On February 20th, 2018 I had the great pleasure of seeing Vieux Farka Touré right downtown, at one of my old haunts on Ottawa’s York Street. To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to have a good time or not, but with tickets priced at just $20 it was worth the risk.
I’m pretty darn sure I’d seen Vieux Farka Touré once before, when I gave his set at the old Ottawa Folk Festival out at Britannia Beach just the shortest end of my attention span before I just kept on walking. I absolutely love his father’s music – though I am only familiar with a scant amount of Ali Farka Touré’s catalogue – and I am instantly drawn to any music that reminds me of the time I spent in Mali, but for any number of reasons Vieux’s set at the Folkfest just didn’t grab me. I remember standing at the back of the lawn near the end of what was probably a long day of music and thinking that the music was much more pop-oriented than I was hoping.
Plus this would be the first time I’d be seeing a show at the morbidly named (though address-accurate) 27 Club, a venue formerly known as Zaphod Beeblebrox and a room I had been basically boycotting for a dozen years or more, so yeah, I wasn’t entirely sure how much fun I was going to have.
But I always felt that I didn’t give Vieux Farka Touré’s folkfest set much of a chance, and I was pretty curious to see what changes (if any) had occurred at my least favourite local bar, so I went.
And I had a fantastic time.
Walking into 27 Club I instantly liked it a hundred times better than Zaphod’s. The place had been gutted – the booths were gone, the raised bar was gone, the dancefloor was gone – and what remained was a large, rectangular room with a stage at one end and a bar running along one side. In other words, it looked like a live music venue. And it sounded like one too. The music was loud and crisp for opening act Rita Carter. I quickly went back to the doorman and dropped a dollar for a pair of earplugs and approached the (very fast, friendly and attentive) barman with my eardrums safely tucked away.
Frankly, it’s almost like Jon Taffer had brought his Bar Rescue crew in and overhauled the place. I can just see him screaming into the face of former owner Eugene Haslam. “You call this a live music venue?!?!?” Taffer yells, veins popping out of his temples, “And yet 70% of the room has no sightlines to the stage!!!!
“And you kick the musicians off stage at 11pm for a DJ?!?!?” he rants in my brain. “Nobody wants to switch from live rock and roll to techno at eleven o’clock, you imbecile!!!”
From the opening of Vieux Farka Touré’s first song I was swept back to the sounds of the Sahara Desert. The subdominant pentatonic scale sounds just like Timbuktu; it just does, and with his drummer clicking out a sparse rhythm on nothing but a calabash and the bass player filling the room with a lonesome drone I almost felt like the music was giving me sunstroke. I looked at m’lady and she just smiled back, both of us wordlessly reminiscing about the greatest trip we’ve shared.
And things didn’t stop when the drummer sat down on a standard drum kit two songs later. I guess this was what I had translated as being “poppy” on my brief listen years before, but now I realized it was nothing but a shift in focus from the sandy, West African desert sound to the busier, more urban Mopti/Bamako vibe.
And still the great, smiling service continued every time I stepped up to the convenient, open-concept bar, which was many. What a fun night it was.
A final positive note: I ran into an extraordinary number of old Ottawa acquaintances at this show, some of which I hadn’t seen in years. It actually got a bit weird, like “This Is Your Life” weird. So much so that I even asked m’lady if she was in on it. She gave me an appropriately weird look.
At the end of the night I grabbed my jacket from the coatcheck and bellied up to the merch table to drop $30 on a signed album. Before leaving I made a point of telling the bartender how much I liked the new look of the place and promised I’d be back.
He said he’d watch out for me, and I believed him.