stage early so I wouldn’t miss any of ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro’s set, which proved to be a mistake. I mean sure, this guy is a darn fine uke player, a nice thoughtful writer, and a heck of an arranger, but I found him utterly impossible to watch. While he flawlessly tore through piece after piece of gorgeous music he over-emoted to the point of nausea. He had his eyes tightly clamped shut the whole time, with his head shaking from side to side towards some Kenny G-like heaven at every trilled note. It’s obvious this guy spent some time busking for tourist dollars back home in Hawaii, but he should lose the shtick, he doesn’t need it anymore. When I looked away his music was brilliant, just like the GE Smith years on SNL. Later in the day the blind couple from Bamako Amadou & Miriam would perform on the same stage and put on one of the best shows of the whole festival, but then I am overtly partial to pretty much any music from Mali that I’ve ever heard.
Ani DiFranco performed on the Main Stage with just her guitar and a doublebass player and put on a great set. Her music was well suited to the sparse instrumentation, with plenty of room for introspection in her thoughtful pieces and enough clarity to really hear her unique softly aggressive guitar playing on the more rocking songs.
With regards to Spearhead, in that era I was seeing Michael Franti either solo or fronting his band fairly often (one was the same as the other as far as I was concerned) and for all his greatness, in retrospect the shows easily meld into one another. Aside from my first Franti show (when the shock and surprise of his towering awesomeness pummelling my flabbergasted senses burned the concert forever into my spine-tingling musical memory banks) most of his concerts are just a continuation of his never-ending how-you-feelin’? everybody-jump! frolicking earthy hip-hop dance party. Without a doubt snippets of the particular set he delivered on this night make up a part of my personal Spearhead tapestry of memories, which is nice.
I don’t remember a thing about the Brazilian Girls at all. Like, were they a duo of actual females from Brazil, or was it just a random name wrapped around some rock band?
I guess Solomon Burke was more than enough to fill my memory of this evening to overflowing.