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RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Review: Kanye West, CeeLo Green and More Rock Weekend One

by David Hazan   Jul 17, 2015 10:20 AM EDT

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RBC Bluesfest is one of North America's best kept festival secrets. Over its 11-day run with 300,000 attendees, Bluesfest is a city festival whose downtown location in a small but world class city at the Lebreton Flats allows for beautiful summer evening breezes blowing off the Rideau Canal to accompany well mixed sets by the biggest musical start in the world across all genres. During the first weekend, everyone from Kanye West to CeeLo Green were on hand to rock Canada, and Music Times was on the scene to capture the eclectic opening days.

The first weekend of RBC Bluesfest kicked off with a hotly anticipated set by Kanye West, who will always offer up a polarizing show. West's hit-laden set had the enthusiastic crowd of 25,000 chanting along, an expected occurrence. What was less predictable and more entertaining was when he began criticizing other performers for selling out and for being less artistically accomplished than him: "There are a lot of people making good music but there's only one motherf*cking Kanye West" he added helpfully before launching into his next musical tirade.

On Saturday, Porter Robinson took the stage to an ecstatic audience chanting his name. As a marked contrast to other posing DJ performers, who focus on looking cool while pushing buttons to mostly prerecorded sets, Robinson left no doubt as to how deeply and passionately he feels his music, cueing his audience almost as a conductor might. At times he would turn his back to the audience and interact with the screen behind him that would isolate a key lyrical phrase surrounded by colorful and psychedelic images. His abandoned and slightly geeky moves indicated a surrender to the pulsing rhythms and lush textures of his tracks that proved to be infectious, effectively supported by occasional white light flashes and graffiti drops.

Rock veteran Willie Nile gave a passionate set filled with his classic Clash style anthems with "One Guitar" being a standout. While regularly playing in top clubs across the Northeastern U.S., it was a pleasure to see Nile and his excellent band play on a big stage to a big crowd that they won over by the end of a thrilling set. With the crowd demanded multiple encores, their cover selections included the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" to Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" to Jim Carroll's "People Who Died."

On the Monster Stage, Richard Thomson's weekend closing headlining set on Sunday was another reminder of how he is one of the very few acts that can be very nearly as intense and exciting performing solo acoustic as with a full band. His understated virtuosity combined with a nearly unrivalled mastery of space and musical dynamics can take an audience's breath away. At times he would pick out beautiful lyrical solos vaguely evocative of Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, while simultaneously accompanying himself with an aggressive rhythm guitar attack more evocative of Pete Townsend from the Who.

To wrap up the weekend, CeeLo Green's retro soul set was less predictable, focusing on stellar soul classics which he sung with conviction and credibility, backed by a band composed of stunningly beautiful women who were also excellent players. A major highlight of his set was a heavier more guitar-focused arrangement of "Crazy" the massive hit he had 9 years ago as one half of the duo Gnarls Barkley.

With sets and lineups like these, it's a wonder how much longer RBC Bluesfest can be kept a secret.

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