RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
Beck / Sturgill Simpson
Beck came to party Friday night, the L.A. troubadour delivering a dynamic performance touching on every phase of his eclectic career as a horde of fans turned Bluesfest’s sun-baked lawn into a giant dance party.
His crack eight-piece band striking a pose along the laser-lit stage, with the flashing neon grid backdrop looking as if it was lifted from Tron, Beck stood centre-stage with his guitar held aloft as the thunderous opening riff of Devil’s Haircut came crashing down around him.
“How ya doing Ottawa?” Beck shouted over the teeming spectators, all raising their hands to the heavens as the unmistakable slide guitar hook of Loser washed over them.
The catchy chorus, ultra-funky beat and stream-of-consciousness lyrics somehow still sounded as fresh and distinct in the flesh Friday as it did when it first soared across the radio waves back in 1994.
“Thank you so much for welcoming us and embracing us,” the just-turned 48-year-old Beck told the boisterous crowd on his Ottawa debut.
“I’m in the mood for something soulful, a little bit moving. Something to take it a little bit higher.”
When the band didn’t play it hot enough for his liking, Beck took it upon himself to rev up the tempo with Mixed Bizness, the disco-infused hit single from his hard-partying Midnite Vultures album.
He instructed the crowd to “Giddy up” on the throbbing Wow, from his latest Colors, then busted out the dancey title track, which he (fairly accurately) described as “psychedelic Michael Jackson,” while pulling out his best MJ dance moves.
Always eclectic, Beck showed he had been equally adept at keeping up with his contemporaries with slickly-produced robotic beats, synth sounds and electronic bleeps and blips colouring new tunes I’m So Free, Wow and the furious Up All Night, its club-worthy pumping beat with shades of Timberlake.
He took time out to showcase the many other sides of Beck, though, gathering his band along the front of the stage for some acoustic samplings of the best of his back catalogue: the beautiful Lost Cause, rendered even more spare than the album version on Sea Change, the haunting Blue Moon, from his Grammy-winning Morning Phase, and the hilariously cheesy Debra, with Beck inserting an ad-lib vocal about driving around Ottawa listening to his favourite song on the radio and teasing a tidbit of that tune, Prince’s Raspberry Beret.
By the encore, a roaring version of Odelay smash Where It’s At, Beck had already worn each one of his influences loudly on his sleeve.
Still, in case anyone missed the clues, he cued them all up in sequence with riffs on The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, The Stones’ Miss You, a verse of Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads and a rip-snorting take on the Delta blues of One Foot in the Grave from his earliest days as an anti-folk hero.
Making a fine example of Bluesfest’s new festival format pitting two headliner-worthy acts on the main stage, early-arriving fans were treated to a scorching evening set from Sturgill Simpson.
The self-professed purveyor of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — the title of his 2014 breakthrough album — Simpson and his band blazed through another genre-bending set, equally at ease with the earnest ballads, soul-infused heavy blues, heartland rockers and outlaw country boogie that make Simpson so difficult to define.
Opening with It Ain’t All Flowers, Simpson let loose his gritty growl and searing Telecaster licks as his lean, mean four-piece churned up a deep groove seeped in soulful Hammond organ.
The band barely took a breath cutting into The Promise, a cover of the ’80s new wave hit given the twangy Nashville treatment. Simpson said only a quick hello before that tune broke into the thick funk intro of Some Days from his self-funded, self-released 2013 debut High Top Mountain, with Simpson showing off his hot electric guitar licks and wearing influences of Highwaymen Waylon and Willie on his sleeve.
The band — drummer Miles Miller, bassist Chuck Bartels and Bobby Emmett on keys — had barely broken a sweat by the time they shifted seamlessly into Turtles All the Way Down, the thick blues riffage and chunky beat of Keep It Between the Lines, and the rippling waves of Breakers Roar, from his Grammy-winning 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
His cover of ’60s Stax soul hit You Don’t Miss Your Water, later featured on The Byrds’ essential Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, was further proof both of Simpson’s cross-genre appeal and his defiance of any convenient category the music industry may try to apply.
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