154. We Can Get Together: The Hold Steady, “Night of the Living Dead” Live featuring The Hilotrons, July 17, 2010

Hold Steady, Night of the Living Dead Live, Ottawa Bluesfest Ticket Saturday July 17 2010 The pre-sale was a particularly good savings on this night, owing to a $60 gate cover for headliner Keith Urban, who we made a point of avoiding.

154. We Can Get Together: The Hold Steady, Night of the Living Dead Live, Ottawa Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats, Ottawa, Ontario, Saturday July 17, 2010, $60.

From Finns Neil to Craig, this night concluded (for me) the exceptional run of gigs that I took in during the 2010 Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest.

This final evening was one part live gig and one part unique event mixing film, theatre, and live performance as a celebration of one of the cult classics, and one of the few horror films I love, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.  More on that in a bit.

First up was the half-set I took in by Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady.  Appearing on the Subway Stage, I decided to check them out despite my less-than-enthusiastic response to their then-new disc, Heaven Is Whenever.  Having seen their name bandied about over the last few years via publications and writers I respect, and also loving a Letterman appearance wherein they performed “Sequestered in Memphis,” I decided to pick up the new disc when it came out alongside a slew of great releases during the late winter/early spring of 2010.

                   Craig Finn hands “I’m this excited to be here.”  Craig Finn as a pterodactyl about to take flight on the Subway Stage. (Photos by VA)

After a couple of spins, the question going through my mind was: “Is this the right band?  Did I pick up the right CD?”  I couldn’t get into Heaven at all.  In writing this series and going back to revisit all sorts of LPs and CDs, I’ve become aware of some recurring themes regarding my tastes, and one would go something like this: rootsy-kinda stuff = good; “heartland rockers” = not so much.  That divide could be part of my resistance.  I guess there’s a little too much self conscious meat’n’potatoes in the stew, and not enough flavor or distinctive seasoning.  There’s also too many of the wrong Springsteen elements, and an over-earnestness (be it accidental or on purpose) — something fundamental I can’t get past.  Also, on record, I find Finn’s voice grating and, trust me, there are plenty of “acquired taste” voices out there that are among my personal favourites.

So why did I love them so much when I saw them live?

“We’re The Hold Steady Blues Band” joked Finn early on, and right from the start The Hold Steady had me in their grip, with all of the ticks that irked me on disc seemingly vanquished.

Hold Steady Craig Finn salute

Finn salutes the huddled masses who didn’t sit at home.

Looking like a cross between Peter Kastner in Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now and some overgrown best friend of the main character from some hard-to-specify ‘60s sitcom, Craig Finn has to be the goofiest front man currently out there and I mean that in a genuinely complimentary sense.  Grinning ear to ear, throwing his arms in the air as if he’s a pterodactyl about to take flight, the library clerkish Finn comes off as if he can’t believe that he’s up on stage, relishing every moment, and happily working himself up into a right state in the process.  His exuberance and enthusiasm are both endearing and infectious, making you really want to get behind him and the band.  He’s believing it and convincing in doing so.  Out of all the acts I’d seen during these two weeks, he and The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne came off as the performers who most seemed to be truly enjoying themselves.

Perhaps it’s that joie de vivre that’s missing on Heaven Is Whenever and needs to be captured.  It could be that live/studio divide.  Decades of gig-going have made me realize that there are some awesome live acts out there who just can’t seem to transfer that magic via the studio — and vice versa (another personal case in point regarding that divide: on the night of Sunday the 11th, I ended up checking out about an hour of Rush’s set … and I actually enjoyed it!  And to say that I have never, ever liked Rush in any capacity is an understatement … but live and in small doses, it worked for me).  The whole band seemed similarly engaged with delivering on this night.  In my notes, I’ve wrote “almost like a bit of early Dire Straits meets The Replacements” … hmmm, well, I guess that’s how they struck me in the moment.

Later on they played Heaven’s “We Can Get Together,” introducing it as a number about “not staying home but going out and being with people, which is what is happening here,” sentiments I can appreciate.  As someone who has always felt it important to balance my homebody and social instincts, feeling that too much of either is never a good thing, I applaud him and everyone who makes the effort to get up off their asses, go out there and do something rather than just sitting endlessly in front of the screen of choice.  I am Mr. I-Love-Technology but it shouldn’t be at the expense of human, real world connection.  Everything in moderation and balance!


 The Hold Steady live at Ottawa Bluesfest.

Maybe I need to check out their earlier releases.  Maybe Heaven will kick in for me somewhere down the road.  I previously wrote about how the Talking HeadsFear of Music and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces were growers on me back in the day, and more recently, I’ve fallen in love with Phoenix’s 2009 debut Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix after not being able to initially dig it all during its initial release period when everyone was raving about it.  Sometimes you just have to be in the right mood or frame of mind to “get it.”  One thing’s for sure, I would certainly go and see The HS again live in a moment’s notice.

Unfortunately, I had to cut the set short and get in line for a rather unique event.  It took place during the second Friday and Saturday nights of the ‘Fest at the 200-seater Barney Danson Theatre, inside the Canadian War Museum on the Lebreton Flats, the building surrounded by the five Bluesfest stages.

Presented by one of Ottawa’s two rep cinemas, The Mayfair, Night of the Living Dead — Live was a beautifully executed concept combining film with aspects of live theatre and music.  For two nights (and to a capacity audience on this second evening), the landmark 1968 low budget horror flick silently played on the screen while a group of six local voice actors delivered the dialogue in sync, accompanied by a group of 10 musicians performing a newly composed score based on the original.  In addition, two of the musicians also served as Foley artists, creating live sound effects.

Night of the Living Dead Live Musicians Ottawa Bluesfest July 17 2010

The musicians and Foley artists prepare prior to the screening.

The voice actors did a great job, putting their own spin on the well-known dialogue from one of the very few horror films I love — a movie that mixes humorous camp with genuine unease and dread in exactly the right portions and doesn’t offer a standard conclusion.  I thought the musicians were superb, being a collective drawn from Ottawa orchestras as well as local band The Hilotrons.

Night of the Living Dead Live Ottawa Bluesfest July 17 2010

What a great idea.  I don’t quite recall this being done before, with both music and dialogue delivered live.  It was flawlessly executed from start to finish and an obvious labour of love for all involved.  Truly inspired, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing.

As a side note, I’d also like to send a warm shout out to the re-invigorated Mayfair Theatre who presented this production.  After a period of being an inconsequential second-run spot, its threat of demolition a few years back instead aided The Mayfair in securing a heritage designation (it’s been in business as a movie house since 1932), concurrent to its being taken over by passionate, moving-loving owners, restoring the interior and turning it into a true repertory cinema — not to mention initiating adventurous experiments such as this “staging” of Night of the Living Dead.  Along with the mighty Bytowne Cinema, where I have seen countless films since moving here in 1996 and continue to be a regular patron, Ottawa can now boast two top-line reps.  Congrats, and those of us here in the National Capital Region are all the better for it.

Night of the Living Dead Live Ottawa Bluesfest July 17 2010

And with that, our tired-ass selves wandered back outside, snaking through the mainstage crowd as Keith Urban wrapped up his headlining set.  For those of you who are really into a field packed with young women in short skirts and cowboy boots and hats, then a Keith Urban gig is where you need to be.

We exited the Lebreton Flats, wrapping up Bluesfest 2010, our ninth year since we started attending.  For the first time in many years, we didn’t see any shows on the final Sunday evening.

So, what did I take away from Bluesfest this year? First, it was a substantial improvement over a very disappointing 2009.  I read some complaints from a few local press sources about this year being too “big cult act”-oriented, lacking that central-focus headliner as it has in the recent past with acts such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and, from last year, er, Kiss (yuck).  I don’t know why this is anything to complain about.  Every night when I journeyed out during the 2010 Fest, the joint seemed packed with people having a great time — a sharp contrast to the previous year when it seemed that many of the people I talked to shared in my frustratuion with festival.  I also witnessed a lot of underattended gigs in 09.  I think Mark Monahan and his crew got it right this year and it seems like everyone I knew came away satisfied, even if the security once again seemed a little heavy handed, a troubling trend continuing on from last year.

I also learned this: if one of your goals in life is to have a variety of complete strangers approach you at gigs, starting conversations and asking you all sorts of questions, I would recommend taking notes at concerts.

One complaint I did have concerned the CD tent.  In  past years, it was essentially a superbly stocked, on-site music store highlighting everyone appearing at the festival.  What better time to get people to open their wallets then after sufficient lubrication (it’s certainly worked for me, as I usually end up buying 5 or 6 CDs over the run of the festival).  This year, there was but a pittance on offer and I am at a loss as to why.  As it turns out, the only thing I picked up was the Crowded House compilation following their Thursday night concert.  Had it been stocked as per previous years, I would have bought much more.  What happened there, B-Fest dudes?

Those small gripes aside, Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest once again became two red-letter weeks for music lovers in the region as well as for those who increasingly pour into the area from parts elsewhere to join in the festivities.  Sadly, 2011 was a disappointment like 2009.  (As I publish this piece here which originally appeared in 2010 on my Open Salon blog, I must unfortunately report that the 2012 Bluesfest has to be the very worst line-up since 2004 and, for the first time in 8 years, I will not be attending — how depressing).

Ottawa Bluesfest Sunset 2010

The sun sets on the two week run of Bluesfest 2010. (Photo by Cublet)


Next On Stage –>  The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell stopped into Ottawa during his autumn 2010 tour, playing his former band’s debut album in its entirety, with Blondie’s Clem Burke hitting the skins …

155. Hanging Around: Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers featuring Blondie’s Clem Burke, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ottawa, Ontario, Friday November 5, 2010

NOTE: I simultaneously cross-post over on my Open Salon blog, where I also have a deeper backlog of entries.

© 2010 VariousArtists

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