Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #2 Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Friday, July 8th, 2016

(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.)

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds live at Bluesfest 2016

Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
When: Friday, July 8th, 2016
Where: City Stage at 9:30pm
Context: One of the problems with multi-stage music festivals is that, invariably, you run into situations where there are multiple artists that you want to see playing at the same time. It’s happened to me more than a few times over the years and I’ve had to make a decision on who I wanted to see more, weighted based on whether I had seen the acts before and the chances that I’d have to see the act again. One of the most grievous scheduling conflicts I ever had to negotiate was on that Friday back in 2016 when I had to leave an incredible set by Swedish singer/songwriter The Tallest Man on Earth only a few songs into it in order to get a good spot to catch Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds.

My wife Victoria joined me that night (as she does on occasion), just as she did the last time I saw Noel Gallagher live, back when he was performing with Oasis at the 2008 V fest on Toronto Island. A few of you might recall how that one turned out. Some drunken, middle-aged hooligan had hidden himself under the stage, climbed up in the middle of the set, and pushed the elder Gallagher brother from behind, cracking a few ribs in the process. After the fracas and some confusion in the crowd, the band came back out and performed a handful of songs but it wasn’t a complete set. So although we can say we saw Oasis live, we always felt like we were cheated, knowing there were songs they could have played but didn’t.

Eight years later, Oasis had of course broken up and Noel Gallagher had at that time put together two solid solo albums with a new band. I’d always thought Noel more talented than his younger brother Liam and though Victoria doesn’t agree, I’ve always felt that he had the better voice. Don’t get me wrong, Liam is a great frontman, but his force is his attitude and confidence, more than his talent. Nonetheless, seeing Noel Gallagher live again was too good a chance to pass up and it wasn’t hard to convince Victoria to join me.

Out of a set of twenty songs, exactly half were songs that Noel wrote during his days with his original band. He dutifully played the hits – “Champagne supernova”, “Wonderwall”, and the perfect closer, “Don’t look back in anger” – to all of which the crowd was pleased to help him with the vocals and he welcomed it, stepping back from the mike while we sang the choruses. What I found really cool, though, is that he also dug deep into the B-sides, playing some of the more popular (“The masterplan”, “Fade away”, “Half the world away”) but also the not-so-popular (“Talk tonight”, “D’yer wanna be a spaceman”). And it wasn’t for any reason more complicated than that those were some of Noel’s favourite Oasis tracks.

The other half of his set was dedicated to the songs he has written with his new band, The High Flying Birds, and these are no less excellent. Tracks from both the self-titled album and the previous year’s, “Chasing yesterday”, were well-represented and though, some in the crowd were less familiar with these songs, they were well-received. And why not? Some of these tunes, like “Ballad of the mighty I” and “AKA… what a life!”, are far better than some of the tunes he wrestled together during his time with Oasis. In the High Flying Birds, Noel is calling the shots. He doesn’t have to contend with his brother’s ego and he has just as fine a backing band. The five-piece were on fire, assaulting us with a wall of guitars and waves of organ, sometimes augmented by a three-piece horn section, and they played straight through to just before 11 o’clock, not bothering with the whole encore charade, opting instead to play as many songs as possible.

About a third of the way through the set, I think it was during “Champagne supernova”, I looked around at the joyful reaction and attentions of the crowd and turned to my wife and said, “Now why would he want to get Oasis back together?” It was pure rock and roll, Noel style.

Noel Gallagher and Russell Pritchard
Tim Smith, Mike Rowe, and Chris Sharrock
Russell Pritchard and the horn section
Noel!!!
Mike Rowe on keys
Noel Gallagher with Russell Pritchard, Chris Sharrock, and Tim Smith
“We love you, Noel!!!”

Setlist:
Everybody’s on the Run
Lock All the Doors
In the Heat of the Moment
Riverman
Fade Away (Oasis song)
The Death of You and Me
You Know We Can’t Go Back
Champagne Supernova (Oasis song)
Ballad of the Mighty I
Talk Tonight (Oasis song)
D’Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman? (Oasis song)
The Mexican
Half the World Away (Oasis song)
Listen Up (Oasis song)
If I Had a Gun…
Digsy’s Dinner (Oasis song)
The Masterplan (Oasis song)
Wonderwall (Oasis song)
AKA… What a Life!
Don’t Look Back in Anger (Oasis song)

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

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: A prologue

So here we are, already eight days into July. And if all had gone according to plan, I would be preparing to attend the first day of Ottawa’s Bluesfest tomorrow. I would be packing a change of clothes, sunscreen, sunglasses, probably a rain poncho, my camera, and my festival pass in my satchel, all to bring with me to work so I could head on down to the festival grounds right afterwards. I would probably be planning on which brewery to stop in at beforehand, something I’d been doing with more and more regularity, ever since the festival had adopted Molson and its overpriced cans of macro beer as a sponsor. The excitement would be palpable and my wife would likely be rolling her eyes and preparing to be without her husband for a week and a half…

But alas…

A few weeks after the festival lineup was released to great excitement (Alanis Morissette! Rage against the Machine!) and tickets went on sale, COVID-19 was announced as a worldwide pandemic and a threat to public safety in Canada. Everything was shut down. Concert tours and music festivals around the world were being cancelled. Bluesfest’s organizers held out for as long as they could, hoping against hope that things would clear up, and that the show could still go on. At the end of April, they pulled the plug, offering refunds or the option to transfer tickets to the following year, for which many of the very same exciting acts had already been confirmed. Of course, it was disappointing at the time, albeit completely understandable, and today, on the eve of what would’ve been the opening day, there’s more than a bit of a heavy heart in my chest.

The first time I attended the festival was back in 2009 and I have seen amazing sets at ten different editions of Bluesfest over the years. So what I thought I’d do for the next week and a half was to share photos and words from ten of my favourite sets from over the years, one for each day on which the festival would have taken place. Of course, I have already shared some great Bluesfest sets on these pages that likely would’ve been included. I won’t share them again but if you want whet your appetite for live show photos, you can click on the links below for those posts.

Father John Misty on the River Stage – Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Camera Obscura on the River Stage – Friday, July 5th, 2013

The Specials on the Claridge Homes Stage – Monday, July 8th, 2013

July Talk on the River Stage – Friday, July 11th, 2014

The Decemberists on the Claridge Stage – Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Are you ready now? Good! For the next eleven days (the festival always takes one day off after the first weekend for rest), I’ll be sharing a handful of photos, some thoughts, and where possible, the set list (thank you setlist.fm) for ten of my favourite Bluesfest sets. Grab your sunscreen, earplugs, favourite beverage, and let’s get ready to rock.