On August 27th, 2011 I eagerly cycled down to the beautiful Hog’s Back Park for a busy Saturday packed with music courtesy of the newly Bluesfested Ottawa Folk Festival.
Arriving onsite I headed straight to The Falls Stage where I found the wooden dancefloor packed, as hundreds of people crammed under the big white tent for the down-home gritty funk of JJ Grey & Mofro, a band I was rather familiar with after seeing them several times at the aforementioned Bluesfest.
Though they had always given off a balls-to-the-wall trailer park Budweiser-drunk Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe, at this show JJG&M landed somewhere between the Blues Brothers and Drive-By Truckers, with the raspy Joe Cocker-meets-Otis Redding voice of JJ Grey running headlong into a pair of killer horn players who were busy creating an onslaught of soul that was thick in texture and drenched in funk. The dual Les Paul crunch and snappy rhythm section played off each other perfectly with deft organ chops constantly lurking and murking underneath those powerful horns…and oh, that voice! The bottom line is there’s just no excuse for missing this band. Glad I didn’t.
Seconds after JJ Grey & Mofro’s last note faded away Tom Morello began his all-acoustic set leading a trio of like-minded musicians on the main stage. Yes, the dude from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave was doing an acoustic tour. No surprise that the set was a radical departure from either of his former associations, which were both somewhat radical themselves.
But really, his new project seemed to please nobody, myself especially included. Though his penchant for protest remained, the rage had been replaced with the earthy tone of a wrongly-played folk-sounding instrument – or even worse, the sole number Morello played on a classical nylon-string – and in the end he alienated his old metal fans while picking up no one new from the folk scene.
I say “sole number played on the nylon-string” but I don’t know if that’s really true. In his only true nod to the folk world, when he picked up his classical guitar it required tuning. Obviously one used to working a screaming arena crowd, Morello convinced the audience to cheer at the top of their lungs while he tuned up. Sure it was pretty funny, but it was also pretty dumb. I took it as an opportunity to bail and jump stages.
I happened by the Falls Stage and discovered an Australian wonderkid named Kim Churchill wowing a large crowd. Looking like a movie star and sounding a mile tall, if you weren’t looking you’d never guess so much sound could come from just one man. With a voice that sounded like Dave Matthews and a guitar style that rivalled a four-piece band, this guy was alternating between lightly cascading arpeggios, crushing crescendos, and pounding his strings with both hands while furiously attacking his harmonica, and all the while his feet constantly flailed away at a pair of flam pedals attached to a kick and snare drum.
Churchill was a one-man-band long on talent; a skilled singer, songwriter, guitarist, percussionist and harp player who had sculpted himself a powerful stage presence. The guy was a quintuple-threat, and for a name I had never heard before he very, very much kicked Tom Morello’s ass.
Speaking of unfamiliar names, about this time a friend tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to his watch, suggested we should go to a different stage in time for the start of Colin Hay’s set. “He’s the guy from Men Without Hats,” my buddy explained, “it should be fun.”
“You mean Men At Work,” I responded.
“Even better!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go.”
In the end I don’t know who was more surprised with Colin Hay’s set, me or my friend. I had arrived onsite that day thinking that Tom Morello would be really interesting and that Colin Hay would be slightly nostalgic but otherwise a waste of time. How wrong I was! Morello was so lame it almost sounded like he was joking while Hay was so awesome he kept me riveted for his entire set. I would totally go see Colin Hay again.
Anyone alive in the early 80’s is bound to remember Men At Work. The Australian group’s debut album Business As Usual went #1 worldwide and their quickly released follow-up Cargo did brisk sales piggy-backed on the success of the first. Grammy’s, Juno’s, you name it, they won it. Then, seemingly as quick as they came Men Ay Work were gone.
“You sell ten or fifteen million records,” lamented Hay in one of his extended between-song rants, “And then, nothing.”
He began his set with an a cappella number and then surprised everyone by launching into the song everyone expected would be held to the end, Down Under. Performing his entire set solo, the Scottish-born singer offered up a brilliant version of his ubiquitous pop hit, replicating every vocal nuance we all knew intrinsically over a refreshing acoustic arrangement that made the song sound brand new.
“A confident move, some might say,” joked Hay about placing his biggest hit so early in the set. I would say he was right. Nobody plays their biggest song so early. But the guy really, really knew how to work a crowd, and what a great songwriter he is. We were treated to a true, bona fide folk concert full of beautiful, meaningful songs and hilarious stories.
(“If you think getting a song on a million-selling soundtrack means you can retire, you’re wrong. If you want a new kitchen renovation though, go for it.”)
He spent much of the early part of his set relating tales of his exploits with both Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney and the crowd couldn’t get enough of it. Later he started to let the music do the talking, prompting one eager fan to scream “tell another story!” in lieu of a song request. In the end his performance garnered a hill-wide standing ovation that was well-earned. Dude is no has-been.
I was so impressed with his set I looked for him backstage so I could tell him so (I was reviewing the fest and had backstage access). I found him sitting alone with a bag of potato chips. I offered my thanks and appreciation for the great set. He accepted my thanks with a handshake and said he’d save my appreciation for later. I laughed, ate most of his chips and bid him a good night.