Ottawa Bluesfest 2023's Second Weekend Kept the Spirit of Discovery Alive

With the Smile, Julia Jacklin, the War on Drugs and Alvvays

Photo: Ming Wu

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Jul 17, 2023

After a successful four-day stretch that relied heavily on nostalgia (including headlining acts from Shania Twain, Weezer, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Death Cab for Cutie), Ottawa Bluesfest's second weekend injected several high-profile artists from the past two decades into the lineup.

Taking chances by putting Charlotte Cardin and the Smile front and centre as headliners, the fest also added dynamic and diverse artists to the smaller stages. This included the next generation of critically acclaimed musicians (Sudan Archives, Declan McKenna and Koffee) as well as their more-established counterparts (Fleet Foxes and Rich Aucoin).

As festival ticket prices continue to soar across North America and it's no longer feasible for curious music fans to show up just to discover new music, Bluesfest has nonetheless managed to keep much of the original exploratory spirit intact.
July 13
The War on Drugs

Despite heavy rains and a tornado warning that threatened the Ottawa area earlier in the day, flocks of concertgoers filled the festival's main lawn for a co-headlining set from the Philadelphia indie heartland rockers.

Filling the stage with a multitude of keyboards and guitar pedals, the seven-piece band sounded remarkably tight and serene, opening their 75-minute set with the non-album track, "Oceans of Darkness." Pushing tracks like "Pain," "Harmonia's Dream" and "Under the Pressure" past the seven- and eight-minute marks, vocalist and guitarist Adam Granduciel led the band through extended outros highlighted by his pristine and unforced shredding.

Casting a sterling hum across the festival during set closer "I Don't Live Here Anymore," the War on Drugs managed to impress even the college football-cap and golf shirt-sporting crowd rolling in for Mumford & Sons' headlining set.  
July 15
Julia Jacklin

"Thank you for choosing me over Pitbull… Mrs. Worldwide." As the Floridian rapper helped sell out the second Saturday of Ottawa's Bluesfest, Julia Jacklin seemed grateful to those who came to see her headline the festival's River stage.

Despite her Canadian connections (with compatriots Owen Pallett, Karen Ng and Marcus Paquin contributing to her latest LP), the Australian indie rocker hadn't played in the nation's capital since 2016. Despite a few wildly overzealous fans front and centre who caused her to smile, Jacklin mostly kept her composure throughout the set, playing it cool through "Lydia Wears a Cross," "Don't Know How to Keep Loving You" and "I Was Neon."

After 35 scant minutes on stage, Jacklin announced that she would be playing just three more songs, a decision met by disappointed jeers from the just warmed-up crowd. After playing the aptly titled "Pressure to Party," Jacklin failed to return despite chants of "one more song!" closing off a detached set with equivalent indifference.   
July 16


After a pair of sold-out shows at Bronson Centre in March, Alvvays returned to Ottawa with an almost identical setlist and some newfound giddiness. "I don't normally talk, I'm too focused," exclaimed vocalist/guitarist Molly Rankin, faux apologizing for her level of onstage chattiness. In fact, the PEI quintet seemed extremely loose and relaxed throughout tracks like "Pharmacist," "Belinda Says" and "Very Online Guy," with the latter finding Rankin crafting enveloping sounds by fiddling with her guitar pedals.  

Transitioning from the 80-second ethereal "Fourth Figure" into "Archie, Marry Me" — still their most recognizable hit almost a decade later — the crowd began to sway along as the band moved into the punky "Pomeranian Spinster." Closing off their 55-minute set with some of their most pristine numbers, including "Velveteen," "Dreams Tonight" and "Easy on Your Own?" Alvvays seemed relaxed riding the wave of adoration they've been floating upon over the past nine months.
The Smile

Fresh off their performance at Laval's Place Bell arena, the Smile found themselves in front of another sizeable audience as they closed out the nine-day festival with a headlining slot.

Surrounded by mountains of equipment and a dazzling backdrop of LED strip lights, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner opened their expansive set with the wobbly piano ballad "Pana-vision." Joined by tour opener Robert Stillman on saxophone, the band jammed through 10 tracks from their 2022 debut A Light for Attracting Attention, creating a set more focused on sonic mood and exploration than anthemic singalongs.

While several concertgoers who were expecting a set more aligned to Radiohead than Can fleed the grounds, those who stuck around were treated to the best performance of the festival. Closing the night off with a selection of new tracks, the audience seemed mesmerized by the trio's fluid and challenging set, leaving an animated Yorke to merrily thank the crowd and crack that titular sideways smile.

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