070909 Ben Harper and Relentless7/P-Funk All Stars/The Murder Plans/Oumou Sangare/Sergent Garcia/Tara Holloway with Amanda Rheaume/Brothers Chaffey/Kyrie Kristmanson, Ottawa, ON

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For most of the years I spent writing daily reviews of the Ottawa Bluesfest in exchange for a festival pass I took it upon myself to report on as much of the lineup as was humanely possibly.  The Bluesfest is a multi-staged event with a packed schedule from open ’til close so this meant a lot of stage-jumping.  As evidence, I present to you the following summary of my travails on July 9th, 2009:

I arrived onsite shortly after the gates opened and – finding myself wholly unfamiliar with all of the artists starting off the night – I headed straight to my mainstay, the Blacksheep Stage.  There I found a cold beer and a small, rabid crowd hugging the stage beneath a young lady clutching an acoustic guitar.  What they all knew and I was about to find out: if Kyrie Kristmanson is what you’re looking for you won’t find it anywhere else.  A Canadian expat living in France, Kyrie delivered utterly unique through-composed stream-of-consciousness poetry accompanied by complex, naive, and very well-rehearsed guitar playing.  And gutsy…she sang one piece backing herself up with only a trumpet.  And just as I was wondering what she would attempt next I pulled up roots and headed towards Brothers Chaffey.

Only to discover Amanda Rheaume sitting in with Tara Holloway along the way!  Amanda and I were both mentoring in the Bluesfest’s Be In The Band program that year and I had had the nervous pleasure of playing drums (of all things) behind her at the BITB concert a few months earlier.  She’s a wonderful performer and a great person and it was nice to hear her sitting in with Tara.

I eventually made it over to Brothers Chaffey – a bunch of lads from Almonte, Ontario playing straight-from-the-gut 70’s-era Rolling Stones-ish rock and roll under a blazing sun – and found them pretty fun.  Having the festival’s roaming horn section The Texas Horns sitting in didn’t hurt one bit either.

But after a few songs I was up for some serious stage bouncing, thanks to the festival’s brand new (and short-lived…did it last two years or three?) free concert series Bluesfest In The Byward.  I claimed my steed from the supervised bicycle valet parking and rode two kilometres along Wellington Street passing such iconic architecture as Canada’s Supreme Court, the Parliament Buildings, and the castle-like Chateau Laurier on my way to the market.  

When I arrived a collection of monstrously talented musicians from France calling themselves Sergent Garcia were onstage playing some seriously dancy latin music that was a perfect warmup for the funktaculous Parliament/Funkadelic All Stars.  Even if you’re entirely unfamiliar with P-Funk two things become quite clear from the moment their show begins: the band is as mind-numbingly funky as a band can possibly be and man, do they dress weird.  When the mothership landed and the very freaky George Clinton joined his vast band onstage (to an incredibly tight cover of Frank Zappa’s I Am The Slime) he was flanked on one side by a guitar player in nothing but a man-sized diaper and on the other by a thonged woman on roller skates wearing angel wings.  And man, was it funky!  Like, funky, funky, funky.  I mean butts were shaking all over the place.  

To be honest I can hardly believe that I brought myself to leave before P-Funk finished their set, but they had started late and there was still plenty to “report” on, so my self-imposed call to duty convinced me to jump stages again.

On my way back to the festival grounds I took the astounding and enviable pathway below and behind the Parliament Buildings, along the Ottawa river where the log drive had ended only a few decades before (as depicted on the back of the 1973 design of Canada’s one dollar bill)).  I re-valeted my bike and headed directly back to the good old Blacksheep Stage where my plans for a quick stop was utterly thwarted by Oumou Sangare.  Since my very first exposure I have always loved African music and it doesn’t get any better than the stuff that comes out of Mali.  Oumou kept this promise alive fronting her traditional West African pop band replete with kora, djembe, dancers throwing calabashes in the air and of course the obligatory Ali Farke Toure-style electric guitar player, but she added a killer bass/drums rhythm section too, which included Will Calhoun, the drummer from Living Colour.  The result was a timeless palette of relaxed Saharan music framed, shaped, and grooved with a super-snappy dance beat.

For the only time of the evening my obsession for stage jumping was taken out at the knees.  I was utterly unable to leave the Blacksheep until Oumou Sangare’s last note.

After which there was still enough time to catch the last half-hour of Ben Harper.  This was my first time seeing him with his new band Relentless7 and though I found Ben Harper to sound undeniably like Ben Harper, with this configuration he was no longer wearing his Hendrix/Marley influences on his sleeve.  I specifically recall a sublime cover of Queen’s Under Pressure that almost made me wish I had left Oumou Sangare early.  But just almost.   

Now get this: After Ben Harper strummed his last chord at the 11pm cutoff time it was back to the Market for this guy, this time to Mavericks for the late-night bar band segment of Bluesfest In The Byward.  The bracelet I received on my way through the door was good for all the downtown venues so bar hopping was easy but what do I know about it?  I had done enough stage jumping for one day so I stuck with The Murder Plans – a short-lived local rock band that sometimes almost approached a Talking Heads type of greatness – for their entire set, start-to-finish.

And then I went home and stayed up until about 6am writing my gushing and professional-sounding review.  I did this for twelve days straight in exchange for a free festival pass that at the time cost around $160 or so.  That’s how much of a cheapskate I was*.  

Though it got me backstage.

*Did I say “was”?  Am.

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