Ottawa
3 min

Bluesfest diary: Opening day

Brock Zeman, Adventure Club pleasant surprises, while The Black Keys' sound faltered

Bluesfest kicked off with the firepower of Canada Day pyrotechnics July 4.

The crowds were massive. I’ve attended previous years of the festival, which one attendee claims is the second-largest music fest in North America after South by Southwest, and I’ve never seen this many brutally hot men mixed in with outright douches and drunk college girls gathered at LeBreton Flats.

I made the decision to take in as much music as I can this year and managed to catch snippets of eight acts.

The evening began with Femi Kuti, a Nigerian native whose stage show is as vibrant as the plumage of a turaco. Backed by an enormous band and flanked by energetic female dancers, Kuti’s Afrobeats won over curious onlookers and diehard fans alike. The man has a healthy set of lungs, as he proved while holding the longest saxophone note I’ve ever heard.

I briefly stopped by Jimmy Eat World’s set, which I would have appreciated more in another decade, before giving Bahamas a chance over at the Black Sheep Stage. Bahamas’ beach-soaked rock was effortlessly cool but a little too downbeat for me as I was gripped by the frenetic energy of the festival.

Next came Brock Zeman, who performed at the sole indoor (air-conditioned!) venue. Zeman was easily my favourite act of the night. A little reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, Zeman interprets Southern twang through a Canadian lens and delivers his punchy narratives with a gravel-laden growl.

Hungry for more than just music, I enjoyed an absurdly overpriced yet delicious sweet potato poutine and happened upon Australians The Cat Empire at the River Stage. Their infectious mix of ska and gypsy-rock was a pleasantly surprising follow-up to Zeman’s grit

As I made my way to the Claridge Stage hoping to catch Grand Funk Railroad, I informed my companions that the song I wanted to hear was their 10-minute opus “I’m Your Captain.”

Serendipitously, the legends piped out this exact song as I approached. “I’m Your Captain” was my first exposure to Grand Funk, and I may or may not have downloaded it off Napster. The band ended the set with another classic, “We’re an American Band,” as a love letter to their homeland on its birthday.

As predicted in my Bluesfest preview, the crowd for headliners The Black Keys was a tangled sweaty mass that filled the Flats. Encouraged to push closer by some friends, the sea of people ceased flow and became a tightly packed wall of bodies. I spotted several injured people being treated for everything from exhaustion to kicks in the head on my way out. The Keys didn’t disappoint, playing several tracks off their most recent masterpieces, with “Dead and Gone” near the top of the show. But The Keys’ sound was spotty, spurring the crowd to chant “Turn it up!” Bluesfest organizers have publicly acknowledged the poor quality of the sound but say the band’s own sound engineer is to blame. The duo saved fan favourite “Tighten Up” and commercial juggernaut “Lonely Boy” for the tail end of their set. 

In the middle of the Keys’ sound hiccups, I ventured back to the Black Sheep Stage to groove to Adventure Club, a pair of DJs I admit I was not familiar with. The dub-step genre is heavily criticized as bass-heavy noise, but Adventure Club struck a nice balance between in-your-face, or vibrate-your-skull, beats and rave anthem material. Judging by the packed, glowstick-toting crowd, Montrealers Christian Srigley and Leighton James have a healthy fan base — and for good reason.

I won’t be able to make it to every day (I regrettably missed Camera Obscura and all of Friday night), but look for more Bluesfest diary pages this week.