Ottawa Bluesfest 2023's First Weekend Felt Bigger Than Ever

With Tegan and Sara, Death Cab for Cutie, Robert Plant and Allison Kraus, Bran Van 3000 and Weezer

Photo: Ming Wu

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Jul 10, 2023

After a post-pandemic downscale that resulted in the elimination of one of the Ottawa Bluesfest's five outdoor stages, later gate times on Saturdays and Sundays and an influx of local acts filling spots once occupied by established indie and international artists, the ten-day festival still manages to reign supreme.

To no surprise, the 2023 edition proved to be even more popular than last year's, with Shania Twain giving the festival a rare first-night sellout. Although weekend number one of this sprawling gathering catered more to the Boomer, Gen X and elder Millennial crowd, twentysomethings nonetheless found their way to the picturesque LeBreton Flats Park, cementing Ottawa Bluesfest's reputation as the capital's premiere summer event for yet another generation.

July 7


Flocking to the festival's main stage early for performances from PUP and Billy Talent, the Friday night crowd challenged the notion that Weezer's career peaked with their first two LPs. In their return to Ottawa after a decade away, the alt radio kingpins delivered a nostalgic set that found nearly half of their 20-song performance dedicated to '90s fare. However, deep cuts from their debut, "My Name is Jonas," "Only in Dreams" and "Surf Wax America," along with all three singles from Pinkerton, were met with shambling ennui from the crowd. 

As the quartet shimmied though a handful of mid-career numbers, the youth-injected masses casted their vote loudly by passionately singing along to "Beverly Hills," "Pork and Beans" and "Perfect Situation" — giving these tracks the same devotion usually reserved for iconic hits like "Say it Ain't So" and show-closer "Buddy Holly." 

July 8

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss 

With virtually half of the setlist devoted to material from Led Zeppelin, Page & Plant, and his solo material, it's easy to view Robert Plant & Alison Krauss' Saturday night headlining performance as a homage to the former's career. 

However, Krauss brought such stunning fiddle arrangements and earthy backing vocals to tracks like "Rock and Roll," "Please Read the Letter" and "In the Mood" that the Illinois bluegrass star nearly stole the spotlight from the English rock god.
On the last date of their tour in support of 2021's Raise the Roof, Page & Krauss looked energized and exquisite. Treating the diverse crowd to a run of Zeppelin songs — featuring "Gallows Pole" and "The Battle of Evermore" — it was extended set closer "When the Levee Breaks" that illuminated the duo's ability to wring a new level of sonic and emotional drama out of Plant's beloved songbook.

July 9

Bran Van 3000

Opening the main stage for the final day of the festival's first weekend, Bran Van 3000's core group of James Di Salvio, Sara Johnston and Steve "Liquid" Hawley returned to Ottawa with new members and a whole lot of nostalgia in tow. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of their gold selling debut Glee, the septet injected a level of sunny optimism to an overcast Sunday. Pulling out their alt-dance hit "Drinking in LA" early in the set was a masterstroke, as the growing crowd instantly began to sway and dance. 

Flanked by Johnston and Kwansa Shelley on vocals, Di Salvio and Hawley stalked the stage while spitting verses during "Afrodiziak" and "Old School." Ottawa native Shelley's graceful take on Curtis Mayfield's sampled vocals for "Astounded" enchanted the crowd before Johnston closed the set off with a sly Spinners-sampled "Call Me (I'll Be Around)."

Tegan and Sara

Nearing their 25th year as a touring band, Tegan and Sara have yet to take an extended break; In their first show in Ottawa since the pandemic, the duo showed off just how seasoned they've become. Delivering a career-spanning set (while devoting only three tracks to 2022's Crybaby), the Quin twins and their three-piece band came off impossibly tight and loose. After some charming banter with the audience, Tegan and Sara traded off guitar duties while locking in punchy melodies for hits like "Back in Your Head," "Boyfriend," and their Tiësto collaboration "Feel It in My Bones." 

Reaching back to their 2000 sophomore LP for a rendition of "My Number," the duo closed their brief set with the wildly received "Walking with a Ghost" and "Closer," proving, at only 42 years of age, they can command the massive Bluesfest stage better than most grizzled vets.

Death Cab for Cutie

Supporting their 2022 return-to-form LP Asphalt Meadows, Death Cab for Cutie finally made it back to Ottawa after a horrific stage collapse cancelled their 2011 performance. Since then, the Bellingham, Washington indie rock institution has become a major draw, bringing in enough fans to headline the festival's main stage. 

As rain threatened to clear out the hearty crowd, the quintet gave an unbridled performance, as vocalist/guitarist Ben Gibbard passionately swayed back and forth during tracks like "The New Year" and "Crooked Teeth." Gripping his acoustic for a solo performance of "I Will Follow You into the Dark," Gibbard connected with the crowd by leading them into a warm singalong before bringing the band back for a sonically-gripping performance of "I Will Possess Your Heart." 

Now soaked in sweat, Gibbard slowed things down for the encore, closing their set with "Soul Meets Body" and "Transatlanticism" and wringing the last bit of passion from the evening.

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