071014 Blondie/Procol Harum with the National Arts Centre Orchestra/John Mayall/The Band Perry, Ottawa, ON

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It doesn’t matter how you cut it, July 10th, 2014 was a pretty amazing night at the Ottawa Bluesfest.

I feel like I could just type the words “Procol Harum”, dust off my hands and be done with it; position posited and argument won.  But then you wouldn’t know that my beloved National Arts Centre Orchestra (whose members are among the best classical musicians in the world) sat in with the great Baroque-rock group for their entire set, as did a local choir led by Ottawa mainstay Lee Hayes.  

And of course it was great.  How could it not be?  Procol Harum as a group has been around literally as long as I have (we were both conceived just in time for the Summer of Love) and augmenting that level of experience with a full-on orchestra and a choir was something you don’t get to hear very often.  Who cares if the only song anyone off the stage knows is A Whiter Shade of Pale?  It was John Lennon’s favourite song and that’s good enough for me.  And played with the freakin’ NACO no less!  Amazing.

As per usual the two big stages at Bluesfest were set up on opposite sides of the main concert field so the moment Procol Harum’s set ended we all swirled around and were immediately met with none other than Blondie stepping onto the opposing stage and opening their set with One Way or Another.  Changeover time: zero minutes.  Ah-mazing.

Freakin’ Blondie!  When it comes to the upper echelon of retro ’80’s music you just can’t top Blondie.  Sure, you could equal Blondie – I’m thinking: Talking Heads, Pat Benatar, DEVO, The Eurythmics, The Cars – but you’re not going to top them.  I’m so glad that I loved Blondie as a kid.  Knowing that I was innately and independently attracted to retro-certifiably great music gives me hope for my past self.  Rapture, Heart of Glass, Call Me…I sang along to every word.  Midway through the set I resisted a Pavlovian urge to roller skate over to the Blacksheep Stage to catch a bit of Dave Mason; but I just couldn’t bear to miss a moment of Blondie.  I stayed put for the entirety of their set and once again, the moment they finished their encore we all turned back around to the other stage for the opening notes of…

The Band Perry, proving that you can’t win ‘em all.  I stuck around long enough to confirm that New Country had indeed evolved from glossy twang-rock into spiked-cowboy-boot blonde pop – it was so icky – and got myself the hell out of there lest I be swayed by their uber-professional band.  And so it was that I made my first non-alcohol related move of the day and booked it to the Blacksheep Stage where I caught almost the entirety of John Mayall’s set, which was pretty darn great.    

(There was clearly a large contingent of attendees who had likewise fled from the cognitive dissonance on the main stage; the Blacksheep Stage was positively packed for John Mayall’s set.)

I don’t know about you, but to me John Mayall is mostly famous for hosting the one and only recording of Eric Clapton (again: to me) that is worthy of the respect that Clapton has somehow garnered over his astronomically pentatonic career*.  But even without that questionable feather in his cap I’m confident that Mayall would still be booked into just as many festivals today.  You just can’t find real vintage 1960’s true-grit screaming British blues nowadays, especially not with such a great natural patina as John Mayall has.  I remember Mayall playing a lot more guitar at this show than the only other time I had seen him, which had been more than twenty years earlier.  It was all very, very bluesy – straight from one of the sources of the original deviation – and the huge crowd ate up every twelve-bar like it was made of chocolate.

I stuck it out until the very last riff and it was all pretty great.  Though in comparison to The Band Perry I could easily describe it as “amazing”.

Not too shabby for a Thursday night.

*I’m referring to Mayall’s 1966 recording “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton” which is – if I may – amazing.

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