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Ottawa Bluesfest Days 3-5 feat. Femi Kuti, Michael Franti, Manu Chao, Leo Kottke, and White Stripes

Christopher Cwynar
Femi Kuti

By day three, the Ottawa Bluesfest had taken off: the beer tents and concession stands did brisk business, as a barrage of bands got down to business with politics, finger-picking, and a whole lot of blues.

Ottawa Bluesfest Days 3-5

Ottawa Bluesfest Days 3-5 feat. Femi Kuti, Michael Franti, Manu Chao, Leo Kottke, and White Stripes

City: Ottawa, ON
Venue: LeBreton Flats
Date: 2007-07

6 July 2007 As day three of the Ottawa Bluesfest took off, the festival began to hit its stride: the beer tents and concession stands did brisk business, and, for the first time, all four of the festival's venues unveiled full evening programs. At the River Stage, the crowd gathered for a headlining set by Nigerian Afrobeat master Femi Kuti alongside his band, Positive Force -- the ensemble featured a full horn section, three fetching vocalists/dancers, and two percussionists. The son of Fela Kuti, Afrobeat’s ostensible creator, Femi exuded a natural charisma befitting his name and stature. He dominated the small stage, delivering fiery vocal lines while conducting the band and taking turns between keyboards and saxophone. From beat one, the performance was a fierce, polysyllabic onslaught. Kuti's dynamic performance style was the equal of his material -- the perfect counterpoint to lyrics that posed tough questions about Africa's social and economic situation. The music itself celebrated the continent's vibrant culture and positive outlook. Kuti’s riveting show made for an early Bluesfest highlight -- especially after the first two nights’ relatively straightforward mainstage sets. Taken together with Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's triumphant Friday-night headlining set on the Black Sheep Stage, it gave the festival a nice bit of momentum heading into its first weekend. And we’d need it: as Saturday dawned, so did the promise of more than nine hours of programming on each of the four stages.

7 July 2007

Jon-Rae and the River

An early Saturday stand-out, Toronto-bred alt-country delinquents Jon-Rae and the River took the stage like the demented children of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris -- if Parsons had lived to see the punk movement, of course. The group rocked with the reckless abandon of a latter-day Crazy Horse, and by their second song, Jon-Rae and the River were already diving headlong into a deceptively tight and deliriously over-the-top performance. It’s telling that the new songs played were among the set's strongest -- with the driving "Backroads" registering as a particular highlight. By the time the group concluded with an exhausting performance of mock epic "Just One More," Jon-Rae and the River had the crowd hanging on every chaotic note.

Michael Franti

As the sun began to descend over the river, Michael Franti brought a streamlined version of Spearhead to the Rogers Stage on the Main Field. As with Femi Kuti, the urgency of Spearhead's performance matched the socio-political messages of the lyrics. Of course, Franti's music also preaches positivity, and an ebullient run through crowd favorite "Sometimes" got the bodies moving. Never reluctant to play to the crowd, Franti teased the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster" during “Sometimes,” and later played the theme to Sesame Street. As soon as Franti had bounded from the Rogers Stage, Manu Chao and a scaled-down version of Radio Bemba took to the MBNA on the other end of the main field. A large crowd had assembled there -- many curious festival-pass holders along with hardcore fans of the 46-year-old Parisian performer -- to see what the loud-and-proud political fighter had in store for the final night of a rare North American tour.

Manu Chao

Offering us a bit of mass catharsis, Chao and Radio Bemba got the crowd jumping to the very first song. Singing in Spanish, French, and English, Chao performed material from both of his solo albums while emphasizing the theme of a socio-political "emergency" in frequent ad-libs. Though the repetitive nature of Chao's show led to a bit of audience fatigue (it was a two-hour set, after all), fans of his more punk-oriented earlier work (Mano Negra) reveled as burbling reggae jams turned into full-on punk rave-ups.
8 July 2007 Sunday afternoon saw the festival grounds bathed in warm light. Revving up Day 5, master string-picker Leo Kottke gave an exceptional early performance on the Rogers Stage. The talkative grandmaster of the guitar was a perfect example of the sort of casual revelation that massive festivals can offer. Kottke took the stage just before 6 pm and delighted the faithful and the curious alike with intricate guitar work that paid tribute to the late John Fahey -- one of his primary influences -- invoking both a feel of old-time traditionalism and a jazz-inspired sense of possibility. The Joel Plaskett Emergency picked up right where Manu Chao left off, hitting the stage with a surging energy -- though without the political messages in tow. Plaskett's engaging, intelligent brand of arena rock has already made him a star on Canada's East Coast, and this set demonstrated that the former Thrush Hermit front man is ready for bigger things. The master showman worked the crowd with a mix of new compositions and crowd favorites. Plaskett was even permitted to perform an encore, a testament to the strength of his performance. The Halifax resident took full advantage of the opportunity, cranking out "Come on Teacher" -- a good-natured tale of a youth’s scholastic ineptitude.

White Stripes

All day long, the MBNA Stage had been out of commission because of moisture concerns stemming from early morning rain. Throughout the afternoon, passers-by had been checking out the White Stripes’ elaborate stage set-up: replete with red risers, it had red-and-white amps adorned with little Canadian flags. This only added to the mystique created by the extensive media coverage of the Stripes' recent slew of secret charity shows in Canada. As darkness took hold of the grounds, excitement began to build. Taking the stage promptly at 9:30 pm, the duo opened with several torrid blues numbers, before favoring the crowd with a round of more rock-oriented material. Drummer Meg White bounced on her stool in a hypnotic fashion, while guitarist and vocalist Jack White paced the stage and stalked the microphone. White's lyrics often play on conventional blues and rock structures, and he delivered parts like the first line of "Ball and Biscuit" with conviction, powerfully asserting that "It's quite possible that I'm your third man, girl / But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son." This thunderous set closer preceded solid encore versions of old favorites "Hotel Yorba" and "Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground." While their performance proved that the Stripes have moved beyond their old material, that five-minute stretch allowed us to go home humming as the last strains of "Boll Weevil" disappeared into the ether. Check back tomorrow as PopMatters’ Christopher Cwynar digs into the heart of the festival, sharing recollections of performances by artists like Final Fantasy, Randy Newman, and George Clinton.

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