Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Their Reputation Exceeds Them:
Roseanne Cash and Wilco
Ottawa Blues Fest

I came out here with the best of intentions, hoping to witness some quality performances from a couple of seasoned and respected artists. That's what we got, two quality sets. So, money-wise, I guess we're even.

But something was missing, I don't know what.

In fairness to the artists let it be said I am only marginally aware of their music. Wilco gets played on the radio here but I never remember saying..."who was that? I must find out!" afterwards. Nor do I ever remember saying..."ahhh, that's Wilco!", or any other exclamation that may convey recognition, when an unannounced song is playing. Roseanne I've heard on the odd bootleg record of her dad's and I've probably seen her perform on TV, paying her as much attention as I would Juliette. (Now there's a GOOGLE search for you.)Which is to say, I'm coming in with a clean slate.

Roseanne Cash is country royalty (like that's not an oxymoron). Her name alone gives her more legitimacy in her circles than being born in Detroit helps Eminem in his square. She's flogging an album (Black Cadillac) that's up for awards and receiving rave reviews from the unabashed "crowning achievement of her career" to the more clinical, but artistically non-commital, "deals with grief, pain and the enduring human spirit." Which is as informative as saying a cookbook deals with spices, meats, sauces and the danger of little bones. I mean what country album doesn't deal with those themes?

OK, enough of that, the album is an homage to her parents and her step-mom, June Carter, all of whom passed away during the previous 3 years. So I won't talk much about those songs but let me tell you a little bit about the show.

Actually I will say a little more about that because I just figured out what was missing: sincerity! She's gotta learn how to fake that if she wants this act to fly in Ottawa. I mean this is a government town. Peoples' bullshit meters are set to "HIGH". In her liner notes, at her website, she says the title song, Black Cadillac was written months before June Carter passed away. That's all well enough, a song doesn't have to be about someone, or someone real, to be good. In fact, if it's too much of the former, it's seldom the latter. Just don't shape a whole tour around the implication that it is. Roseanne chalks it up to the song being some kind of "postcard from (the) future". Perhaps I'm being picayune but it would be like Dylan releasing Love and Theft on Sept. 11,2001 AND THEN touring with "The Day The Sky Split Open Wide Tour". Opportunistic, if not crass. But hey, she's got the songs, she knows some people who died, so why not tour?

The bootleg should be titled: "How's My Hair?" That seemed to be as far into the depths of her soul as she was going to go for this audience. While admitting she was perhaps a fish out of water at this particular festival she insured us she'd prove she had her fill of the 'blues'. I guess she's filling those requests by mail, just like she mailed in this set.

This should teach anyone with a message not to play at a festival. The environment is not conducive to the mood required to properly enjoy the music. People are moving chairs about, some are screaming across great distances to get the attention of their friends. We're baking out here and have been all day so there's a steady stream of people getting up to seek shade or beer. Which is to say, it's a festival.

Roseanne opens by relying heavily on the new record and this probably did little to help the audience focus. Decent enough songs, done well enough too, but if the story is long, it's tough to follow for four minutes in this place.

But I was trying...I was looking, 'cause she is a premiere songwriter, or so I'm told. Black Cadillac opens the show. If it was about her dad it would be a heartwrenching tale of loneliness in the face of our fickle humanity. "It's a lonely world /Just a numbers game /Well, a hundred years /Will find me feelin' just the same" and the more sanguine, though no more cheery "Yeah, it's a lonely world /I guess it always was /Minus you and minus blood /My blood." Out here in the field it sounds like an advert for Blade.

She follows with a song about her mom and dad, back when her mother was the girl from San Antone and her dad was a Radio Operator, in a song with the same title, a feel-good tune about those innocent days...before children.

Before she gets the next song underway she gets to show a little bit of her true self to the fans. Someone calls out for a song, then another and another. She stops to say, in a patronizing tone, "What darling? Ya, we'll get there, and we'll get there and we'll get there and there." More callouts from the crowd and now she's getting snooty when someone calls out for a Johnny Cash song: "Oh that's funny, gee that's the first time anybody's called out a song of my dad's to me while I was on stage." WFT!?!?!?! I'd think you'd humbly take that as an homage to your dear dad, about whom you're doing a whole freakin' tour. But hold it, I think she's not only pissed off, but pissed, as she stumbles through the rest of her insult: "I think you just pushed that into the quardruple drig-b-digits actually." I repeat, WTF!?!?!?!
She launches into John Stewart's Runaway Train, a bluesy tune about long-distance love or forbidden love, it hard to empathize with the chick at this time.

I mean, what was that about? I know it's hot out here, the thousands of idiots risking dehydration and sunstroke sure know it. So they wanna holler out. You know some of us aren't being paid to endure the weather, we're here to be entertained. And don't be on us 'cause we like your dad. Your in Ottawa, not Nashville. Half the people here thought he might show up for a duet.

Trying to suck up now she comments she's happy to be at 'your' Blues Festival, even if she doesn't fit the criterion. She assures has she has lots of blues in her and is going to bring it out. The moody, funky guitar line and nimble drum skips are an inviting introduction to Burn Down This Town, a song about the ring of fire gone bad.
In between song patter is a call out to Junior Brown, or a name drop, depending on your mood. Still with the new album we get the sweet, beyond derision, God Is In The Roses. Well, it's not 'beyond' derision but we'll let it slide. There can't be enough space on this blog to address the 'god' issue.

Next song starts with an introduction that includes the word "unironically" and, if you have the recording, me ordering a Canadian. She breaks into the best song of the night to this point, the bouncy Sea of Heartbreak. Wonder who wrote that? Well she doesn't tell you. Just that she's collaborating to put in on an album of "classic country songs".

The crowd is only marginally more interested in the goings on that I am...maybe less. Roseanne slows the pace down and the conversation starts to pick up. I move, with beer in hand, in search of a more advantageous or quiet, spot. For someone so dismissive only a few songs earlier she's getting a little dependent on songs dad wrote, or made famous. Maybe she meant that to be the case, with the new record and all those funerals and all. Still begs the question...why the early rebuff?

Now she's enlisting her son and her dad, and her lineage, making it three generations who have loved Tennessee Flat-top. Add me to the list. It was cool.

Another cover from this world-renowned songwriter, Lucinda Williams' the now bittersweet, Crescent City. Roseanne shows a little of her real soul, and we should have seen more of it, when she comments "That song's a prayer to me now." A real goose-bump inducing song.

She follows with some patter about writing the next song when she was half the age she is now: "I was a very precocious 14 year old." Ahhhhh, she's coming along, a little self-deprecating humour never hurts. I still go and order another Canadian as she's singing....ummm, i don't know, can't figure it out. I'm roaming the grounds looking for another (or THE) quiet spot, to no avail. The song has the lyrics "what would I give to be a diamond in your eyes again." She was into it, she's getting a little more connected to the show, or so it seems.

She ain't wrong when she introduces Big River as a "great piece of American poetry". Now i'm starting to enjoy this and all my attitude is starting to fade away. Not so for the freakin' vocal audience now making plans for next weeks bar-b-que with friends sitting outside the venue in the public park. But she's rockin' on and I'm enjoying it as best I can.

Another original comes with the question: "How's my hair?" Ahhh, there's a real rock'n'roll question. If you're in Aerosmith. But like we said, it is hot and her 'do is lookin' like a 'fro. The song, not so remarkable.

So if you want a remarkable tune hang around for an "old gospel song" and listen to a nice rendition (not counting the now incessant crowd noise) as she croons out Wayfaring Stranger.

Show closes with a Commander Cody like song I couldn't make out, but it was about bad breaks and fast driving, so it could't have been all bad. Could have been something called Red River.

She turned it around somewhere in the middle, not a total catastrophe.

Which brings us to Wilco Also out of Chicago, like The M's, and that brings us full circle for this day at the Blues Fest.

Much like Roseanne Cash, what I knew of Wilco was only what I picked up in the atmosphere. That Woody Guthrie project with Billy Bragg sticks in my mind, though I've never listened to any of the music it kind of legitimized them in my mind. Whatever that's worth. Their rabid following garnered them even more respect in my eyes...that kind of reputation is usually based on a great live act. The fact some of my friends think they are a Class A musical act convinced me they were worth a listen. In the weeks up to the concert I gave a live show a spin. I wasn't too impressed. It sounded kind of ... soft. But still, it's Wilco! They're headlining the Ottawa Blues Fest!

Let's see what they have in store for their minions.

Well, at least they start with that part of Tweedy's career of which I have a little knowledge...Woody Guthrie's Airline To Heaven. Of course it may not be the best idea to start the concert with a hymn if you expect to engage the audience. The crowd is loud. Not attentive, just loud. This gets worse throughout the evening but is most pronounced during the 'quieter' songs...about 80% of this bands repetoire. A late electric guitar solo momentarily drowns out the crowd and all the talking stops for between song "whhhhoooooo's", 'cause, after all, we are Wilco fans.

Handshake Drugs starts out so low that the talking picks up again. When Tweedy is singing the refrain, "exactly what do you want me to be?" Quiet seems to be the answer. He does have a nice way about his phrasing, almost like Donovan, without the accent.

Another 'mother-theresa-like' hymn in White Light (or maybe What Light) some light, one you go towards when the human sh*t is getting you down. I ain't much for the afterlife when everyone around me is getting it in this one.

The Late Greats...I have no idea what this song is about. It has a line in it referring to a band called K-Settes starring Butcher's Blind claiming they are the best band you will never hear. Thing is, if you follow the link, they are playing in Ottawa this summer. Where we are now seeing Wilco. WTF is that about? It's followed by another, even less memorable tune named Impossible Germany. All this stuff is still a little 'soft' for my liking. Seems Tweedy misses the limp '70's as much as I miss the fun I coulda had in the '60's. Most of these tunes could have been written for James Taylor.

Then he surprises us with a very nice performance of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart with some wicked feedback to drown out the increasingly annoying audience.

A Shot in the Arm is another nondesrcript, shapeless tune ,to my increasingly impaired ears. Tweedy moves back to the aforementioned '60's with a 'hippy-wanna-be' tuned called Forget the Flowers.

That's a couple yawners in a row and I'm dancing now by bladders so full. It was those beers during Roseanne Cash's set. Anyway, I eschew my taping responsibilities to head to the loo during At Least That's What You Said.

When I come out Wilco are still trying to play louder than the audience can talk and near the end of Misunderstood they almost get there. This song's cool if you're listening to it for the first time in the car. You'll swear your cd is f*cked near the end.

And just when you thought there ain't gonna be anything in this set to get my blood up, Jeff Tweedy decides he'll talk. Now I hear most actors wanna be rock n roll stars. I think most rock n roll stars wanna be comics. Jeff should stick with his day job. Got no idea what got into him, maybe it was the fact all their effort onstage has done little to attract the attention of the assembled mutltitude, some of whom ostensibly came here to listen to them. There are some people seated to the right side of the stage in lawn chairs. They've been there a long time, having been insulted earlier by Roseanne Cash for calling out requests in an enthusiastic fashion. After 6 hours in the blistering sun, sitting on the black tarmac that is usually Laurier Ave., they seem a little tired. And there's a band onstage playing lullabyes, so they're not too active. To show his appreciation Tweedy looks over and comments that he didn't realize "we had so many fans in wheelchairs." He, he, that's funny dude. Paying fans are baffed and bored while you're being payed to sing songs for a very good living and you're making 'cripple jokes'. Too cool.

Then he plays Jesus Etc. Lots of religion, no soul.

Perhaps realizing he'd made a slight error in judgement he comes back with some patronizing crap about loving Canada (queue zombie like cheers) and wishing he could stay here. As Roseanne said earlier... that makes it about a quadrillion times we've heard American artists say that.

Back to religion with another incomprehensible song about Theologians and cherries. Tweedy won't stop beathing the dead horse that is his wheelchair joke as he holds a note on the guitar and exclaims: "This note has been known to heal people in wheelchairs." Got a bit of a Christ-complex goin' there Jeff?

The set closes with Hummingbird, more Laurel Canyon AOR.

The lukewarm audience response threatens to embarass the headliners. Most of the chattering in the crowd has subsided as they drop their conversations to figure out what's going on. 'Course we're outside and there's no house lights so the band manages to sneak back onstage.

Not having learned anything from the opening set Wilco opens with a somnambulant Ashes of American Flags. It was....ummmm, long.
A more lively acoustic guitar leads us into the circular War on War before Tweedy lamely tries to entice the crowd to help them sing the refrain in Heavy Metal Drummer. Little success and he's wise not to ask them to reply twice. The silence was deafening.

As the show nears it's unseeable, if inevitable end, the "wooooooo" quotient is growing considerably in the between song gaps. Kingpin closes the first encore set with some decent, rocking guitar work.

Tweedy comes back for one more encore and perhaps mistaking what was an exodus for some late blooming enthusiasm, takes one more opportunity to put his foot in his mouth when he comments: "You guys rule, 'cause up to 30 minutes ago you were in wheelchairs."

Recognizing he's fading fast he plays the "rock n roll" card, tosses out a song called Monday and hits the road.

So that's it for the BluesFest. Next time I get a hankerin' for the Blues I think I'll hit Healeys.


SRKMike said...

I told you the lineup sucked this year.

Hopefully you saw some whales, anyway.

ryan the duke said...

regarding roseanne cash.. i couldn't agree more..

regarding wilco.. well, you know how i feel about that.

ryan the duke said...

and mike..

ah, forget it.. i won't play the oasis card.