Sunday began as the first day of the festival I was able to attend with my family. We arrived on the grounds to a very small and sparse crowd, probably due to the early hour and the weather. It took a while to make it to where I wanted to get to because my boy was slowly taking in all the sights and sounds that were unique to him. As parents, we try to look through our child’s eyes but that becomes more of a presumptuous activity bordering on vanity than anything else. All I can say for sure is that he was very interested in the tuba player doubling as a kick drum while leading a parade around the side the food area was on and I realized soon enough this is a perfect kid-friendly festival. Bring your wee ones.
We slowly made our way to Todd’s Musical Petting Zoo. It was a tent containing instruments for any age to pick up, pluck, strike or bang. A washboard, shakers, ukuleles, guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles, accordions and various percussive instruments were all available. It was unfortunate that the crowd was so sparse because only a few hours later I saw that tent full of bouncy children having a blast. We then decided to take in some music and enjoyed the songs and harmonies of Anders Drerup and Kelly Prescott in the tent. We then took in a touch of Anais Mitchell before the boy decided the gravel rock pile he was making wouldn’t solve his need for supper so I walked the wife and him back to the car. I then ran back for what I consider to be the surprise of the festival.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth was giving an interview on one of the stages just west of the RavenLaw stage. I knew almost nothing with regards to his history but walked away stunned by his intellect and ability to give well thought out answers which never seemed to deviate away from the context at hand. He spoke of how the art of making mix tapes is lost and that he still actively seeks out new music because he is interested to see where others are at but I think my favourite section of the interview was his discussion regarding signing with a big label. At one point in their careers they were gaining much critical acclaim so naturally the labels came a calling. They did everything they could to sell themselves to Sonic Youth while saying all the same things as the other previously had but once a label would actually listen to their music they would pull away their offers. “What is this alien music?”
Thurston joked that Sonic Youth’s “one mistake was not breaking up.” He surmised that they could have made a lot more money had they broke up in 1996 and got back together for a reunion tour in 2006. Back to the mid 90’s though he felt more connected to “avant introspective music like Pavement” compared to the pop rock of the day. They could have made that kind of music which pretty much guaranteed commercial and financial success but they were always allowed to do whatever they wanted and he assumed it’s because they brought Nirvana to Geffen which gave them the free pass. I was sad when it was over but as soon as he signed an autograph for me all was ok once again.
I’m not sure what I did the next couple of hours aside from catching a couple of songs by Hayes Carll. They were providing some fun country rock on the main stage. I did get a bite to eat and made it on time to a couple of meetups but before I knew it, time had flown and Thurston was about to take the stage in the Tent. A poem followed by Never Day started things once the sound issues were dealt with. Thurston dedicated the next song to the poet Mina Loy and things started to sound interesting, possibly due to sound issues being corrected. I don’t know how else to describe these new songs as dissonant desert weirdness. Many themes made my brain melt. Thurston’s music is not for the faint of heart even when it isn’t overly powerful as far as volume and distortion are concerned. This track in particular had great melodic spaces and culminated into a crazy climax that showcased drummer John Moloney’s jazz chops. January was a great example of how Thurston spoke earlier of having been critically acclaimed yet big labels not getting it. There were incredible underwater themes, so much so it was easy to envision floating deep in the ocean listening to its heartbeat. It was wonderfully hypnotic. Benediction came out and I had to force my way to catch the start of The Levon Helm band because I knew my photo pass would only offer me the first couple of songs in the pit.
The rush was on when Levon took the stage. I’m still getting my feet wet in the photo pit but if you have ever sat back and watched worker ants carrying things to a from their respective hills you get the sense of what it is like. I got the sense there are some unwritten rules I have yet to figure out so I typically try to stay out of everyone else’s way, which actually might be the first rule. The Shape I’m In began strongly while being up close to the front you could feel the rush of energy from the crowd as they were feverish about greeting Levon. Before I knew it, a gorgeous Long Black Veil was over in seemingly seconds and three songs had passed. I was at the back of the crowd getting my bearings during Ophelia which was a struggle for Levon’s vocal chords. Later he strapped on a mandolin for a solid take on Deep Elem Blues and provided the crowd with some laughter when he provocatively danced in front of Theresa Williams.
A couple of songs later and I had to pull the chute. I was exhausted and not looking forward to my thirty minute walk so I ducked my head and left the grounds. As I made my way I could hear The Weight waving good night and good bye to what is one of the great festivals you can attend in Ottawa. As stated so many times, the size, the layout and the picturesque grounds have made this a constant end of summer beacon for me. I won't be able to recommend it enough, but it should be said that this festival is only going to get bigger so you probably want to experience it sooner rather than later.