I gotta say, the 2015 edition of the Ottawa jazz festival was pretty stacked. Sure there was Steve Miller, Jaga Jazzist, Joel Plaskett, Huey Lewis, WAR, Beirut, Branford Marsalis, Blind Boys of Alabama, Tower of Power [gasps for breath] and tons more, but the real indication of the proliferation of heavy hitters the fest had booked was the relegation of the wonderful and popular Bruce Cockburn – Bruce Cockburn! – to the secondary stage, and at an early time slot no less.
And so I found myself a seat in the extremely packed tent on the front lawn of city hall well before the 7pm start time. The effort was well worth it. Cockburn had just finished an extensive stint writing his memoirs so with no new album to tour he was there “…just to play some music…” And so he did.
He played pretty much every song you could ever want to hear him play, scattering a few deep esoteric dives amongst his greatest known material: Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Waiting For a Miracle, Rocket Launcher, Rumours of Glory…he wrenched these finger twisters out of his guitar with a very deceptive and well-practised ease, accompanied throughout by a wonderful bass player and a very thoughtful drummer. It was so great that it was only in retrospect that I noticed he had skipped my favourite (Wondering Where the Lions Are), but that’s certainly a-okay with me.
Now, you might think that it’s pretty nutty to bump an iconic, legendary talent like Bruce Cockburn – both a bona fide hit-maker and widely respected artist worldwide, not to mention his exalted place amongst the world of socially-conscious celebrities – to a side stage for a band like The Roots, but what else are you gonna do?
Are you going to try to stuff one of the best-known and highly-regarded hip hop groups in America – along with all the unstoppable grooves and irresistible beats that come along with them – into a 600-capacity tent? Are you nuts? Sure, lots of people got shut out of the Bruce Cockburn set and all but once the show got started those of us that managed to get in were happy to sit quietly crowded in together soaking up the great music. But The Roots? They make you move. If they had been playing in the tent it would have burst at the seams.
As it was we were several thousand people crowded around the main stage dancing in the dark and lining up for party beers. To think that we could have gone from a get-up-and-move set like that to a sit-down cerebral Bruce Cockburn concert…well, it’s just unthinkable. It turns out those jazz fest scheduling people know a thing or two.
After The Roots ended I was so afraid of a sonic letdown that I bailed on the late night tent altogether and simply got my well-shaken butt home.