Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ottawa Blues Fest
Sat July 15,2006
The M's

Our weekend in Ottawa was off to a great start. We'd stopped in on Ryan and Teri before she had to make her way to work and were checked into our room at the centrally located Novotel in plenty of time for dinner. An evening stroll assured us we were well situated for an easy walk into the BluesFest venue, located in the commons area of the City Hall plaza. The Parliament buildings were also within striking distance and our concert day started with breakfast in the wonderful, if touristy, By-Market Pedestrian Mall.

Plenty of time to get a 'glow on' before we stagger over for the first of what I hope will be four progressively exciting sets (The M's, Junior Brown, Roseanne Cash and Wilco). Early in the day we have greats but no shade, except for the umbrella we brought along in case of rain. Rain wasn't gonna be the issue today as a bright and hot sun is beating down on the assembled, but somewhat disinterested, throng. Our friend Mike takes a seat next to Cece as I look for a spot in front of the main PA stacks for The M's

They come out of Chicago...that's about the extent of their association with 'the blues'. Tangenital at best, as can be said of all our guests today. They promote themselves, or have been pigeon-holed, as an 'indie' band. 'Course that only means no one thinks you're good enough to have a record contract. It doesn't say much about the style of music. You expect something edgy though, something emerging from the primordial ooze that is a burgeoning underground scene not yet known to the mainstream outlets.
Or 40 minutes of post-glam/glitter rock.
Today they are flogging their new Polyvinyl Records release "Future Women" while still relying on material from their self-titled 2004 debut release on Brilliante Records.

None of that mattered to me, or my friends. Initial responses ranged from Mike's "bland and unoffensive", to my "nondescript, bordering on boring". Ryan and his posse voted with their feet, heading back to the hotel room for beers and lolli's. Cece was underwhelmed, if that's a word. (stole that from Sloan)

Perhaps we were a little harsh. Most of our tepid response had to do with the venue. It was early afternoon under a blistering hot sun and people were milling about, setting up chairs, blankets and whatnot, in preparation for a 6 hour wait for the headliners, Wilco. Not much focus in the crowd.

The rest of it probably had to do with the lack of a magnetic personality on the stage. The boys were making some small talk, commenting initially that they weren't all that bluesy. A couple jokes about the wide-open, unoccupied prime seating areas near the front didn't induce any life-threatening stage rush. The most sardonic comment came at show's end when the lead singer invited us back to the dressing room if we were looking to purchase a signed copy of Jeff Tweedy's boxers. It's not that the anticipation for the closing set was palpable (it wasn't), it was more that the disinterest in the opening sets was hard to miss. If the band hopes to fill any void left by the demise of T-Rex, Ziggy Stardust or even Bryan Ferry, they'd best find a way to be more visually compelling...perhaps movement would suffice. But like I said, it was hot.

You might be wondering about the music by now, or not. I'll give it a try but my exposure to the band is limited, so apologies if I slam their epics and blow their filler.

Set opens with Never Do This Again, a song about fiery flames that burn out when you've pushed your limits on the party train. a pounding, almost plodding riff, nothing too spectacular.
Going Over It tries to find a groove as the band stretches out with melody, harmonies and a recognizable bridge! This might be a single. It just shouldn't be the first one.
Shawnee Dupree screams out, the guitar intro backed by a 'swamp music' rhythm line. The song sets you down in a shadowy world, evocative of the Bayou. The guitar cries throughout the song, mostly in the background of the verses, but a consistent melodic thread the whole tune is wrapped around.

The band moves back to their first release for Holding Up, a choppy, pop tune. They have an interesting effect going on when the song changes tempo. Each shift sounds like a tape-deck slipping, the notes extend and wobble.

Back to the new record for My Gun, a thick sounding song and I couldn't wade through the muddy sound to find a point. If I had this on vinyl I'd play it backwards as that Sgt.Peppery-stretchy thing is still going on.

Future Women, title track, gets us back to the harmonies, a strength of this band. A dreamy, lilting song more reminiscent of Brian Eno than Seals&Croft... but not by much. Just when you think they've explored this style as far as they can there's another verse, but one that degenerates into a final couplet that consists of humming noises, so maybe it had been explored to it's full extent. oooops, not done yet, repeat refrain and batter drums to outro.

Can't figure out the title of the next song but we're back to the Tony Jo White swamp-sound and a car tune, so it's not all bad.

Two more songs from the first album: Maggie, a little hint of the Kinks in this one. a ringing rhythm guitar gives the song some bounce. For a second there, I thought I saw something move. Dirty Old Dog was as confusing as it was forgettable. Back to the muddy sound (ftr, muddy = bad, swamp = good) with the tape whining sound.

The show closes with two strong songs: Plan of the Man has them back in their pop-mold. A quick three-minute romp, played fast, good beat, you could dance to it. Very good tune, it will be the single.
The show closes with a 6 minute mini epic, primarily an instrumental with a chant of 'you can start it all over' added on to the end, I believe it's called Darling Lucia and it's nothing if not ambitious.

They've got stuff to work on but they seem to have plenty to work with. I hear the album is much more 'produced', including horns and other instruments. Not sure that would make it better, I think they should keep it simple until they find their sound, clear away the mud, it's in there somewhere.

There might be a torrent running at DIMEADOZEN

Next up: Junior Brown, Roseanne Cash, Wilco, a week on the Fundy Coast and a visit to Stephen King's hometown.

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