Ottawa Cisco Systems Bluesfest Ottawa ON - July 4 to 13, 2003

Ottawa Cisco Systems Bluesfest Ottawa ON - July 4 to 13, 2003
This year's Ottawa Bluesfest was a huge triumph. Although much of the content steered far from "the blues," the addition of two new stages gave new life to the festival, as an incredible arsenal of talent was witnessed during ten days of unadulterated rock/country/folk madness. Opening weekend had perfect weather and excited audiences aglow. Locals Flecton Bigsky & the Dreamcatchers hit the stage at high noon on Saturday uncharacteristically sober, making for a solid, tight set of beautifully noisy offerings recalling early Flaming Lips. Ex-Stand GT electric troubadour Chris Page (aka the Glen Nevous Retraction) also shone in an early set. The evening brought excitement (and thousands of people) as Elvis Costello made his first-ever Ottawa appearance. While he opened with a medley of some old favourites, like "Everyday I Write the Book," Elvis quickly veered into his newer lounge-jazz schlop and it reminded us that the Deadly Snakes were about to hit the stage. It's unbelievable how far this band has come over the past few years. With an arsenal of hits from Ode to Joy, the Toronto garage group had the crowd in a fury, screaming and whooping for more. Daniel Lanois packed the Black Sheep Stage (and Lisgar St.) for a much-anticipated performance, joined by his brother Bob and several others. Meanwhile, the Sadies were solid as usual on the roots/Americana stage, playing until the 11:00 p.m. city noise bylaw shut them down. Sunday highlights included the candid antics of Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The well-soused Slim and company battled unforgivable sound, fatigue, heat and drunkenness, and still managed an entertaining set. However, it was "co-front-man" Jay Munly's beer-spraying antics and red mohawk that one-upped the music. Weekend two featured another mixed bag of entertainment. Doob smoke clouded the air as L.A.'s Nebula patiently survived early amp and sound trouble and proceeded to emit stoner rock supreme into the cool night breeze on Thursday night. I swear it was the reincarnation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, except louder, faster and without the headbands. Howe Gelb's two sets drew many new followers. The Giant Sand front-man's records never seem to adequately capture what he is capable of, and after seeing his two solo performances, it's understandable why. Gelb's imaginative, vaudeville-like approach to music — stumbling around a cluttered stage from piano to Discman to slap-back reverb pedal and back to guitar — could never be captured properly on a CD. Simply amazing. Ottawa newcomers Holy Hell roared into the final Sunday like cavalry into battle. Propelled by the thunderous pounding of Heather Osborn and the fuzz bass of Pat Shanks, Bob Whitmore filtered decades of garage influence through his axe, pushing simple ideas into sonic madness. Le Nombre proved that Montreal still has some rock blood left in its veins. Lead singer Ludwig Wax writhed in the rain, soaking his mauve shirt and red pants by humping a staircase railing and back-spinning on the weather-exposed catwalk while the band blew minds with their tight Stones, AC/DC, Them-inspired set of fiery rock. Backed up by the Shanks, Detroit soul legend Nathaniel Mayer (responsible for the 1962 hit "Village of Love") captured the hearts and heinies of an enthralled crowd. Though his speaking voice sounds like a dying frog, Mayer managed to do justice to his catalogue and can still hit the high notes. Decked out in a white suit with tails, Mayer writhed and thrust his hips and money-maker, telling the boys to "hunch down" so he could watch the women dance back at him, before bringing some up of them up on stage. Ottawa's country cowpokes Fiftymen drew hundreds to their two performances. Sweltering in the heat on closing day, JJ Hardill and company pounded out the cowboy sounds while farmers and tattooed punks smiled, stomped and swayed in the sun. How can this incredible band still be a local secret while lesser alt-country jokers are endowed with undeserved praises and hosannas? All in all, it was a relentless but inspiring ten days of rock.