July 15th was the final Saturday of the 2006 Ottawa Bluesfest and it was a hot one. I was onsite early, excited for a mid-afternoon set from Junior Brown on the Blues ’Til Dusk Stage. The very air was melting when Junior emerged from the wings, like we’re talking brain-baking hot. Despite the heat Brown came out wearing a suit and a big white cowboy hat, the same outfit he was wearing on the cover of the March 1997 issue of Guitar Player Magazine that I had brought along. He balanced his half electric-guitar/half lap-steel guit-steel musical contraption on a stand and together with an understated drummer and an inaudible bass player – both also wearing suits – they twanged and slithered through smokin’ country blues for the next hour or so.
Midset I retreated to where m’lady and our friend Kyla were taking cover in the shade. They seemed to be on the verge of heatstroke so I begged several cups full of ice off the guy at the nearby lemonade stand and dumped a cup on each of their heads. Lives saved, I filled my hat with ice, plunked it on my own sweltering head and went back to the front of the stage and continued marvelling at Junior Brown as he slid up. down, and all over that crazy one-off instrument of his. I really enjoyed it, although I must admit that while I found Junior Brown to be technically fantastic I also found him to be woefully stylistically restrained. That said, I still couldn’t bear to leave even though there wasn’t the slightest smidgen of variety in his set, so there’s that.
In case you’re wondering, yes, it was indeed Junior Brown’s appearance on the cover of my favourite guitar magazine that had me so interested in catching his show. Sure, I’ve had friends that have made it into Guitar Player but the cover? That’s a different thing altogether. And even though he obviously made the cut more for his weirdly engaging home-made hybrid instrument than for his fretboard prowess, when Junior Brown finished his set I did indeed position myself backstage like a goof, a brand-new Sharpie in one hand and my copy of that issue of Guitar Player magazine in the other. Brown was extremely nonchalant and blatantly uninterested as he signed it for me, though he does have a very nice signature. I’m such a goof.
I suppose it was after that that I dropped in on the Whatever Stage for a I-IV-V-a-thon called the Chicago Blues Reunion. The program told me that the ensemble was a collection/collaboration of older blues players that were legendary in Chicago. I, however, was in Ottawa, so after a dozen notes and a thousand solos I made my way over to the main stage where I found a posse of friends just in time for the last half of Roseanne Cash’s performance. We queued up for beers and squished forward through the thick crowd and for our efforts we were rewarded with a beautiful half-set from a great vantage point.
When Cash finished I expected the crowd to disperse towards other stages but no, as her last note faded into the void the crowd surprised me by surging forward. It turned out that much of Roseanne Cash’s audience were merely just Wilco fans waiting on the fringe of the crowd with bated breath for their heroes to take the stage.
Without a doubt, Wilco fans fall firmly in the “rabid” category. One of these fanatics accosted me in the beer line, explaining that if you like one live Wilco song you’re bound to like them all. I seem to be living evidence of his lies, as I found the second half of their set vastly more interesting than the first half. But the band delivered – no question about that – and their fans ate it up like it was musical crack cocaine. By now I’ve had several kicks at the Wilco can and nope, I just don’t get ‘em. Great players though, no arguing that.
But I got to say, the most entertaining moment of Wilco’s performance was a bit of between-song banter featuring lead singer Jeff Tweedy berating a swath of the crowd near the stage for remaining seated throughout their entire performance. He had no idea that he was in fact addressing the wheelchair section, but all of us in the crowd knew.