Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #1 Billy Bragg – Thursday, July 4th, 2012

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Billy Bragg live at Bluesfest, 2012

Artist: Billy Bragg
When: Thursday, July 4th, 2012
Where: Blacksheep Stage at 9:15pm
Context: Although I had been to multiple nights of the previous three festival years, 2012 was the first year I bought the full festival pass. On the opening night that year, I parked myself down at the Blacksheep stage for the duration. Though for that year, the Blacksheep stage was moved from its normal spot tucked behind the War Museum (where it was replaced with the short-lived Electro stage) and relocated to a spot not far away, actually, where the main merch tent is now placed. This stage location was one of the victims of stage reduction that took place not longer after to try to combat noise bleed between the stages (more on that in a bit).

I caught three very different but all very good acts that evening but the capper was Billy Bragg striding on to the stage shortly after 9:15pm, just him and his guitar. It was my third time seeing him live but it was the first time in over a decade and I had forgotten how integral his banter was to his live performances. His stories between the songs are almost as important to the Billy Bragg experience (and can be just as entertaining) as the songs themselves.

Tea in hand he cajoled and ranted on subjects like cynicism, government, the economy (if you know Billy, you know where he stands on these subjects) and the fact that he was being drowned at by the “disco” at the next stage where Tiesto was headlining. “You can wear mickey mouse ears all you want, it’s still disco,” he joked. “Come on, I’m fifty-f*cking-four years old!” Fifty-four he may have been, Billy Bragg rocked the set and he did it as he often does. Just him on stage. His set was mixed with songs from his Woody Guthrie repetoire (“Ingrid Bergman”), the classics (“Greetings to the new brunette”, “The milkman of human kindness” “Levi Stubbs’ tears”), and a smattering of new songs. Before one such new track, his anti-cynicism song “Tomorrow’s going to be a better day”, he forewarned of a whistling solo and cracked up when the crowd cheered him in the middle of it.

For his encore, Billy came out with a rendition of “Waiting for the great leap forwards” that had almost a completely re-written set of lyrics, adapted for current events, some of which seemed almost as if they were written that day, even on the spot. He finished his set with a singalong version of “A new England”, including an additional verse for his friend Kirsty MacColl, who famously covered the song in 1984 but died in a tragic boating accident in 2000. He provided the words to the chorus before he began but the crowd knew the words to the whole song and sang with him the whole way. Afterwards, he bowed humbly, threw his tea bag out into the crowd and that was it. Brilliant as usual.

Billy Bragg solo on guitar
Billy Bragg
Billy chatting with the crowd
Billy stopping for some tea

Setlist:
The World Turned Upside Down (Leon Rosselson cover)
To Have and to Have Not
Greetings to the New Brunette
Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day
Help Save the Youth of America
Aginst th’ Law (Woody Guthrie cover)
Ingrid Bergman (Woody Guthrie cover)
All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose (Woody Guthrie cover)
Last Flight to Abu Dhabi
The Milkman of Human Kindness
Levi Stubbs’ Tears
There Is Power in a Union
Encore:
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
A New England

Best albums of 1989: #1 The Stone Roses “The Stone Roses”

So we’ve reached the end of this series and here were at the number one position on my Best Albums of 1989 list. There have already been comments and I’m sure there have been more than a few raised eyebrows at seeing some pretty iconic albums placed lower on this list, like “Doolittle” at number four and “Disintegration” at number three. I did forewarn you at the outset that the year was pretty stacked and I myself had a hard time looking at some of my favourite albums placed lower than number one. But such is the case for 1989 and the fallacy of ranking things in lists is that there should be only be one number one. For me (and a couple of you have already guessed this), that number one is The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut.

The band had originally formed in 1983, six years before this album’s release, but the personnel didn’t stabilize to the lineup we know of Mani, Reni, John Squire, and Ian Brown until a year or two later. Many of this debut’s songs are reworkings of tracks that had been written long before its release and had been demoed in a variety of ways. When it was released by indie label Silvertone Records, it didn’t immediately take the world by storm. Indeed, even the band themselves weren’t super happy with the production on it. However, the press liked it, especially the NME. Single upon single upon single were released and word of mouth spread based on their live shows. And eventually sales increased and they started rocketing up the charts.

“The Stone Roses” is now seen as the album that kickstarted Madchester and ‘Baggy’ culture, alongside The Happy Mondays, and laid the foundations for 90s Britpop. Indeed, the blend of 60s psychedelic guitar rock with a highly danceable rhythm section were highly influential on what would happen in British music for the next decade and onwards, though North American culture would largely ignore them until much later. Unfortunately, this debut, which many argue is the greatest debut ever, would be their only output for half a decade due to record label battles and a host of other problems. Their sophomore album, “Second coming”, would finally be released but was initially seen as disappointment to many and the band would disintegrate within two years of its release.

I heard many of the songs on “The Stone Roses” on the radio and CityLimits and on friends’ stereos long before I ever heard the full album. I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time and thinking it must’ve been a best of compilation because I already knew and loved most of it. An astounding seven singles were released from “The Stone Roses”, which is more than half of its tracks. There is just so much fun and awesomeness on this album that I could’ve chosen any three songs at random to share with you and I would’ve been happy with the picks.

I hope you enjoyed this series as much I did, even if you might’ve disagreed with the rankings. Let me know what your own top albums would’ve been in the comments section below and we can continue the discussion as we play this album one more time.


”I wanna be adored”: This is the track that greets the listener upon putting on the album, an easy introduction that merely foreshadows the crazy ecstasy that’s to come. The album version starts very slowly with hints of Mani’s bass strings being fiddled with, Reni’s cymbal crashes, and John Squire’s guitar scrapings being heard far off in the distance, as if the song is being conjured by a trio of mad scientists who are not really sure of the consequences of their actions. Eventually the bass line that holds the whole song together takes shape and grows in volume, that drum beat for which the Roses are famous kicks in, and so does Squire’s wailing guitars. When Ian Brown adds his hushed, mellowed out vocals to the Petri dish, it’s merely a delicate glaze. The words are hardly deep, I think I counted fifteen different words in the whole song, used in different configurations, but the intonation and the repetition is the key. It makes the song easier to sing or shout along with on the dance floor if the words are easy to remember. I mean, who doesn’t wanna be adored?

”She bangs the drums”: A hiss-to-the-hiss-to-the-hiss tappety-tapping on the closed high hat, a rumbling mumbling bassline, all like the foreboding of the explosive shimmering guitar riff that’s sure to come. Ah. There it is. Yeah. The second single off the record jumps out at you, a high energy dance jam that plays just as well as a singalong number. That bass line continues to climb up and down your spine and Squire does his best Marr impression, jangling down the road like a jester troubadour. But he doesn’t stop there, throwing in some wicked backwards effects and wankering away while Brown sings those words with a crazed grin pasted to his face. How do I know he’s smiling? Just listen to him. And while you’re at it, just take a look at yourself in the mirror as you’re singing along. See? You’re smiling too. How can you not? This song is pure joy. Just like so much of this record. Amazing.

”I am the resurrection”: The final song on the original track listing of the album is an eight minute long, acid house dance club anthem, perhaps one the best examples of its kind, the fusing of 60s psychedelic rock and the early days of rave culture, images of kids in baggy clothing tripping on ecstasy. Reni and his ever-present bucket hat puts on a drumming clinic, keeping perfect time for the duration, but the intro is all his, that cadence he sets puts you in the mood to jump on the dance floor right away. Mani steps in next with his flitting bass line that, while not quite as game-changing as it is on “Fools gold” (the band’s other anthem), is nonetheless integral to the song’s soul. Finally, Ian Brown’s mellow, laissez-faire tones fit in perfectly with the sound. Of course, the track really only digs in after he stops singing about halfway through and John Squire and his guitar noodling takes over, leading the rest of the group into a four and a half minute long freak out jam.


Here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Automatic”
9. Galaxie 500 “On fire”
8. The Beautiful South  “Welcome to The Beautiful South”
7. The Grapes of Wrath “Now and again”
6. New Model Army “Thunder and consolation”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Hup”
4. Pixies “Doolittle”
3. The Cure “Disintegration”
2. Nine Inch Nails “Pretty hate machine”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1992: #11 Pure “Spiritual pollution”

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Well, it’s Canada day again, albeit one the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And hopefully, we’ll never see again.

I’ve saved this particular post for today because the band in question is a lesser known and perhaps, not as well remembered Canadian alternative rock band from the  90s. Pure were one of the few Canadian acts that I listened to around that time and it was likely because their sound was similar to the Madchester hooks with which I had been obsessed. As you may recall, I’ve already made mention on these pages that my tastes tended to British music in the early 1990s. American alternative rock had turned its ears to Seattle and Canadian bands were following suit,

Pure, though, were a four-piece from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that formed in 1991. The original members comprised of drummer Leigh Grant, bassist Dave Hadley, guitarist Todd Simko, and vocalist Jody Birch. They got their first taste of success when one of their tracks appeared on the soundtrack for “Cool world”, a half animated/half live-action film that featured a young Brad Pitt. Then, their debut album, “Pureafunalia”, was released in 1992 and it’s first single, “Blast”, hit the airwaves and music video channels and thus, caught my attention. That track was just shy of making it on to this very list but there was no way “Spiritual pollution” wouldn’t be included. Sure, it wasn’t released as a single until the following year but I was already hooked on it from listening to that debut album in 1992.

A dirty and cool guitar riff opens the proceedings, putting a strut in your step and a feather in your cap. And then: Bah dah da-da-da-dah, duh duh duh da-dah… oh, the glorious horns. The beat pops and cracks in, sounding like robotic handclaps, the synth bass washes, and then, that guitar riff and the horn flourishes return for more fanfare. And over top it all, frontman Jody Birch is just cool, laying it all just there, a hepcat, not needing our spiritual pollution. No, not at all.

That debut album mixed dancefloor grooves with 60s psychedelic guitar rock but later on, their sound tended to be more pedestrian, and though I enjoyed their sophomore release, 1994’s “Generation six pack”. My love affair with the band started to fizzle from there. But we’ll always have the horns of “Spiritual pollution”. I could listen to and hum that riff all day long… Especially on this odd Canada day…

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.