Friday, July 19, 2024

Deachman: My nights at Ottawa Bluesfest — a musical treat

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My favourite thing to do at Bluesfest is simply wander from stage to stage, looking for something or someone I haven’t heard before to set my sonic synapses alight.

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On Saturday on Bluesfest’s River stage, Nick Horne, lead singer for Ottawa indie rock band Hopper, announced that this was his first time performing at the city’s premier music festival, after being a spectator for the last dozen years or so. Seeing Bluesfest’s performers over those years, he confessed, inspired him to become a musician. “So it’s come full circle,” he noted.

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While he spoke, I was sitting on the grass, half-watching nearby Charlotte Vandrick, a one-and-a-half-year-old who was wearing earmuffs and nibbling on a cookie as she happily danced to the band’s music, even stopping to applaud between songs. Drawing another full circle was almost unavoidable — would Charlotte be similarly inspired by Horne and Hopper? How many others at the festival might also find their muses there?

Charlotte Vandrick at Bluesfest.
Toddler Charlotte Vandrick dances and applauds at Bluesfest. Photo by Bruce Deachman /Pos

There’s no shortage of acts at Bluesfest from which to draw inspiration. Perhaps Charlotte would be unable to withstand the visceral pull of the rebelliousness and dramatic beats and baselines of rappers 50 Cent or Ottawa’s City Fidelia, or the infectious Big Easy danceability of accordionist and singer Dwayne Dopsie and his Zydeco Hellraisers, the frontman at one point abandoning his squeeze box for a yellow-fringed umbrella, hopping off the stage and into the audience to start an informal conga line. Or perhaps she’d zone out or dance — or both — to the hypnotic, yet fast-paced, Saharan rock of Etran de L’Air, a captivating four-piece (three guitarists, one drummer) family outfit from Niger. Might she someday explain to an audience of her own how seeing Tony D perform at Bluesfest made her want to learn to play guitar?

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Liam Silke at Bluesfest.
Artist/cartoonist Liam Silke shows some of his sketches from Bluesfest. Photo by Bruce Deachman /Postmedia

I met others at Bluesfest who were similarly spurred to some sort of artistic venture or activity. Armed with a sketch book, 28-year-old artist/cartoonist Liam Silke, for example, sat on a lawn chair two-thirds of the way back from the RBC main stage, drawing the likenesses of performers Orville Peck and Tokyo Police Club lead singer Dave Monks.

I also met Kyle Humphrey — or “SUPERKYLE,” according to the back of his Ottawa Senators jersey. Crowd-surfing is his thing, an unusual pastime for someone whose MS and spina bifida keep him in a wheelchair a lot. He’s done it more than 200 times since first soaring at Billy Talent’s 2011 Bluesfest show, where lead singer Benjamin Kowalewicz afterwards brought him on stage. “That was my first time, and I never went back,” Humphrey said, likening the experience to flying. “If you see me crowd-surfing, nine times out of 10 I’ve got my arms outstretched and my hands in the air. It’s an adrenaline rush.”

(It’s perhaps worth noting that during the other 10 per cent of the time, he’s frantically hanging on to his wheelchair, hoping not to repeat the experience he had once when he fell out of it and broke a leg.)

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Kyle Humphrey at Bluesfest.
Kyle Humphrey says he’s crowd-surfed at more than 200 concerts, an experience he describes as akin to flying. Photo by Bruce Deachman /Postmedia

When I’m at Bluesfest, there’s almost always someone I especially want to see: This year, for example, it was Orville Peck. But my favourite thing to do is simply wander from stage to stage, looking for something or someone I haven’t heard before to set my sonic synapses alight. Etran de L’Air was one such discovery over the weekend, as were festival opener and Kingston-based indie rockers Funeral Lakes and Ottawa’s amorphous R&B band Country Club Pool Boy on Thursday, with both groups later sending me to Bluesfest’s website and Bandcamp for more.

It’s a tribute to Bluesfest’s varied programming that it’s difficult to discern a particular tribe or uniform among attendees on a given night, the way you often can at a single concert or event at Lansdowne Park, say — though I may change that tune after Tyler Childers and other country acts empty the city’s closets of their cowboy boots and stetsons.

And while casual observation suggests that Bluesfest’s audience, at least judging from Thursday and Saturday nights, falls short of matching the city’s racial and religious diversity, the dozen or more acts performing each day do cut a fair-sized swath through Ottawa’s demographics. On those nights, at least, I saw goths, gay cowboys, cosplayers, hipsters, tie-dyed moms, golf-shirted old men and, yes, a diapered toddler with earmuffs and a cookie, all swaying and singing along.

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True, there will always be complaints. For example, I overheard numerous gripes about OC Transpo. When I decided on Saturday to leave my car at home and take the bus, I was disappointed to learn from OC’s travel planner that the nine-minute bus ride from Carleton University would still leave me with a 19-minute walk to the site.

And with a general admission day pass costing $145 for Friday and Saturday, and an average of $90 on each of the intervening and closing days, it’s not affordable for everyone. That, however, hardly stopped music fans such as Caroline Johnston, who, despite the rain that fell Thursday night, listened to and watched headliner Mother Mother on the large monitors from the Booth Street sidewalk outside the Pimisi LRT station and outside the grounds. “This,” she told me, “is completely worth it.”

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