July 18th was the final Saturday of the 2009 Ottawa Bluesfest and it was a big day chock-full of great music and memorable experiences, and yet thinking about it always gives a pang in my gut.
The weather was sketchy, as it had been for much of the two-week festival that year. I waited for a sunny break and hopped on my bike. Along the way I had to wait out a downpour beneath a bridge within sight of the venue. I could see a beautiful day approaching in the afternoon sky and as soon as it arrived overhead I completed my journey and made my way in.
The Hard Rock Café Stage was hosting a gospel day so I stopped in for a little churchin’ from Israel & New Breed. They were super-great players playing incredibly upbeat music that approached the fringes of that South African Graceland sound made famous by Paul Simon, and every bit of it for the Lord. Like, for real. There was a huge group of fans amassed around the stage singing and praising along with every chord. During one mid-groove the band was kickin’ it so hard they couldn’t help but to slip in a little pagan nod to MJ’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. They played for a solid two hours and never lost their audience, myself included. And lest you think that God was their magnet I tell you Israel & New Breed had the most badass bass playing happening anywhere at the festival that day. It’s really, really hard to walk away from bass that funky.
I made it over to one of the other side stages in time for David Lindley’s brilliant solo set. Tune-by-tune he was selecting from his wonderfully bizarre stringed instrument collection, from bouzouki’s to any number of Weissenborns.
I could easily have stood there and watched Lindley’s entire set but I felt compelled to check my backstage status for the upcoming Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining set*. Along the way I passed Ludacris doing his thing on the mainstage. Turns out his thing is rapping with his homey while a DJ backs them up. I arrived in time to hear another Michael Jackson tribute, as the DJ spun Man In The Mirror into the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, and it was actually pretty great. There was a huge crowd out to see the rap star, and just as I was uncharacteristically pushing by a couple of police officers on my way to the opposing mainstage a fight broke out not ten feet from us, springing the cops into action in a flash. I believe it may stand as the only physical fight I’ve ever seen at Bluesfest, and it lasted all of six seconds.
I ducked outside the main gate just as Ludacris was ending his show and I wanna tell you, a lot of people poured out of the venue after his set. So many people left I was amazed to see one of the biggest crowds of the year (aside from KISS) still inside waiting for Skynyrd to go on. I made my way backstage and was milling about with the band when my credentials were questioned and I was exiled to the photo pit up front. Harumph. I had been intending to watch Skynyrd from sidestage.
After a couple of songs (Skynyrd Nation and Saturday Night Special) I decided to go hear what the Drive-By Truckers had to offer over on the side stage. M’lady was a big, big fan and by this time I had been hearing them peripherally around the house for a while but I had never seen the band live before. After bouncing back and forth between stages I settled on the swampy southern social commentary crunch of the Truckers over the barely-original triple-guitar God & Guns World Tour (not kidding, that’s what the tour was called) that was tickling the nostalgia bone back at the mainstage. Sure, I watched as Skynyrd nailed down hits like Gimme Back My Bullets and That Smell and as a guy who greatly admires the band (and has played several of their songs in cover bands along the way) it was great to see them live and playing so well, but after hearing what the Drive-By Truckers had to offer live I found it easy to commit**.
Curiously avoiding their concept album that follows a young musician who missed seeing a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (save one song), the Drive-By Truckers dished out a fantastic set that wavered between Exile era Rolling Stones, the best that Tom Petty has to offer and, well, perhaps Lynyrd Skynyrd in their angrier days and all of it with a look of pure blissful rock & roll on their honest faces. I hung out with m’lady near the front for most of the show but I decided to duck out and use my pass to watch the encore from sidestage. I don’t know what difference it made, but from up close it was even clearer that the band plays serious no-BS rock and roll.
When the set ended I followed the band to their trailer and was invited to share some beers with them and you know what? They were nothing but the kindest southern folk you wanna meet. They were all in good spirits and chatting excitedly about the show they had just played. This had been their first gig in at least a month and they were overjoyed with the venue and the fact that they could watch the sun setting over the river as they played. This was back when Shonna Tucker was still in the band and I recall her insisting that I eat one of the packaged meals that were crowding a table laden with snacks and drinks backstage, or at least take one home with me. I declined again and again while accepting beer after beer from their ice bucket. I was eyeing an unopened 40oz bottle of Jack Daniels that sat unmolested as Mike Cooley quickly tore through one that he had obviously started into earlier. Eventually someone popped their head in the trailer offering to drive the band back to their hotel room and with waves and handshakes they all cleared out, leaving me alone. I took a long, final pull on my beer and was rising out of my chair aimed towards that unmolested bottle of JD when the trailer door opened. Cooley stepped back in looking around. He spotted the bottle of Jack and grabbed it, gave me a nod and left. Damn. I left too.
And boy, was I surprised to find m’lady still standing outside, all alone in the empty concert field. Pang. She had been waiting for me to emerge from the backstage trailer and invite her in so she could meet one of her favourite bands and I hadn’t. Oh, the pang! I don’t know what had come over me. I suppose I didn’t think that my little pass had the authority to +1 m’lady backstage so I didn’t even try. And though I was doubtlessly correct about that, I am equally confident that had I asked Shonna or any other member of the band if I could call m’lady in to join us for a post-show drink my request would have been met.
Oh how it pains me to picture m’lady standing in that soggy concert field waiting for me. I had put off writing this one for a long time because of that visual memory. I’m glad it’s finally done.
Otherwise, it was a pretty great day.
*In a sad coincidence guitarist, songwriter, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s final surviving member Gary Rossington (1951-2023) passed away just two days after the world lost David Lindley (1944-2023).
**That said, the similarities between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Drive-By Truckers certainly outweigh the differences and it’s an ugly statement on the state of pop music when one realizes that there’s virtually no way the Drive-By Truckers will ever enjoy commercial success the way Lynyrd Skynyrd has.