No one would’ve blamed Ottawa Bluesfest ticket holders for skipping out on last Saturday’s shows. While the intensity of the showers waxed and waned, they were pretty consistent all day, covering everyone on site in a thin sheen of rain water. But it was nearly impossible to find a miserable face at LeBreton Flats. Instead, dancing, drinks and a thousands-strong rainbow of throwaway ponchos managed to keep hypothermia at bay, and the shows, as they must, went on.
Over at the City Stage, after about 10 minutes of warm up from his DJ, Earl Sweatshirt (AKA Thebe Kgositsile) walked slowly out of the wings. “It’s time to fuck around, man,” he said. “Makes some noise for this shitty ass weather.” The rain, though, provided a perfect backdrop for the shadowy gloom of his songs, set against a stark black stage stripped of any flourishes as teenagers exhaled towers of thick, pungent smoke. Kicking things off with “Pre” from 2013’s Doris, Sweatshirt—clad head in a black hoodie, with a green towel under his blue baseball cap that gave the impression of some sort of warped makeshift dog ears—was so laid back he almost seemed dizzy. But that dark, hazy energy, while perfect for the atmosphere, had a reverse effect on the kids near the front of the crowd, who started a mosh pit and sent each other crowd surfing. When Sweatshirt noticed in between songs, his confusion was amusing: “There’s not even music, why are y’all runnin’ into each other? That’s hard. Make some noise for how big these motherfuckin’ raindrops are.” He looked almost visibly frustrated trying to get the crowd to sing some hooks—”I’ma fuck the freckles off your face, bitch,” from “Molasses” for example—but after a few prods, the bouncing crowd was yelling along. He also ran through some new material, which ran the gamut from sparse, doomy slow-burns, glitchy jazz, and soul samples, before returning to familiar crowd-pleasers. After some “arpeggiated hi-hat time, bitch,” Sweatshirt banged out “Swamp Vermin” and “Hell” for a now ballistic crowd. He signed off as a lone, purple flip-flop flew dozens of feet into the air from the crowd. “Turn up one more time for your fuckin’ boy,” he said as he walked off stage.
Elsewhere was full of activity, too: a dude with stilts and a basketball net around his head encouraged kids to try to sink threes on his face; people camped out on their lawn chairs for hours under umbrellas; everyone flocked to the Canadian War Museum to seek shelter from the storm, where a televised theatre concert filled the air with tunes; and the festival hawked their own wares, which looked suspiciously similar to recent Kanye and Bieber merch.
Jeff Ross, a comic who’s built his fame on the backs of others, literally—his nickname is The Roastmaster General because he has roasted so many celebrities—finally realized the dream he had as a young boy. “Ever since I was a kid it was my dream to play outside in the rain at the Bluesfest,” he said. Although he eventually ended up turning Bluesfest even bluer than it already was: “I found a lump on my testicles,” he confessed. “The doctor said it’s my penis.”
Saturday’s main event, though, got a classy lead-in with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” blasting from City Stage as The Lumineers took the stage, opening with “Sleep On The Floor,” the lead track from their new record Cleopatra. By this point, with the sun down and the rain refusing to cease, the crowd had grown exponentially, and it was clear in their wide smiles that the Lumineers’ brand of rousing folk-rock was going to keep them planted firmly where they were (or at least dancing wildly in the wet grass). Following up with another new album cut, “Ophelia,” they played some of their biggest hits early, tackling “Flowers In Your Hair” and “Ho Hey” in their first half hour. Over behind the War Museum, Calgary’s Preoccupations crashed through a set of monstrously loud post-punk, with their punishing, thrashy guitar noise becoming near-suffocating under the darkness of night.
The Lumineers, though, would have trouble producing anything but feel-good vibes no matter how hard they tried. They wandered down a corridor to a second stage constructed by the soundboard to treat the “nosebleed section” to a closer glimpse as they took on a stirring, minor key version of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” sounding far more contemplative and weighty than the original’s mercurial rock ‘n’ roll. Singer Wesley Schultz made his way back to the stage for Slow It Down strummed under a single spotlight. Finally, as dozens of teenagers caught on to its opening notes and frolicked maniacally spitting rain, the band bid everyone adieu with a typically foot-stomping, holler-along rendition of “Stubborn Love.”