168. Trees Outside the Academy: 2011 Ottawa Folk Festival with Thurston Moore, Bright Eyes, Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman, & The Little Stevies, August 27-28, 2011

Bright Eyes The Nightwatchman, ticket, Ottawa Folk Festival 2011, variousartists

The retooled Ottawa Folk Festival — now under the auspices of the Bluesfest crew — arrives in late August … along with some fallout from Hurricane Irene. 

168. Trees Outside the Academy: 2011 Ottawa Folk Festival with Thurston Moore, Bright Eyes, Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman, and The Little Stevies, Hog’s Back Park, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, August 27-28, 2011, $39.50 per night.

The Jazz Festival and Bluesfest kick-start the Ottawa summers; the Folk Festival ends them. However, 2010 almost marked the end of the Folk Festival.

Far less financially robust and sound of infrastructure than its bigger siblings, the 2010 edition was plagued with financial instability and a weak lineup, the misery exacerbated by a brutal downpour that kept people away in droves. From all accounts, it was never a given that the 2011 Folk Festival would even happen.  Then came the word earlier this year that Mark Monahan and his Bluesfest team would be taking the reins and rejuvenating ‘ol Betsy.

Okay, while I bitched plenty about Bluesfest 2011 in my previous piece, I’ve got to give Monahan and his crew props here, scoring a slam dunk on his first try.

Bringing their know-how and resources to the table, they struck a balance between keeping many core aspects of the Festival intact while expanding its vision. Significant changes included fleshing the Fest out from three nights to four, adding a third stage, and moving the location from Brittania Park to the gorgeous, sylvan Hog’s Back Park (or Piggy Back Park as Seb noted). Staged amid the surrounding, nestling trees, the 2011 edition hit many right notes.

As with scores of other contemporary Fests, its genre designation of “folk” has been elastically translated over the past decade (it would have sent Sing Out!‘s Irving Silber into a right state), perhaps too much so in recent years for the tastes of this event’s core audience. The new crew put together an impressive line-up that actually hemmed in the definition, focussing on vertical rather than horizontal diversity, particularly regarding some of the normally noisy alterna-dudes here performing in a more acoustic or stripped down setting (see: Thurston Moore, J. Mascis, Tom Morello, etc.)

I unfortunately had to miss the Friday (Evening 2) performance by Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, preceded by City and Colour, a two-header proposition that earned raves in the local press and turned out to be the best-attended night, with approximately 7,000 folks turning up for the main stage performance. For the Saturday night, I joined Sebado in taking in Bright Eyes. My preference would have been for Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis on the RavenLaw stage but, since Seb had come along to a few shows with me as of late and was jonesin’ to see Bright Eyes, I wanted to return the favour. Connor Oberst and crew it was. (As it turned out, Mascis ended up having to cancel at the last moment owing to his not being able to get a flight from Boston to Ottawa in the midst of Hurricane Irene).

Bright Eyes Ottawa Folk Festival 2011 

Connor Oberst/Bright Eyes, joined by Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman, at Hog’s Back Park for the 2011 Ottawa Folk Festival, Day 3: Saturday August 27 (Photos by VA).

Coming on the heels of an evening’s visit to Jack Layton’s laying in state, working late to finish the accompanying blog entry about it (over on OS), and having spent hours on Saturday afternoon taking in his emotional state funeral on TV, I arrived at Hog’s Back a bit drained in all senses, glad that tonight’s entertainment was going to be more of a sit down, laid back affair. Upon arrival, we discovered there was a left-side-seated/right-side-standing crowd split in front of the main stage. We made our way over to the knees-bent contingent in the middle of Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman’s set.

Morello’s day job is as a kinda-metalesque guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and then, later, Audioslave. In this solo guise as The Nightwatchman, he was in more of a louder-version-of-Steve-Earle-meets-Pete-Seeger mode. Except that he’s no Pete Seeger. Or Steve Earle.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Rage Against the Machine and their brand of Shouty-but-Articulate Roid Rage Rock never did anything for me (the less said about the truly brutal Audioslave and their lumbering, suburbo-corp-rock the better). I can certainly appreciate what RATM were about in a socio-political sense but, as discussed in my piece on The Clash, while I’m a pretty political beast by nature, for me there are few artists who can make overtly politically based music without it coming off like being stuck in a musty den with someone’s nagging grandmother, with the subtly of a plummeting elevator and all of the fun of a barium enema.

Sitting and reading politically-oriented texts is one thing: successfully melding them to syncopation in an artistic sense is a whole lot trickier. I certainly love the aforementioned Clash and Seeger; likewise Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan’s early topical songs, P.J. Harvey’s new “war” album, The Jam’s and the Specials’ social realism … but they tend to be the exceptions. If the musical backing doesn’t draw me in, then the message is meaningless. Numerous artists leap to mind for me, ranging from Rage to Bad Religion to Green Day to Fugazi, where I’m down with most of what they have to say and can admire how they have handled their career and output, but I simply can’t bear the tunes even if I agree with their lyrical slogans. When it comes to music, I guess I’m more of a Wildean Aesthete than a Rosa Luxemburg.

While the solo Morello is trading in tune-types that are more my thing than RATM, I didn’t necessarily mean I liked it any better. I found the strident vocals and delivery alternately grating and predictable (though Seb definitely disagreed) and counted the minutes to his exit. But the most irksome, irony-free moment was this: at one point Morello try to command the seated folkers around us to stand up and follow his participation instructions. Many did. I resolutely kept my ass planted. I Occupied My Chair — that was my protest. “Now this is what Democracy looks like,” he proudly beamed. Uh, no, Tom, this is what a rock star on an autocratic trip meets an overly obedient audience looks like.

The Nightwatchman finished his shift, followed immediately thereafter by the wafting of disembodied acoustic pop that I soon realized was emanating from a small side stage. It turned out to be part of one of this year’s”‘Tweener” sets: no frills mini-sets sandwiched in between the featured performances.

Seb and I didn’t initially catch the name of the Australian three piece, but later Net hunting revealed them to be The Little Stevies. The two-sisters-and-one-dude trio featured warm harmony singing melded to memorable tunes and vocal arrangements in the tradition of previous Aussie indie-pop like Frente! and Ben Lee. They certainly caught our ear, also winning over the affection of the throngs transitioning from Morello’s to Bright Eyes’ audiences.

 Australia’s Little Stevies: “Accidently” from 2011’s Attention Shoppers.

Clearly elucidating their happiness at being at the Fest and getting to play the ‘Tweener set, vocalist Sibylla Stevens announced that this Ottawa stop marked the end of an extended Canadian tour and that getting to play a few sets at Hog’s Back Park at different points in the day really ended their trek up north with a bang.

Their new disc, Attention Shoppers, is out now. I wish them well, and a return.

With the Stevie’s vanishing, on came Bright Eyes. Essentially Connor Oberst’s personal project since its  1995 inception and commencing with his latter-‘90s spare acoustic outings, I’ll admit that I’ve never really taken to his songs, sometimes offput by the sometimes irksome “fragile troubadour” persona. 

Well, it looks like I am going to have to do a re-assessment because I loved his set leagues more than I had any inkling I would. Bounding onstage like a whiling dervish with a guitar and fronting a group of musicians who often had the sound and feel of The Band backing Dylan in ’66, he had an infinitely more engaging stage presence that I’d expected, with his material immediately more appealing to me than it had ever seemed in its studio incarnation.

Bright Eyes featuring Tom Morello, “Arienette,” 2011 Ottawa Folk Festival (YouTube).

Orberst’s energized delivery never flagged and, funnily enough, the highlight may just have been when he invited Morello back up on stage to play guitar for a number, returning the favour from earlier when Connor joined the guitarist during his set. The collaboration essentially capped what had been self-evident all night long: while both can claim folky points in their respective projects, what was delivered on this night was simply a full-on rock show. There was little-to-nothing folky about it, but that’s fine. For me, it’s tunes before categories. I only care if something works for me in some form or another.

Bright Eyes was indeed radiant in a real surprise of an evening for me. “Re-Listen To/Reassess Chunks of Oberst’s Catalogue” is now on my audio “To Do” list.

Thurston Moore, Ottawa Folk Festival 2011, variousartists 

If the warm, clear Saturday night was pretty much the perfect evening for an outdoor concert, Sunday’s conditions, which were a result of the tail-end-of-Hurricane Irene,  made for one strange fluke of an August day.  Temperatures dipped sharply for about 24 hours, summer taking a vacation of its own, leaving us with a shockingly cold day of brisk winds in the low, low teens — and single digits at night. Cublet came out with me and we spent the Sunday afternoon at Ottawa Pride freezingly underdressed, slowly losing feeling in our extremities. After dashing home to don jeans and jackets, we set out for Thurston Moore’s Sunday night, mid-evening set.

This was the eighth time I’d seen M. Moore on a stage but the first time sans his day-job group, Sonic Youth. Unquestionably, SY have been my fave-rave band of the past three decades and I’ll have plenty of chances to blather on about them when my series catches up to the later 1980s when I first started seeing them.

While I may be a big fan of the group and have all their primary releases, I’ve never been overly enamoured with many of their secondary releases, side projects, and solo outings. I guess I prefer their noise and experimentation balanced with some of the structure and clear-eyed vision that defines some of their best albums, from “Daydream Nation” and “Dirty” to top-shelf recent releases “Rather Ripped” and “The Eternal.” Much of the external stuff — and there’s an ocean of it — often tends to be a little too “Let’s see what happens if we …”.

Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts 

Demolished Thoughts, Thurston Moore, 2011.

While those side projects provide a needed outlet for the members’ seemingly boundless energy, also sometimes helping birth new ideas and approaches that can be later applied to the mothership, few have even come closing to grabbing me like Moore’s third, recent disc, Demolished Thoughts.

One of my choices for one of this year’s very best albums (which is really saying something in this superb year for new music), this acoustic-oriented, Beck-produced outing often recalls its producer’s more low-key, songwriter-oriented efforts such as Mutations and especially Sea Change. (It must also be noted that Beck is turning into one hell of a producer, with Thoughts, Charlottle Gainsbourg’s IRM, and Stephen Malkmus’ Mirror Traffic: an excellent trio).

Demolished Thoughts has been a constant, sonic presence in my world from throughout the summer onwards, so I was pretty damned stoked when Thurston was added to the FF lineup right about the time I was falling in love with this album. And while Thurston was the cat’s pyjamas, this venue within the Fest site could have been a disaster.

“Benediction” live on David Letterman, three days after seeing him and this same band perform an exceptional set in a tent, on the closing night of the Ottawa Folk Festival.

Moore performed at the Falls Stage which turned out to be a large tent sporting an elevated wooden dance floor inside, directly in front of the stage surrounded by additional ground-level space for seating. Why there is a dance floor at a folk festival is completely beyond me, serving as little more than a higher-level seating platform for the early comers, but there you have it.

The tent itself was largely covered over on all sides meaning that you were either in it or stuck outside with no view.  While a great size for a smaller act, the interior space was decidedly too compact to be housing the likes of Thurston Moore. When we arrived, local favourite Lynn Miles was onstage playing to a packed house that overflowed beyond the tent’s canvas clutch, momentarily horrifying me at the thought of everyone sticking around for Thurston and us not being able to get inside.

Luckily, once Miles had finished her set, a good 80% of the then-audience folded up and rotated with the incoming indie crowd. Cublet and I scored a brilliant place on the “dance floor” in the wave of mass abdication, just a few feet right in front of the Sonic Boomer himself. Unfortunately, the irritating, beaming blue and red lights above the stage and pointed at the crowd were left on throughout the set, seriously rupturing the night’s ambience but thankfully not derailing it. But, still … can the freakin’ lights in the tent next year, folks!

Moore and the band sound checked in front of a bemused crowd, just like Sonic Youth did when I first saw them in 1988. “That was our first song — it’s still in development,” joked Thurston following an extended tune up before the proceedings’ official kick off, via the delivery of the lyrics to “Orchard Street” as a poem.

The first few numbers sounded tentative, though. Something wasn’t coming together with the band, and it wasn’t until three songs in, with “In Silver Rain With A Paper Key,” that everything began to coalesce. From then on, it was upwards and onwards, with Moore and the crew delivering an intimate, hypnotic show enlivened by relaxed, humorous banter alternating with the band’s gorgeous, intense song renditions.

Thurston Moore, Ottawa Folk Festival 2011, variousartists  

Thurston Moore strummed and crooned his way through a folking great set.

Indeed, he had a sterling collection of musicians with him, prominently highlighting two of the most sonically distinctive elements of Demolished Thoughts’ sound: harpist Mary Lattimore and violin player Samara Lubelski. The atmospheric interplay between those two and their instruments often gave the live sound a magical, alchemical resonance. I particularly focussed on Lattimore, her harp providing unique visual and aural touches. It’s simply not every day that one spies a harp at an indie rock show, so it was an uncommon treat. The backing band was rounded out by guitarist Keith Wood and bearish drummer John Moloney.

“Benediction” flowed full of exquisite longing, “January” featured a jammy, experimental passage which recalled an unplugged SY, while the full band performance of “Orchard Street,” with its extended concluding drone was stunning (I have some so-so video footage of that number and other parts of the show that I’ll be posting when I finally get VATV up in January after the holidays).

“Space,” with some particularly sublime harp playing via Lattimore was preceded by a poem about, among other things, Thurston looking for someone to “help me alphabetize my noise tapes,” while “Fri/End” from his previous solo effort, Trees Outside the Academy, got a spirited airing as a set closer. Almost all of Thoughts was performed, save my favourite track on the whole disc: “Circulation.”

Video for “Circulation” from Demolished Thoughts.

Returning for the set closer, Moore had talked about a last minute change of mind for a final number, saying that he’d not “want(ed) to do this as some seriously little kids were running around earlier” and didn’t think the “adult linguistics” of the following number would be appropriate. “I felt fucked up about it, but now I don’t give a shit,” he proclaimed before asking if the crowd could “give me 15 seconds to go fetch the lyrics,” at which point the crowd started a countdown while Thurston zoomed backstage.

Emerging victorious, he ended the night on a rockier, ruder note via the lead track from his first solo album, 1995’s Psychic Hearts — and then it was au revoir à tous.

Thurston Moore and Band, 2011 Ottawa Folk Festival, variousartists 

Thurston Moore and his band (L-R): harpist Mary Lattimore, guitarist Keith Wood, drummer John Moloney (in back), and violin player Samara Lubelski. Early next year, I’ll be posting a great performance (but so-so video) of “Orchard Street” from this gig via my upcoming YouTube channel.

Everything about this late August gig is now retrospectively overshadowed by October’s sad, shocking news that Moore is splitting with his personal and creative partner of 30+ years, fellow Sonic Youth-er Kim Gordon. If I’d had to lay bets on which long-term celebrity/creative relationship would soon be biting the dust, Gordon/Moore would have been near the bottom of my list, appearing at a distance as an almost perfect synthesis of the personal and professional. Mind you, I would have said that same thing about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in the ‘80s.

The reality is that even artistic visionaries are still just people at the end of the day and whatever happened is between them (admittedly, though, nosy ol’ me would still love to know what happened here). While I truly did not anticipate a split with that twosome coming, some of DT’s lyrics that seemed to be about in-flux relationships and related indecisions did have made me wondering if anything was up with that.

Also, while each SY member routinely seems to have a blizzard of side and solo projects on the go, which tend more toward temporal experiments, Demolished Thoughts sounds and feels different: more like a carefully constructed, aesthetically complete A-Line project. Could this disc be the gateway to a more solo focus and new career for Moore? Time will tell.

Thurston Moore, Thurston the Cat, variousartists 

Thurston’s a pussy! The two Thurstons: (L) Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, purveyors of sometimes noisy sounds; (R) His namesake, Thurston, our cat who sometimes gets noisy when indicating that a feeding or additional attention are required.

While I love DT and was blown away by this set, I’ll be utterly crestfallen if the Moore/Gordon split spells the end for Sonic Youth, the (non-local) band I have seen most in my lifetime. I was hoping they’d age from actual Youth into being the grand dames of aging-but-still-crucial indie rock royalty. I can’t think of too many artists who, 25 years into their career, start issuing some of their most potent musical statements, making their potential dissolution at this time an even tougher one to swallow for me.

Was their Sao Paulo gig this past Tuesday be the last anyone will see Sonic Youth live? We’ll just have to stay tuned.

All I know is that if Sonic Youth could stay together and continue turning out discs on the level of their last two while Moore concurrently delivered solo albums of this quality, I might spontaneously combust with joy.

As for now, I’ll settle for the joy that was this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival, and look forward to what is to come.

Just think: Only seven more months, and the festival season cycle starts again. Until then …

 Thurston Moore, “Trees Outside the Academy” (2007)

Next On Stage –>I still have yet to write about a (great) Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks show from late September and will be going to see both Prince and Austra in early December. However, owing to this summer’s deluge of great shows I attended, it’s now been five months since I’ve been able to write about my gig-going in days of yore which was intended to be the meat’n’potatoes of this blog series. Also, numbers 017 through 024 are eight consecutive entries I have been itching to write about. Hence, I am putting the present on hold for now and returning to the past for a few installments in advance of some Xmas-oriented pieces.

The Textual Time Machine will zoom back to later in the same month as the Joe Jackson gig, in October 1982, to a cacophonous, exhilerating show by Iggy Pop …

014. Gimme Danger: Iggy Pop with Nash the Slash, Wonderland Gardens, London, Ontario, Canada, Wednesday, October 27, 1982 — featuring guest contributor M. Zeppelin on the topic of some spirited social interactions with Iggy and his band.

NOTE: I simultaneously cross-post over on my Open Salon blog, where I also have a deeper backlog of entries. 

© 2011 VariousArtists

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