Alanis Morissette, Femi Kuti and Jeremy Dutcher Brought Generations Together at Ottawa Bluesfest 2022
Also featuring the New Pornographers and Sarah McLachlan
Published Jul 11, 2022As Ottawa's largest music festival nears its 30th anniversary, RBC Bluesfest continues to downscale, going from its extravagant 12-day, six-stage 2009 apex that occupied both LeBreton Flats Park and the Byward Market to its more compact current iteration. After removing its second stage on the main festival grounds in 2019, the 2022 edition saw further reductions, as the start time for weekend programming was pushed from noon to 6 p.m.
Nonetheless, the festival continues to find wild success by offering diverse lineups each evening, offering A-list headliners from the worlds of country (Luke Bryan), electronic (Marshmello), rock (Alexisonfire) and hip-hop (Ja Rule), while the lack of its titular blues music has become a tired talking point for the locals who have long moved past that conversation. Trading in established supporting acts for undiscovered fare, Bluesfest has become a headliner-driven festival. Gone are the days when you could see Camera Obscura and Blonde Redhead kicking off a blazing Saturday afternoon, but Bluesfest has instead rebranded itself as a showcase for discovering emerging talent. Running this year from July 7 through 17 (with a pause today, July 11), this first weekend earned a certain level of praise for bringing in Alessia Cara, Bombino and Garbage alongside the following highlights.
Photo: Ming Wu
Headlining the first night of the festival in three years, Sarah McLachlan welcomed back festivalgoers with enthusiasm, exclaiming "Together again!" before the Nova Scotia-born adult-alt icon strummed along to a blissful rendition of "Building a Mystery." Draped in the scent of patchouli and weed, the robust audience cooed along with mega-hits like "I Will Remember You" and "Adia." Despite a stirring rendition of "Hold On" and a few personal stories, McLachlan lost the increasingly restless crowd with a six-song mini-set of album cuts and lesser-known singles, but got them back with live staple "Ice Cream," a song so beloved, McLachlan was able to back away from the mic and radiate with delight as the audience sang along. By the time she closed her set with powerful versions of "Sweet Surrender" and "Possession" — playing her electric Gretsch off Luke Doucet's Neil Young-esque guitar and Melissa McClelland's slinky bass on the latter — much of the crowd had unfortunately thinned out. As McLachlan ended the evening behind her baby grand piano for an intimate rendition of "Angel," she regardless looked just as blissfully happy to be back onstage as her still-present superfans.
The New Pornographers
Photo: Ming Wu
A rare holdover from the canceled 2020 and 2021 festivals, the New Pornographers followed up last year's Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema anniversary tour with a set featuring tracks from each of their eight LPs. Looking a bit more grey-haired since their last Ottawa appearance in 2017, the Vancouver sextet entered the festival's smallest outdoor stage with new singer Nora O'Connor in tow, replacing Simi Stone and Neko Case. Playing just a trio of tracks from their latest, 2019's In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, the New Pornographers instead dedicated much of their time to their most beloved material. Bouncing through 14 songs in just 60 minutes, vocalist and guitarist Carl Newman led the band through some of their most buoyant and soaring showstoppers, including "The Laws Have Changed," "Use It" and "Mass Romantic," the last of which spurred a makeshift dancefloor upon the stage's concrete façade. "Testament to Youth in Verse" found Newman closing the performance with his best Dan Bejar impression, delighting the sea of oscillating fans while leading them in an unlikely singalong of "No, no, no, no, no, no..."
Photo: Ming Wu
As hordes of festivalgoers evacuated the grounds after the New Pornographers' set, the hundred-or-so leftovers were treated to one of the finest performances of the first weekend. Walking onstage in what he referred to as a "queer-as-hell cape" and a jersey-style ribbon shirt embroidered with "Dutcher" and "35" on his back, the Polaris Music Prize winner seemed to soak up the adoring crowd. Joined by a seven-piece band that included Joseph Shabason on backing vocals, Dutcher took his place behind his baby grand, soaring through tracks from his 2018 full-length, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Incorporating digitized wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik people singing their traditional songs, Dutcher bellowed into the firmament, "You're back, Jim!" during "Mehcinut." Leading the audience into a stirring rendition of "Oqiton," Jeremy affectionately translated part of the lyrics into English for those not familiar with the song's poignant themes. As he infused each composition with banter, Dutcher proved to be as charming and amusing as he was impassioned, leading the completely absorbed viewers into a Wolastoqiyik-language singalong during a new number. Closing his set on solo piano, Dutcher received such a rousing response that he immediately returned for an encore that left countless wiping away tears of joy and emotion.
Femi Kuti & the Positive Force
Photo: Ming Wu
While Luke Combs's headlining appearance led to a rare sell-out for the festival, Femi Kuti and his backing band the Positive Force drew an eclectic crowd to the grounds' tented stage, as the Nigerian vocalist-saxophonist-keyboardist delivered his optimistic Afrobeat bangers joined by eight instrumentalists and three singers-dancers, including his wife. Many of the festival's acts required half of their sets to get crowds moving but Kuti enraptured his audience immediately, leading them into sing-, clap-, and dance-alongs. During an extended version of "You Can't Fight Corruption with Corruption" from his 2021 album Stop the Hate, Kuti moved to the lip of the stage to interact with the audience, showing off his guitarist's well-received chicken-scratch guitar solo while dancing passionately. As his 75-minute set came to a close, the 60-year-old brought son and bandmate Made Kuti front and centre; Femi vacated the space as Made absolutely mesmerized the audience with his relaxed energy before blowing collective minds by soaring through a two-minute circular-breathing sax note. Returning for an encore of his father Fela's "Water No Get Enemy," Femi made one thing clear: Afrobeat is the Kuti family business — and business is good.
Photo: Sean Sisk
In her first hometown appearance since 2008, Alanis Morissette made up for lost time by headlining the final night of the sprawling festival's first weekend. Pulling throngs of millennials and Gen X-ers into the LeBreton Flats Park, only 12 kilometres from where she attended high school, Morissette started her performance with an extended video montage of TV and film appearances reminding fans of her late-'90s omnipresence. Looking relaxed in an oversized T-shirt and baggy vinyl pants, Morissette instantly locked into her iconic persona, swaying back and forth while waving her dirty blonde locks during opening number "All I Really Want." After a singalong rendition of "Hand in My Pocket," the teeming crowd was promptly divided into two factions: those familiar with Jagged Little Pill's deep cuts and those indifferent. Celebrating the now-belated 25th anniversary of that juggernaut LP, Morissette moved through each of its 12 tracks, only deviating for a dazzling version of "Reasons I Drink" from 2020's Such Pretty Forks in the Road. Closing her set with "Ironic" and "You Oughta Know," Morissette gave the sea of fans a chance to exuberantly scream the lyrics back to her, demonstrating just how important these songs (and lyrics) remain to two entire generations.