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Scratching Names Off the Bucket List at RBC Bluesfest 2013

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Serena Ryder plays Bluesfest 2013

Big thanks to regular and righteous (in the TMNT-kinda way) contributor Kristian Partington for checking in from this year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest. Check out some of the festival’s philosophies and features in Kristian’s article, “Songs of the City,” from the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Musician. And thanks to Daniel Partington for the rad shots of Alice in Chains.

There’s background music in life – songs that mark eras of growth, which, in the present moment, can transport us to different points of time upon the chronology of our upbringing.

Then there’s the music that shapes us in our entirety – the formative music that burrowed into the core of our being at different points along our path and, in many respects, defines who we are.

These songs, the artists who create them, and each of the thousands and millions of people who listen are drawn together through a sort of a gravitational force, an almost magnetic attraction, and once in a while the necessary stars align and we can witness these three entities – song, artist, and muse – come together in the same space and time.

A place like Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest is where these sparks can fly. Thousands upon thousands descend upon the city every summer to take in a virtual smorgasbord of live music. Yes, there is plenty of blues to be found, but there is no one genre that dominates the stages set out upon the LeBreton Flats outside the National War Museum. This is a festival for all music lovers.

Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell

In the nine days before I arrived, festival-goers had the chance to see everyone from Rush and the Dixie Chicks to the Wu-Tang Clan, Fun., The Hip, and Great Big Sea. There was country and rap, blues and straight-up rock and roll. It’s events like this that make me wish I lived in Ottawa.

As we walked to the park on the final day of concerts under the scorching sun and a blanket of immense humidity, my friend, Justin Doyle, talked about the bands he needed to see live at least once before either he or they were no more. He has his bucket list, so to speak, and, having lived in Ottawa for the past 10 years, Bluesfest has given him ample opportunity to cross off bands.

He knocked Soundgarden off two years ago when they headlined opening night, and this year he would cross off another band that defined the era of grunge alongside Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Alice in Chains had an hour-long set on the Bell Stage and Doyle and thousands of other fans packed the stage’s forefront in the blazing heat to witness the reincarnation of a band that most people figured had died alongside original lead vocalist, Layne Staley, in 2002.

When the band took the stage in the late afternoon, I scanned the crowd and knew that for many, this was fulfilling a long-held desire. The band didn’t disappoint.

Songs off the latest albums, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here and Black Gives Way to Blue, warmed up the sweaty mass of fans, and by the time Jerry Cantrell and William DuVall busted into “No Excuses,” “Man in the Box,” and “Would” from the early days of grunge’s expansion from the Pacific Northwest, the place was melting with adoration.

Alice in Chains vocalist William DuVall

Doyle couldn’t take his eyes off the stage. He looked my way during “Man in the Box” and, with a massive grin upon his bearded face, made a gesture like scratching a name off a list. Then he turned to the stage and continued singing.

Cantrell’s hair was short and in a non-descript black T-shirt and shorts he looked like he could’ve been the friendly neighbour from down the street, the guy you borrow tools from or have a beer with from time to time. But he’s still a master on guitar, and when he and DuVall sang together the harmonies blended as honestly and powerfully as they did when Staley stood before a microphone years ago. Sean Kinney is still a monster on drums and Mike Inez is as solid as ever on bass.

An hour blew by in a blink and Doyle called out for “Rooster” to finish the set. When the first deep guitar notes hit, the crowd erupted. Images of war and destruction flashed across the screen at the back of the stage while the blend of lyrics and voices enticed a final word and thought upon the screen to finish the set: peace. In the shadow of the War Museum, I took a moment of silence, and I thought I saw a tear in Doyle’s eye.

For thousands of us under the sun that day, it was a rare treat. This wasn’t the background music of life; these songs defined much of it for us, and sharing space and time with Alice in Chains was a gift from Bluesfest.

But damn, was it hot. Beer moved aside for water, which, thankfully, was available at a free bottle-filling station. I’ve been under the sun at too many concerts in the past where my disdain at the idea of waiting in huge lines to pay for water overshadowed the music I was there to see.

We wound through the mass of people to the Clareridge Stage – No. 2 – and caught Serena Ryder’s set. I’d seen her many times in the past when she played in and around Peterborough, ON. She grew up in Millbrook

Yukon Blonde

20 minutes to the west of the city and I grew up 20 minutes east. Something like 15 years ago I remember thinking when she played Sidewinders Lounge where I tended bar for a stretch that her life would always be surrounded by music. She just has that kind of voice – haunting in its beauty.

At one point during her set she spoke about what music means to her, how it soothed her as a girl and as it saved her from the depths of depression as a woman. She’s battled a lot over the years and here she was playing the same stage that would house royalty two hours later when BB King would sit upon a stool.

Thousands of fans battled the sun to watch her play and I was glad to be one of them. Afterwards I bounced between Yukon Blonde and Los Lonely Boys – the first a group of B.C. lads riding growing success and the second three brothers from Texas I was told were well worth seeing. The crowd Los Lonely Boys played in front of at the River Stage was teeming, many people likely waiting for Los Lobos to begin a set and many pleasantly surprised by what they saw in the meantime.

“This is so much better than what we expected,” said one of the Los Lonely Boys brothers from the stage midway through the set. “Thank you so much for coming to watch us play.”

And just as they were thankful for their opportunity I felt immense gratitude when I watched BB King stroll onto his stage and take a stool in front of a crowd in awe. This is the King of the Blues and for me he embodies the true spirit of dedication and magic in music. As his fingers crawled up and down the neck of his beloved guitar, I asked aloud how many billions of notes he’s bent over the course of his life.

BB King headlines Bluesfest’s Bell Stage

“I have a question for you,” the King said at one point while his band carried out a mellow jam behind him. “Why didn’t you bring me over here before today? Well I’m glad to get here when you did bring me, so thank you. My name is BB King and I’m 87 years old, and I’m so happy to see you.”

A mixed crowd of teenagers and long-time music fans erupted in applause. This was musical royalty, and landing the King on the Bluesfest stage must be a feather in the cap of organizers.

For me it was another name to scratch off my bucket list and the pinnacle of my one-day adventure to Ottawa on a hot and sweaty summer day.

Kristian Partington is a writer based out of Norwood, ON who loves nothing more than watching live music and sharing the feelings those moments inspire through the written word. He can be reached at pwritingstudios@gmail.com.

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