Ottawa Bluesfest Days 1 and 2 feat. Van Morrison and Bob Dylan
PopMatters' Christopher Cwynar wades through the teeming masses, dodging in and out of a throng of 35,000 fans with highlights from North America's second largest blues festival.
Ottawa Bluesfest Days 1 and 2 feat. Van Morrison and Bob DylanCity: Ottawa, ON
Venue: LeBreton Flats
4 July 2007 - 5 July 2007 Midway through the White Stripes' incendiary set at the 14th Ottawa Bluesfest, Jack White took a moment to address his audience over a distorted blues riff: "I saw in the paper the other day that someone asked, 'Are the White Stripes bluesy enough to headline Bluesfest?' Here.” White paused for effect against the echo of the crunching riff before observing, "Someone must be colorblind!" and then tearing back into the song. The "bluesiness" debate seems ridiculous in the aftermath of the Stripes tinnitus-inducing set of postmodern blues-rock. In fact, the Ottawa Bluesfest's tremendous growth rendered the argument irrelevant long before that. After all, the festival has come a long way since Clarence Clemons headlined its first incarnation back in 1994. Whereas that year's total attendance was roughly 5,000, this edition saw more than 250,000 people pass through the gates. For years now, North America's second-largest "blues" festival has looked beyond its title genre, offering a diverse roster of talent. Some exhibit little or no blues influence, while others -- like the White Stripes -- enrich our understanding of the genre by demonstrating the ways in which it’s inspired them. This year's massive Bluesfest welcomed more than 175 acts over the course of 12 evenings. With a full festival passport coming at just $189.50 CDN, the extensive program seemed a bargain. The performances took place on five different stages at the festival's new site on LeBreton Flats -- just adjacent to Canada's War Museum beside the Ottawa River. Each day, listeners of all ages and social demographics mingled on the central field, taking in a non-stop series of prime acts on the alternating Rogers and MBNA stages. Those looking for a more roots-oriented sound were drawn to the River Stage, where earnest performances unfolded in a bucolic riverside setting. Local music impresario Paul Symes offered an eclectic program on his Black Sheep Stage -- a perennial favorite of audiophiles and indie kids. And finally, the War Museum's Barney Danson Theatre served as an ideal venue for intimate solo performances; the indoor stage also offered a welcome respite from the festival's chaotic churn. Twelve days of programming in five venues made for a lot of listening. I did my best to take in as much of the music and ambiance as possible. In the process, I saw aging legends, hardworking troubadours, fledgling talents, and everything in between. The Bluesfest began with a bang on Wednesday evening with an opening set by Van Morrison. The festival's start date had been moved up a day to accommodate the man from Belfast, and the fest's volunteer army and facilities strained to handle the 35,000 people who turned up for his 90-minute set. By the time I arrived at the main entrance, it was impossible to move more than a dozen feet into the teeming mass of people on the main field. Despite the crowding, Morrison’s set was enjoyable; he and his top-notch band threw a few wrinkles into the first third of his set before settling into a series of crowd-pleasing hits on the home stretch. To these ears, a rousing "Here Comes the Night" was the evening's highlight, though it seemed that most fans were more excited by the perfunctory versions of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Gloria" that Morrison crammed into the set's final six minutes. The crowd screamed its collective lungs out for an encore, but Van the Man had already slipped out the back and sped away in his hired limousine. The next night, Bob Dylan took the stage to an equally packed field. The people’s prophet from Minnesota was resplendent in his Western suit and flat-brimmed hat. While he didn't say much to the audience, he did offer plenty of wry grins to accompany important lines in his more sardonic compositions. It was clear from the manner in which Dylan twisted and writhed at the keyboard that this most revered of songwriters was enjoying his first visit to Ottawa's Bluesfest. The set's highlights included a jaunty "Spirit on the Water"; a caustic "Masters of War," on which the trademark Dylan sneer was used to great effect; and a tender, countrified "Girl of the North Country" featuring a lovely pedal-steel part from Donnie Herron. Dylan closed with a fair version of "All Along the Watchtower" before sending us on our way, ready for the countless acts to come as the Bluesfest's first weekend really began. Check back tomorrow as PopMatters’ Christopher Cwynar journeys further into the fray, reviewing day three, four, and five performances by artists like Femi Kuti, Manu Chao, Leo Kottke, and the White Stripes.