July 19th, 2009 was a great big day, in so many ways and for so many people. It started early and ended late, contained lots of firsts, a couple of lasts, and a whole bunch of in-betweens. It was the final day of the annual Ottawa Bluesfest (there’s one of the “last”s) and I was onsite herding cats by 11am, a full hour before the gates opened for the day (which counts as a “first”. From now on you’re on your own).
Several months earlier I had been hired to teach the first-ever session of the Be In The Band, Bluesfest’s now long-running and city-wide youth outreach program. The idea was to run a School of Rock sort of thing at a local community centre and I was in the real-life role of Jack Black. The festival bought a huge pile of awesome gear, nearly thirty kids between the ages of 8-17 with at least a few months of music lessons under their belts tried out, I sorted them into six different bands and we all got together at the Glebe Community Centre twice a week. For three months all the bands worked diligently learning cover songs and writing their own, all based on the collective tastes and styles of each group. The program culminated in a music night at the community centre where all the bands rocked out with professional lighting and sound in front of a huge crowd of their parents, siblings and friends and it was very, very awesome. But wait, there’s more! As the mini-concert came to a close the Bluesfest’s executive director Mark Monahan took the stage and announced that all of the bands were invited to play their best two songs on the Black Sheep Stage at the actual, real Bluesfest!
Can you possibly imagine how excited the kids were? Well, let me tell ya: They were so excited that every single one of those fifty kids* showed up on time with their gear in hand at eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning in July. Impossible you say? Not when they’re there to rock.
There were covers from Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker and Pat Benatar, plus great original songs with soaring harmonies and searing guitar solos. Feet up on monitors and dressed to kill while a camera crew shot them for the huge, twinkling bigscreen, eleven bands had their moment in the spotlight and each one tore it up with as much raw energy as you were going to find on any stage at any festival on any day anywhere. Nothing could keep these kids down, not broken strings nor tuning mishaps and I tell ya, it was inspiring to see. It meant so much to the kids; they all worked really hard and they were all fantastic and, well, I’m quite proud to have been involved with something like that (I kept at it for the next decade or so as the program spread to over twenty schools and community centres across the Ottawa region).
When all the bands were done and the hi-fives had all been delivered I was finally free to cast the chains of responsibility aside. I got myself a backstage beer and headed straight to the main stage for a final dose of Monkeyjunk, my friend Tony’s band who had been holding court at the fest all week. The were and remain a top-notch original blues band that adds a unique sheen to music that is steeped in tradition. I’m a big fan of Tony both as a person and a player, and Monkeyjunk is the s***, especially when they invite David Maxwell and the Texas Horns and a bunch of other great players to sit in like they did at this set. Great blues for a decompressing sunny afternoon.
Eventually I went for a wander and caught a bit of Deer Tick and a chicken sandwich and made sure I was up close and ready when CR Avery started his set. I first discovered Cravery at Bluesfest in 2005 and nothing was going to stop me from catching his entire set this time. Cravery is a rapper/beatboxer/poet who is nothing like what one imagines when one imagines what a rapper/beatboxer/poet is like. He is compared to Tom Waits first, every time, and any number of musical geniuses after that. The man is funny, clever, creative, and tall on talent and back in those earlier days he always left me with the same explosive feeling that artists like Bob Wiseman or Bobby McFerrin could inspire. This time Cravery had nine players onstage with him, a group that included a slightly underused string trio and a slightly overused (but brilliant nonetheless) male vocal trio. It was a spellbinding concert that could only be faulted for brevity. The set wasn’t short per se, but I and everyone around me sure would have loved to have heard more.
On the other hand, Cravery’s early end afforded me the opportunity to check out Jack White’s band Dead Weather. As I approached the main stage I knew it was him. With a tone is so thick, simple and distinctive you can tell Jack White’s guitar playing from a mile away. By the time I got to the stage it was clear that Dead Weather was heavier than any other Jack White music I had heard, and though I liked it I cut out after just three or four songs to catch David Lindley (again) on the Hard Rock Stage.
If it’s got strings Lindley can play it and he is a joy to watch. Even after a million years in the business his enthusiasm was as vibrant as those kids on stage earlier in the afternoon. David Lindley loves to play so much you can hear his bliss come right out the soundhole. He brought Freddie Roulette onstage for a few songs on the lap steel and it was all so beautiful.
Nothing particularly drew me in as a festival closer so I spent the end of the Bluesfest meandering from one stage to another with m’lady just enjoying the ambiance of the place and watching nothing. After a dozen straight days of big-name headliners, head-turning fringe acts, and emerging stars the festival itself deserved the closing slot.
*When the inaugural Be In The Band session in the Glebe ended on such a high note the Bluesfest quickly launched the same program in two other community centres with two other instructors, so by July there were tons of kids involved.