July 17th, 2005 was the final day of what was undeniably one of the best instalments of the Ottawa Bluesfest to date. This was back when the festival was still happening at City Hall. I was living in the Glebe that year so it was a pretty short walk from my place and it’s a good thing too as I was onsite all day every day writing reviews for a local website.
It was a beautiful sunny day as I bounced from one stage to another. Despite my anticipation David Lindley (1944-2023) somehow didn’t hold my attention so I replayed the previous day’s afternoon and caught a second show starring the ever-awesome Bill Frisell. Then, just like before, I saw Harry Manx again, who was just back from a tour of Australia with local wunderkind ‘South Side’ Steve Marriner in tow. And once again Marriner all but stole the show with his youthful energy and his stellar harmonica playing. Of course Steve is now a Bluesfest mainstay (and Juno Award winner) as vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for Ottawa’s own Monkeyjunk.
I was excited to see Sonny Landreth on one of the sidestages. Landreth is an astoundingly good musician, a man who spends countless hours perfecting the tiniest details of his craft, fine points that so many other players let fall by the wayside. His bends are perfect, his vibrato is machine-like; he’s like the American version of Jeff Beck. His set was fantastic, a masterful display of subtle guitar pyrotechnics that would put the much flashier Steve Vai to shame.
But it was John Prine (1946-2020) who captivated the evening. Though I’m a fan, I thought positioning a folk artist as the festival’s ultimate act was an odd choice for the Bluesfest, being so heavily weighted with rock acts at the time. But I was dead wrong; it turned out that he was actually the perfect choice for the headlining slot.
“Roosters lay chickens and chickens lay eggs,” is a line as obvious as it is accurate, and yet it takes a man like John Prine to invent it. Much like his songs (which sound so simple they might have written themselves), it took a songwriter that great to write music so simply. The lyrics dripped from his mouth so easily, so effortlessly stating truths that otherwise exist merely on the tip of the world’s tongue. But I suppose that’s what good folk music is, and John Prine was the king of the genre (the man’s catalogue reads like the greatest hits of the folk era: Sam Stone, Angel From Montgomery, Illegal Smile, Paradise; and those are just from his debut album!). This was hands-down the best John Prine show I had seen at the time.
As a matter of fact, Prine was so good I think he might have put on the best set of the whole festival that year. And considering all the bands I saw at the 2005 edition of the Ottawa Bluesfest (War, Neko Case, Lhasa, Alison Kraus & Union Station, Daniel Lanois, Broken Social Scene, Final Fantasy, Xavier Rudd, K-os, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, Mofro, Do Make Say Think, Kenny Neal [Kenny Neal] & Billy Branch, Simple Plan, The Hammerheads, Percy Sledge, African Guitar Summit, ZZ Top, Buckwheat Zydeco, Keller Williams, Umphrey’s McGee, CR Avery, Rufus Wainwright, The Dears, Kid Rock, Tony D, Rufus Wainwright, Kaki King, The New York Dolls, Campbell Brothers Sacred Steel, David Lindley, Bill Frisell [twice], Harry Manx [also twice], Sonny Landreth, and of course John Prine), that’s saying something.
At $99 for a full-festival pass that worked out to less than $3 per band, and Lhasa was the only act that wasn’t worth the money. I actually paid $0 for my pass, making the whole thing an even better deal, though Lhasa still wasn’t worth it. Overall 2005 was just a great, great festival and one that offered a very, very wide variety of styles and notoriety. If I had to make a list of the top five acts I saw that year I guess I’d have to include Mofro, Do Make Say Think, John Prine, Umphrey’s McGee, and either Daniel Lanois or (what may or may not have been) my first CR Avery set.
Not too shabby.