071710 Lewis Black/Kathleen Madigan/The Hold Steady, Ottawa, ON

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I tell you, the 2010 Ottawa Bluesfest was blessed with some pretty knockout weather.  While the fest began under a sweltering heatwave that enveloped the first two days of programming Mother Nature had backed off a little and left us with one gorgeous sunny day after another.  The weather was so nice in fact that I shunned the festival altogether for the first half of the final Saturday, making it to LeBreton Flats on July 17th barely on time for The Hold Steady’s subway set on the Sunset Stage.

Sorry…make that the “sunway set on the Subset Stage…err…“sunset set on the Subway Stage”.  Oh geez, looks like it’s gonna be one of those days.

I’m not a huge fan of The Hold Steady but I know several people who are, and through those associations I can report to you that the band was featuring a new instrumental lineup on this tour, shunning keyboards altogether in favour of a third guitar, which was bound to make their sound a little edgier.  (Not to stereotype here, but just look at a keytar, or even a fancy synthesizer and then look at a Gibson Les Paul Standard electric guitar.  Now you tell me which one is softer, squishier, moodier-sounding and rife with twinkly little fairylike patches, and which one is edgier.  Wait…let me plug them in first…okay, I’m plugging your synth direct into the sound board through this little DI box so we won’t even need an amp for it, and…okay Biff, you and Sully can bring in the Marshall stack now!!!  Yeah, right over there.  Ohhh, a double-stack?  Nice!  Okay, now let me just plug this Les Paul right in and flick this little switch…

E5!!!!!!

Sometimes stereotypes are true you know.) 

Anyway, being such a marginal fan (which is already overstating things), any difference in the overall timbre of the band was utterly lost on me (though I enjoyed the set, so there’s that).  Nor did this change of instrumentation seem to effect the singing-along-with-every-word-of-every-song crowd that hugged the rail throughout the show.  Looking at the rabid fans made me almost believe what my friend Sean claimed, that The Hold Steady were akin to The Tragically Hip.  Their fans sure looked similar, that’s for sure.  And I’ll give you that Craig Finn is a fine, fine frontman, but he ain’t no Gord Downie.  To be fair, nobody is (anymore).

On that happy note…

This was the year when the Black Sheep Stage had been converted into a comedy tent, and that tent was my nextination.  I had skipped out on seeing Louis CK the week before in favour of sets by Gord Downie and Joan Jett (excellent choices, if I do say so myself) but I really wanted to catch the acerbic Lewis Black whom I knew from his high-blood-pressure rants on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (which my dad used to refer to as “The Jon Daily Show”, clearly conflating it with What’s My Line).

Opener Kathleen Madigan delivered a refreshing profanity-free set that had the crowd juiced up and ready to guffaw when Lewis Black hit the stage to thunderous response.  I would often watch Black’s late-nite scream therapy sessions and wonder how he could red-line himself for those full three minutes but man, you should see him keep at it for a solid hour!

Sure, his act was full of American political humour but he framed it for us Canucks as best he could, screaming in a Goldthwait/Gottfried voice, “You guys have empathy, I get it.  But leave a little room for a joke!”  There was some back-and-forth audience banter and Lewis threw a fair amount of improv in as well, and it was a really great time.  The rest of the eight hundred or so people in attendance seemed to agree with me, as we all gave the comedian a yelping standing ovation at the end of his set before filing out of the tin tent and into a picture-perfect evening.  

As I collected my bicycle from the parking valet I glanced over my shoulder towards the main stage and heard Keith Urban scream “Good Night!” to what was surely a massive crowd.  I could only hope that all those people had as much fun as we did in the comedy tent.  Just kidding: I didn’t really care.

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