On July 16th, 2010 I made one of my usual jaunts down to the good old Ottawa Bluesfest where I saw a dazzling array of talent from dozens of performers spread throughout just three shows on the two smallest stages the festival offered.
First up was Ottawa’s own swamp-blues champions Monkeyjunk who were once again hosting the festival’s daily jam session, ironically called the Power Hour. Ironic because during the set the power to the stage went out, robbing about ten minutes from the Hour. I think we lost some pretty powerful minutes too because the band had been tearing it up behind an endless string of awesome sit-ins. Though Monkeyjunk was riding a wave of national awards and high-profile gigs and could easily have kept the crowd jumping all on their own this was a jam session after all, and the parade of players they hosted during this set – both local and international – amped things up considerably. Pianist David Maxwell was there and drummer Steve Lund too, and for sure Tony D’s regular sax player Zeke Gross was there. It was a great pile of music, that’s for sure.
(A quick aside: I do believe that Zeke Gross was the first local Ottawa musician I ever heard, when I happened into the Glebe Royal Oak for a random beer one afternoon early in my first year of university and discovered the Zeke Gross Band in the middle of their weekly jam. I sat there enthralled and I spent the next year or so daydreaming about moving into an apartment next to Zeke where I could listen to him practise all day and night [which I was convinced he must have been doing]. Sadly, it never happened.)
I have it in my mind that the Power Hour (Power Fifty Minutes?) happened indoors at the Barney Danson Theatre but I might be wrong about that. I know where it wasn’t though, and that was on the Black Sheep Stage, for the Black Sheep Stage had been converted, covered, and bleachered that year for nightly comedy shows, and that was my next destination. In this case I took in an all-Canadian show and my notes tell me that it featured Deb DiGiovanni, Pete Zedlacher, Ryan Belleville and was hosted by Mark Forward. Of course if not for these notes I wouldn’t have the first clue what any of their names were.
What’s with comedians all having the most forgettable names ever? Go ahead, say out loud any of the comedian names I just listed, and no looking! See? Even if they totally kill me, if I see an unknown comedian that hasn’t given himself a memorable nickname (is it possible that Carrothead is the only comedian smart enough to do this?) I am walking out the door with no clue what their name is. Band names are just so, so much easier (even if it took me months to consistently get King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s name right).
Anyway, the host (whatever his name was) kept taking random forays into a comically twisted fantasyland that I found hilarious, especially when he kept screaming “Half of you hate me!” while the headliner (I’ll help you out: Ryan Belleville) kept the Canadian angle rolling with jokes about canoes and hockey (“Maple Leaf sandwich meats have a better chance at the Stanley Cup”).
I like comedy. It’s funny. I almost wrote “but I like music more,” but I realized that it was a lie. I think I can give comedy and music equal footing. Both can make me laugh and both can make me cry. My first memory is asking for piano lessons (lessons that were not forthcoming) and I’ve been involved in amateur comedy ever since my first day of school. It’s no surprise then that I am a huge fan of novelty music. One early favourite was Alice’s Restaurant and in that case I’m sure it was the comedy that drew me to the music. Same with Frank Zappa. My entry into his world was through Billy the Mountain, the hilarious and subtly poignant tale of a mountain who finally receives the royalties from all the postcards he’s appeared in and uses the windfall to go on a coast-to-coast highly-destructive vacation with his wife Ethel, who is a tree who grows out of his shoulder. (Thanks Ryan.)
I’ve often wondered which world would be worse: one devoid of music or one devoid of laughter. I invariably end up being massively appreciative that I live in neither. Sorry, I’m getting downright aside-y today.
Finally (for me anyway) was a benefit set entitled Marcia Ball & The Voice of The Wetlands All Stars, a Louisiana-based collection of artists who generally toured in support of their local wetlands but were at the time raising funds to build homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. For the first and only time in my memory there was an on-the-spot $20 upgrade for premium seating near the front for this set, with two lines (regular and upgrade) leading into the Black Sheep tent, which had forsaken comedy for the remainder of the evening.
The show was centred around the hugely talented Marcia Ball on piano and vocals, and featured Grammy-nominated guitarist Tab Benoit, youngest Neville Brother Cyril, singer and guitarist Anders Osborne, harmonica player Johnny Sansone, “Louisiana’s Rockin’ Fiddler” Waylon Thibodeaux, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe the Golden Eagles.
The packed stage brewed up some seriously inspired gumbo-spiked Cajun music that fed the soul while it housed the homeless. Mid-show Ball’s classically-inspired soloing brought the whole crowd to its feet, where most of us stayed for the rest of the show (a rather uncharacteristic move for an Ottawa crowd, proving the bounty of musical glory that was being presented). Washboards, accordions, guitars, congas; with anywhere from six to a dozen players picking at any one time the All Stars delivered an absolutely enormous sound to a positively ecstatic crowd for the remainder of the night.
Errr…for the remainder of my night anyway. For by the time Marcia Ball bid us all thank you and good night I was done. As I headed towards my parked bicycle I could hear Canada’s biggest kitchen party whooping it up from the main stage where Great Big Sea were rocking their shanties to what was surely a hopping crowd. But it was eight days into the festival by then and there was a big long weekend of music yet to come. I had seen and heard enough for the day.