My wristband for the 2013 Ottawa Jazz Festival and Macaulay Culkin sporting an appropriate facial gesture. (All photos and scans by VA.)
176. Lightning: Ottawa Jazz Festival 2013 with David Byrne & St. Vincent, Sunday June 23 / Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Saturday June 29, Confederation Park, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, $165.00 for a (largely wasted) Festival Pass
Another year, another Ottawa Jazz Festival: more great music intersecting with frustrations. In other words, business as usual.
This year’s J Fest appeared as a terrific proposition with a stellar line-up anchored by its biggest star, Ms. Aretha Franklin, along with the currently touring collaboration between ex-Talking Head David Byrne and the fabaroony St. Vincent aka Annie Clark. Sweetness! Not only that but Willie Nelson, The Bad Plus, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Mavis Staples, and a few other options.
June’s annual Jazzfest has expanded its parameters somewhat as of late in an obvious effort to compete with the city’s signature festival in July, the-long-not-a-blues-festival Bluesfest. With the inclusion of non-jazz star turns in concert with a full retinue of jazz acts, they’re doing a fine job at keeping jazz as its core programming while bending to tangents so that the former can bankroll the latter.
If only the fest did everything else so well.
The original program (and interior) cover, with Aretha still on the bill.
As with 2011, I decided to shell out for a full festival pass given what was on offer along with what was hinted to come. The 2011 OJF featured a quartet of headliners (Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, kd lang, and Pink Martini) that easily overshadowed that year’s weak Bluesfest offerings. This year, the J crew proudly unveiled its strong roster way back in February, on day when the city was besieged by a major snowstorm. Perhaps that should have been an omen.
Aretha and Byrne/St. Vincent were the clinchers for me, though. I finally got to see Lady Soul in 2010, that gig serving as one of my very first blog entries for this series. As I wrote at the time, it was thrilling to finally see Ms. Franklin in the flesh after having been a life-long fan, and even better to still find her in splendid voice, even if the setlist wasn’t the A Game it could have been. As for Byrne and St. Vincent, I was stoked to be taking in the head Head headlining in tandem with Ms. Clark, her Strange Mercy CD being an ongoing audio obsession of mine since its purchase last summer.
Given these must-see foundations, along with other strong names and the fest’s assurance that this was simply Round One of announcing what was on offer with more promised great stuff to follow, I shelled out for the reduced-but-still-a-chunk-a-change pre-sale tix. The wait was on for the OJFest leprechauns to reveal their pot of gold.
And some important lineup news did indeed emerge come springtime, but not at all as I’d hoped for: Aretha was in ill health and was forced to cancel a string of shows, Ottawa among them. Damn.
Fair enough, that’s just part of performers still just being flesh and blood human beings at the end of the day, and cancelled shows are always a possibility, especially with aging artists. Not her fault, but deeply disappointing nonetheless.
In the meantime, the rest of the fest’s offerings rolled out but minus the implied dazzle. Regardless, that still-empty Wednesday night headliner spot via a vacating Aretha still held promise to be a “wow factor” facilitation for the pending patrons.
Well, that Day to Wow ‘Em finally arrived when the OJF revealed that they would be filling the Soul Goddess’ place with ………….. The Doobie Brothers.
The Doobie Brothers.
I loathe The Doobie Brothers. This replacement was more seeds, stems, and shake than BC Bud. While I may have been disappointed by Aretha not arriving, I now felt that I’d dodged a bullet by not having bought single-evening passes as many undoubtably had for what was clearly the most anticipated appearance by the public this year.
As it turns out, I kinda, sorta dodged a bullet …. but also didn’t.
I’ve been going to the jazz festival off and on since mid-last decade, seeing jazz and non-jazz fare. I like supporting live performers and performing institutions of many stripes and the Ottawa Jazz Festival is part of that. Admittedly, unlike a number of other genres I listen to, many of my favourite jazz performers are from the past and mostly (but not always) long gone, and so the OJF’s expanded approach to programming has given me options as a patron.
But … with the Jazz Fest it seems like there’s always something that leaves a nasty aftertaste. Admittedly, it’s partly down to bad luck elements beyond the fest’s control, such as key artists dropping off the bill as with Aretha (Lou Reed/Laurie Anderson is another example from a few years ago that jumps to mind), overlapping performances that come down to personal preferences and necessitate choice, and, most notably of all, the weather. As in rain. Lots of it. More on that in a bit.
Then there are the other, manageable aspects, such as the less-than-organic pan-venue flow, particularly when factoring in moving between pre-seated and chairs-required locales with less-than-favourable standing options at the latter. Far worse, though, is the clamped-sphincter non-vibe that’s often so present here, from the wildly outdated, laughable-were-it-only-funny policy of trying to ban people from taking photos and videos. This is anachronistic in the 2010s, not to mention futile at the end of the day. But, try the moping minions do, such policies succeeding in being one suckeroony of a buzzkill in the process.
I don’t want to lump all fest-folk into this, but there sure is a palpable putz-mania quotient at this annual event, from slices of the pernickity sourpusses who run and work at the thing (I don’t even want to rehash the drama of my ticket-to-wristband debacle and the futile attempt to try and get some form of a paper ticket to use as a blog visual) to the famously pulse-bare, is-anyone-alive-out-there? regulars (read my piece on Janelle Monae’s kickass performance last year, delivered to a sea of undeserving yawners). These are pretty harsh words, I know, but I’m simply relating my serial experiences. And it’s sad because it doesn’t have to be like this, and for anyone who truly loves and attends live music and music festivals, you know of what I speak.
Granted, so no event is perfect. It’s just that I don’t seem to have the same recidivist grievances as I do with the OJF vis-a-vis comparable events, with its passive habitués fully complicit. (Note to all artists: if your dream is to play for an audience that seems to be a gathering of waking somnambulists, then you must play the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It will be your wet dream. These cats aren’t cool, they’re cold.)
Speaking of cold, not to mention wet …
Perhaps Mother Nature also attends the fest incognito (I can see her there now in oversized Jackie O shades, a lemon yellow jumpsuit, beaded Moroccan sandals, and hair by Kenneth) and she too encounters the same annoyances, exacting her revenge via über-showers.
It seems like rain loves the OJF like tornados love trailer parks, and this year crap weather seemed to be drawn to the jazz fest like hookers to politicians. Or at least on most of the nights when we wanted to head out. Perhaps Ma Nature has issues with my blog as she was not on my side this year, dealing me a weather deck characterized by a Two of Clubs or Jokers rather than a King of Diamonds or a Queen of Hearts.
We unfortunately had to miss Willie Nelson on the previous Friday night (which turned out to be a gorgeous, dry summer evening), but now that we were looking forward to several performers in the days head, the forecast looked like … well, this:
Aside from a few nights wherein nothing was on that we wanted to see, the funzy week was largely a scintillatingly bonanza of rain, rain, mugginess, rain, greyness that would rival any communist eastern bloc country in the 1970s — even greyer than a junkie’s skin — rain, and then some rain. And when the skies didn’t leak they at least seemed to nyah-nyah-nyah threaten to. As we headed to see the Byrne-Vincents, the evening was Gouda-thick clamy under skies with sunshine occasionally peek-a-booing through, but mostly blocked by trains of slow shuttling rain clouds. Still, we felt confident that we’d be spared Mother’s Nature’s maiden’s water from on high. Would she rain on our parade? Our fingers were crossed.
Things got rolling when CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld climbed on stage as tonight’s MC, having to play the festival’s scold. She was there to thanklessly dish out the moralistic hard line on those dang newfangled photo-takin’ thingys (“please put your cameras away”) only to be hilariously contrasted and contested moments later by the disembodied voice of David Byrne wafting out of the sound system, explaining “we encourage people to take film, video, etc. as a record of the experience, just don’t spend the show with a recording device in front of your face.”
Oh, such radical common sense!
Now why would the actual performers be sanctioning the fine folks attending the fest to be getting up to such reckless tomfoolery? Could it possibly be that they are dialed in enough to understand that all this media use at live shows is now accepted as a standard part of contemporary life, just like Lindsay Lohan getting arrested? And that it creates free publicity plus helps build on a buzz? Food for thought.
Perhaps the Ottawa Jazz Festival could incrementally makes its way into adopting 21st Century-friendly media device policies by having door prizes. They could reward lucky ticketholders with free phones …
… recording devices …
… and sound systems.
Now that the voice of David had spoken, I was able to shake off the mental stinging nettles consuming me and instead re-focus on the good music to come.
The last time I saw Byrne on a stage was in 1982, playing a scorcher of a set with a peak-form Talking Heads and friends. I’ve written about the inspiring glory of the Heads’ set on that day, amid my personal bad-drugs tupor, as well as about my also seeing them two years earlier at the Heatwave festival, delivering possibly the best live set I’ve ever seen anyone play. I wasn’t able to catch the Heads on the subsequent — and consequently, last — tour, accompanying Speaking In Tongues, their final stone classic and the album of that summer for me, 30 years gone.
Post-Heads, I’ve tuned in’n’out of Byrne’s subsequent career, both solo and in a variety of collaborative guises. While what I’ve heard has sounded fine, that x factor he seemed to posses effortlessly during his tenure with his great old band seems to have been downgraded more to a y or w factor. By many accounts, the Talking Heads’ rare synergy made for interpersonal dynamics as difficult as that first run of five studio albums are brilliant (Little Creatures and Naked were pretty damn fine too). And while Byrne probably found a happier post-Heads life, it’s clear that the collaborative dynamic in his old band was a one-off.
That’s why I was so interested to hear his new collaboration with Annie Clark, better known by her performing moniker, St. Vincent. Her 2011 disc, Strange Mercy, is a stunning set that in part evokes elements of the Talking Heads. Hearing that she and Byrne were working on a project together was instantly intriguing to me, even more so when it was revealed that much of the disc would be brass-and-woodwind focussed, married to crunchy beats. A unique framework for sure.
When the resulting disc, Love This Giant, arrived last September, it fell just shy of expectations, with Clark’s material often trumping Byrne’s (curiously, my favourite track, “The Forest Awakes,” is the one Byrne number sung by Clark). Still, it’s a very good outing … and I should probably add that its grown on me substantially since this show. Almost a year on, I’ve really become enamoured with it — Giant definitely should have been on my 20 Favourite Albums of 2012 list.
However, even prior to seeing this performance and my reappraisal, I felt the material would work well in a live context, hence huzzahs and fingerpopping at the announcement of their coming to the OJF.
David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant (2012) and some of the artwork from the interior packaging.
We waited for B/V amid the unusual pre-set “music” of nature sounds (chirping crickets, etc) pumping through the speakers, working our way through a few Beau’s — that’s one thing the fest truly does right: serving the very best local craft beer. An assortment of multi-generational alternafolk streamed in and got settled, the greying contingent probably more here for Byrne while the youngers probably drawn in by St. Vincent, all interweaving with many of the usual milquetoast pass holders. Several Talking Heads t-shirts were spotted along with three Velvet Underground & Nico T’s in my viewing area, plus someone sporting the album cover for Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh. I’ve never been a fan of Zappa but have always loved that cover and title, so kudos to the flesh-ripped dude.
And before you could say More Songs About Buildings and Food, our swingin’ twosome and their top-notch brass-heavy ten-piece band were marching in the footlight parade — sometimes literally during this intermittently choreographed affair, with the performing participants circling and interweaving on the stage like a stylized New Orleans procession.
They kicked the night off with Love This Giant’s opening tracks, “Who” and “Weekend in the Dust,” leading me to briefly think that they may just play the album in its entire original sequence. However, the next-up outtake numbers quashed that idea as the evening’s setlist vacillated between highlights from the Giant sessions, the Talking Heads, and St. Vincent’s material, the latter of which I was well chuffed about.
Byrne was an ardent action mover throughout much of the night, with his dancing as idiosyncratic as ever. He hoofed and flailed in his white jacket, albeit a fitting, fitted one, not at all like the “big suit” from Stop Making Sense. Meanwhile, St. Vincent made the scene with her newly platinum blonde hair, part Marilyn, part Blonde Ambition-era-Madonna, minus the Jean Paul Gaultier conical breasts.
As I had expected, the Giant material made a strong impact live as Byrne and Vincent congealed organically with this sharp collection of players, all elements fusing and buoying the musical tide’s forward rise. The copious stage patter was a treat as well, especially when Byrne dedicated “Outside of Space & Time” to the Higgs boson particle. (I’m calling it now: this will be the only show I see all year where Higgs boson will receive a dedication, mark my words.)
The host of hot horns worked perfectly on the Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” and “Wild Wild Life,” both rapturously received, the latter performed as a co-operative vocal enterprise with each member on the stage rotationally singing a different line from the song. Meanwhile, St. Vincent nailed an intense rendition of “Cheerleader,” rolled out a peppy “Cruel” as well as the delightfully loopy “Northern Lights.” But it was during this number that the threatening thunder north of our heads quickly begat pouring rain, sending us and many others fleeing for shelter.
“There’s been lightning and we have been told to vacate the stage. We’ll be back for the exciting conclusion,” announced Byrne as Cublet and I waited it out under a leafy shelter. It speaks to the quality of the night’s performance that few fled the field, either crouching under umbrellas, donning plastic macs, or scurrying to take cover from the teeming rain. While it was good to know that the show might eventually go on, a fellow close to us, similarly huddled under the same tree, bespoke a succinct observation that was a crystalline summation of our shared current circumstances: “This sucks!”
After about 15 or so minutes of perplexingly pounding precipitation, many in the crowd felt compelled to start doing the “no rain” chant, a la Woodstock but, then as now, magical thinking proved naively worthless. When the skies did finally opt to stop peeing on us — a full half hour later — true to their word, the troopers remounted the stage, kicking up their heels with “The One Who Broke Your Heart.”
The skies remained girdled for a few more numbers, long enough for the crew to eventually launch into the treat that many in the audience had been shouting for throughout the evening, the Head’s “Burning Down the House,” nostalgically taking me back to that summer of 1983, when one of the band’s biggest hits seem to float into the public ether from everywhere.
And just as they all indeed were Byrne-ing down a house, giddily happy and on its collective feet replete with the goading lines about “we’re in for nasty weather,” the skies once again rumbled with thunder, flashing sheets of lightning. And then the deluge: a rainfall that spun on a dime, James Brown-style, into full-on pummeling. There was no point to try and seek shelter as the gears shifted in an instant, saturating all non-umbrella’d through to the skin. Cublet particularly enjoyed the delicious irony of “Burning Down the House” being performed as a mini-monsoon was in motion.
The Byrne-Vincents completed the number before making a hasty departure for what was the true end of the night, as we eventually made our way back to the car several blocks away, like drowned chipmunks. Mother Nature was clearly in a right snit during this one — had someone been taunting her with a tub of Chiffon margarine, perhaps? — but, despite her moistly cantankerous meltdown all over us, this was still a brilliant night of music.
Byrne is as compelling a performer as ever and St. Vincent showed why she’s a new face to keep tabs on, while the whole ensemble of musicians fused seamlessly, the sum of all parts synergizing into something special.
Unfortunately, Mama N’s panties initially didn’t unbunch as the fest headed into a second week. There was a mid-week furlough on nights when I didn’t want to see anything (the Doobies-but-should-have-been-Aretha night simply couldn’t have been nicer) but made a dramatic return on Friday, just in time for The Bad Plus. We had been looking forward to seeing this jazz trio … but, no go.
Friday brought a day of oscillating car-wash-propulsion-esque showers under grimacing skies matched by a sharp drop in temperatures: who wouldn’t want to sit in a cold, rainy, muddy field?! Not many as it sadly turned out, with reports of the joint being near empty for what was purportedly an excellent set (oh, and the rain did end up holding off for most of the night, just to screw with everyone, band included).
So, after missing Willie, undergoing rain-soaked frustrations and inconveniences with the Byrne-Vincent’s, not being able to see Aretha owing to her necessary cancellation, missing a few others owing to cross/inconvenient scheduling, and having to sit in for The Bad Plus, we hoped for a better break with our final attempt to see something at the fest: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
And it turned out to be ….. grey and cool. Teeth gnashing ensued.
I had followed Marsalis upon his arrival in the ’80s, back in the days of Think of One and J Mood, but really hadn’t known much about his output over the last quarter century. And, yeah, yeah, yeah, even then he was often eviscerated for being pretty conservative in his approach, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do what he did well.
Admittedly, coming out for a jazz orchestra doesn’t exactly promise the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, nor is that what I was looking for on this evening. I was interested in hearing jazz played in an orchestra setting, having normally seen only small-band combos. And I got just what I came out for and fully enjoyed it.
The unsurprisingly slick and tight unit played a selection of compositions from many of the expected yet nonetheless top-notch classic sources: three Ellington pieces, with a particularly impressive “Island Virgin” from the Virgin Island Suite spotlighting some excellent piccolo flute, two from Gerry Mulligan, and a Count Basie and Thad Jones selection each, along with an original composition by Orchestra bassist, Carlos Henriquez, “Two Three’s Adventure.”
Marsalis sat back in the final row, talking briefly between numbers but largely focussing the set on the music and musicians, each eventually getting a solo during the proceedings. However, at set’s end, Marsalis descended and along with six others finished the night with Ellington’s “Ready Go,” performed via this small band unit. It was a highlight, although sadly there was no encore.
And with that ended for us yet another year where I leave the Ottawa Jazz Festival more irked than satisfied. Sigh. Who knows, maybe some of these things that needle at me will change for the better at the J-fest next year. Then again, maybe Katy Perry will turn into a walnut.
“Lightning” from Love This Giant.
Next On Stage –> After a dismal 2012, Ottawa Bluesfest came roaring back with possibly the best overall lineup in its history. I will be recapping the many shows I took in with a two-parter, no. 178 … but I first have to give what was, for me, the jewel in this year’s performance crown — from Glasgow’s finest — its own entry.
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