Sizzling Good Time
Record-setting crowds enjoy "hot" summer nights
by Lynn Saxberg
Right after Wilco's epic performance on the mainstage Saturday, people like radio personality Sandy Sharkey and Bush Pilots' Rob Bennett were declaring it the best Bluesfest ever.
Over the final 24 hours of Bluesfest, it was a theme that was repeated in nearly every discussion of the event. People were talking about the triumphant mainstage performances by Michael Franti, Etta James, and Wilco, as well as side-stage standouts by Metric, Grande Mothers, Konono No. 1, Mofro, and Alejandro Escovedo, to name a few of the acts that blew us away.
The biggest problem was the crash of the Capital Tickets system, which left potential weekend festivalgoers unable to buy a ticket in advance.
"They couldn't get it back online, which was very frustrating," said the festival's executive director, Mark Monahan.
"The fact that people couldn't buy tickets on the web or on their phones definitely had an effect on ticket sales. How much is very difficult to say."
Still, Monahan's early estimates showed that a record-setting quarter million people went to Bluesfest 2006.
Huge crowds turned out for almost every one of the 10 mainstage headliners, including vast throngs of people (men and women, young and middle-aged), who mingled along the perimeter, hardly paying attention to what was on stage.
They discovered Bluesfest to be a great party with decent music in a safe atmosphere.
Although the crowds were thick in spots, everyone was friendly, women weren't hassled, and lawnchairs weren't much of an issue.
As far as I know, there was only one major conflict over sitting versus standing at a show.
It flared up on Saturday night because of a section of 500 reserved seats placed in front of the main stage.
One half of the prime viewing area consisted of neat rows of chairs occupied by Very Important People, while everyone else up front had to stand and sweat on each other during the show.
The reserved section was a new feature that festival organizers tested for two concerts to see if there was a market for premium seats.
Worked fine for Bonnie Raitt, whose fans didn't mind sitting but Wilco's younger audience wanted to stand, and many resented the loss of prime viewing space.
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy seemed to take it personally that people weren't digging his music enough to stand.
"I had no idea that so many people in wheelchairs like our band," he said dryly. "They can't stand up."
Over at Lisgar Collegiate's sports field, the new stage was a success, once people finally located it.
Canadian indie-rockers Metric kicked off their Dog Day Afternoon tour there, and drew the biggest crowd, estimated at more than 5,000.
There was also lots of room for a mosh pit on Hawthorne Heights' punk night on Saturday.
During the afternoons, folks reclined in lawnchairs and families spread their blankets on the grass at the MBNA, Black Sheep and Blues stages, cleverly avoiding the site's hottest spot - the mainstage - where heat radiated from the concrete and asphalt of Festival Plaza and Laurier Street. Yes, the weather was hot but the nights were perfect. And when the toughest part of a festival is having to decide between Metric, Alejandro Escovedo or Kathleen Edwards, or racing from stage to stage to catch it all, you know you've got a great festival.
On a daily basis, there were new bands to discover. Yesterday pre-headliner highlights included the southern boogie of New Orleans blues-rocker Eric Lindell, the headbanging country of the Kentucky Headhunters, whose drummer wore a coon hat in the 40-degree Celsius heat, and the insightful lyrics and impressive acoustic guitar work of Natalia Zuckerman, who would land somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco on the female singer-songwriter roster.
It was a terrific performance for Zuckerman, the edgy and engaging daughter of NAC conductor Pinchas Zuckerman, who was in the audience (celebrating a birthday) with his wife, cellist Amanda Forsythe, who wore a green straw cowboy hat. The performer and her stepmother both wore the same style of oversize white sunglasses, too.
Except for the unfortunate display of lipsynching by Rihanna, who stands as Bluesfest's most glaring artistic misstep in years, it's all good news from this year's edition of Bluesfest. To the delight of longtime blues fan, there was even lots of blues.
And it wasn't just the $1.8-million worth of talent that impressed. Between the supposed biodegradable beer cups, the biodiesel generators and recycling, the festival was easier on the environment.
It's turned into such a great festival that some people are wondering why it doesn't rank with the likes of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage or the Montreal Jazz Festival.
While I didn't go every day to see the artists, I have to say that it was really a great festival this year. Even with the soaring temperatures. Kind of makes you wish you had been there, doesn't it? :)
Still hot here in Ottawa, and got a long day tomorrow. Off to bed now.