Ottawa Bluesfest 2011: Blue Rodeo plays, we sing, the universe is all right

Jim Cuddy - Blue Rodeo - Ottawa Bluesfest 2011

Jim Cuddy belts out "5 Days in May" during Blue Rodeo's show at the Ottawa Bluesfest on Friday night. (Julia Pelish photo)

OTTAWA — About 11 years ago, around 80 people crammed into the Mercury Lounge, one of New York’s smallest and most beloved clubs, to listen to this country-blues band from Canada with a psychedelic side and Wilco-esque jam panache. They rocked, we sang and it all made the little spot in the East Village a little happier that night. The show went unnoticed in the rest of Manhattan, and elsewhere too, making the words at the merchandise kiosk resonate with those of us who did attend. On mugs and bumper stickers was the slogan: “In a just world, Blue Rodeo would be as popular as toast.”

On Friday night, beneath a nearly full moon, the world and universe as those in Ottawa knew it seemed to be in perfect order. A hockey arena-sized crowd gathered on the grounds of the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest at LeBreton Flats, behind the Canadian War Museum, for what had to be the largest and most enthusiastic audience Blue Rodeo has played in front of in recent memory. The band was more than up for the occasion, delivering an energetic show on a steamy night that also featured East Coast rapper Classified. Many of his younger fans not only stuck around for the old-timers from Blue Rodeo, they sang along to the band’s classics — including the too-sensitive-for-the-frat-house “After the Rain” — from start to finish.

It is one of the two best shows I’ve seen from Blue Rodeo (and you’re talking double digits; I have enough ticket stubs for each finger and toe, from everywhere from the deceased Bottom Line in Greenwich Village to the Orpheum in Vancouver); the other top show from them was that night at the Mercury Lounge, when then-keyboardist James Gray tore it up with some heavy-duty hammering of the keys.

At the 17th annual Bluesfest, Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and crew opened with “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” They followed with “Five Days in May” as the setlist featured most of their greatest hits — although “Diamond Mine” and “Rose-Coloured Glasses” still don’t make it into the show often enough. Wayne Petti from Cuff the Duke, who’s practically a member of Blue Rodeo, he’s been on stage so often with them, helped out on vocals and guitars, and talented Colin Cripps, Kathleen Edwards’ husband, joined on guitar for the full show. (Edwards didn’t show up, though.)

While Keelor’s voice is fading noticeably, Cuddy continues to croon like a modern-day Tony Bennett. And he showed his guitar chops on a solo during “Trust Yourself” that was worthy of a bluesfest.

Greg Keelor - Blue Rodeo - Ottawa Bluesfest 2011

Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo at Ottawa Bluesfest 2011. He looked tired and even took a few songs off. (Julia Pelish photo)

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Blue Rodeo still isn’t as popular as they should be, but we shouldn’t care. They certainly don’t seem bothered by any lack of broader recognition and if the age demographic on Friday proved anything, the music these guys have made will be cherished in this country for much longer than what’s currently topping the charts. We pass down Blue Rodeo’s music like we would a meaningful tradition in Canada. It’s no longer about nostalgia with these guys. They’ve become a national treasure.

BLOWN AWAY BY BLUESFEST

The first and only previous time I attended the Ottawa Bluesfest was in 1995. It was only the second edition and the festival was contained to a single weekend, not the two-week extravaganza it is now. Buddy Guy was the headliner then and I’ve been a huge fan since. There are few entertainers with his warmth and showmanship. John Hiatt, Koko Taylor, John Mayall and the magnificent Luther Allison, who by many accounts stole the show, also performed at Major’s Hill Park.

When I arrived on Friday to relive that great memory, I was stunned that the little festival full of hippies had turned into a giant, albeit well functioning, playground for musicians and music fans. There are five stages and one theatre involved on-site at LeBreton Flats and enormous screens and sound systems so you can see and hear from the sidewalk outside the Canadian War Museum, a CFL football field away.

No wonder Billboard called it one of the top 10 music festivals in the world.

On deck for Saturday night: the eagerly awaited Jane’s Addiction show, Mother Mother and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.

Jim Cuddy Portrait - Blue Rodeo - Ottawa Bluesfest 2011

A portrait of Jim Cuddy from Friday night. (Julia Pelish photo)

LATE NIGHT EATS IN OTTAWA

Got to the Byward Market after midnight and found every kitchen I walked into closed, except for venerable Zak’s Diner. It’s so authentic in its Americana you might actually think you’re in Memphis for a minute. A Breakfast Smoothie for $5.99 comes with enough yogurt-and-fruit-filled deliciousness for two parfait glasses. That’ll fill you up — and if it doesn’t the chicken fajita wrap ($10.99) with refried beans and rice will satisfy.

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