After unloading their luggage at the Quality Inn on Rideau Street, we took a bus towards LeBreton Flats, a large field near the water where the Ottawa Blues Festival is being held this year.
On the way, I struck up a conversation with a long-haired street person who was also going to the concert. He had been entertaining the entire bus with his personal take on "Brown Eyed Girl" only minutes earlier. I asked him if he was looking forward to the show. "I don't have the fifty bucks," he said. "But I'm going to be up on the hill sitting and listening. If it rains, I'll be standing." I advised him to find a hole in the fence to gate-crash. "Oh no," he said quickly. "I'm not that kind of guy."
Before long, we were at the site and joined one of two enormous lines of people waiting to be admitted to the show. Ottawaians are always prepared, like Boy Scouts, and most of them brandished a ticket bought in advance. The lines moved relatively slowly but we were in after 30 minutes or so.
Standing about 100 feet from the stage, I surveyed the scene. It was certainly a good turnout. By my rough count, at least 30 thousand people showed up to stand in circles and talk about office politics (more on this later) while drinking the reasonably priced Molson Canadian ($5.50 per cup, which is less than I have seen on Ile-Jean-Drapeau in Montreal).
A prozac-blunted middle-aged blonde P.R. flack took the stage and began cooing at the crowd. "We've been waiting for him for over 42 years...Van MORRISON!" Of course, he didn't appear for several more minutes since he apparently begins all his shows at the scheduled time of 7:30 PM, not a minute sooner nor later.
As he & his band of seasoned professionals took the stage, the crowd cheered weakly and then resumed chatting. This irritated my parents, veteran hippy rock-and-roll troopers who had been at Isle of Wight to see Jimi Hendrix and up front in NYC to catch the Doors, and my usually pacifist father began to grumble. "I hope these people don't talk during the show."
Van's voice has gotten deeper in the past 4 decades, and as he wobbled through his opening number (which was a bluesy sort of bop), I remarked that he rarely used his higher register, leaving it to his 30-year old backup singers.
On the two video screens, you could see him in his white fedora, eyes glued shut, sipping from a water bottle between songs. He only said 6 words during the whole set as far as I can tell--and that was at the end of the show, ie. "Let's hear it for the band"--and I was disappointed that I had caught an artist of his calibre on autopilot.
As the set dragged on, my parents began to whisper that the crowd was ruining the show. Although we were by no means far back, it was plain to see that many of the people were treating the show as if it were a social schmooze-fest. Some weren't even facing the stage, preferring to talk to Judy from Accounting about her new 2008 Highlander while sipping from a $6 glass of red wine. "I want to hit the guys behind us," said my father, teeth clenched. My mom silenced him and tried to dance in this sea of talking squares.
When Van began singing "Into the Mystic", my current favourite from his back catalogue, my hopes bloomed for a spell. "Maybe he'll let loose," I thought. Instead, he limped through the song with all the ferocity of a pampered housecat, phoning it in like some post-alcoholic lounge singer. By this point, I realized that half of the problem was the rinky-dink sound system.
I've never organized a major music festival but I have been to several, including Maximum Blues in Carleton, PQ and Osheaga in Montreal. I've never been so disappointed with the sound levels before. Despite what Patrick "50 bucks will get you 4 stars" Langston said on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, the music was barely audible through most of the crowd, although Van's vocals were clear and rose above the mix.
Why didn't someone from the mainstream press point this out? How much money has exchanged hands for someone to print a lie like this, courtesy of Langston from the Ottawa Citizen (italics mine):
"Clean and crisp from almost anywhere on the grounds, it was good enough that most fans said they didn't care that they could only see Morrison and his band by watching the two large, bright video screens looking out over the grassed rectangular site."
One bright point was the tight performance of Van's backing band. Though I had to strain to hear them at all, they were definately on time and faithful to his Celtic Soul and rhythm & blues stylings.
I am sure the folks at the front of the stage, ie. within spitting distance of Van's Gucci loafers, got to hear it but for the rest of us, all 29 thousand of us, this concert was a bust. Even mildly upbeat performances of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Gloria" didn't silence the chattering fools, and as Van exited stage right at 9 PM with no encores, my father opined bitterly, "I'm never coming back to the Ottawa Blues Festival. It's lost its intimacy."
"Remember John Prine last year?" my mother said. "Now THAT was a show."
If you will do me the pleasure, allow me to use the rest of this screed to write an open blog post to Van Morrison.
Hello, Mystical Sailor. Your album "Moondance" from 1971 has become a core part of my musical history, bringing back Proustian levels of childhood memories with each listen. My parents practically raised me on your works. Up until today, I would consider myself a big fan of Van.
You should consider your options. If you are going to piss all over your legacy by putting on heartless, soulless soul performances at Big Ticket Festivals, then retire. Leave the stage to people who actually give a damn.
Yes, Van, I'm aware that you've been in the music business for decades. Why should you listen to me? What do I know? I'm an unwashed, mostly broke troubador with greasy hair and some drug problems. I don't even know my scales on guitar. I get bad gas on regular occasion. Still, I know that I want my music served hot, steaming hot, not bland and tasteless like a bag full of Rice Cakes.
How come people in your age group like Eric Clapton can still put their heart into it? I saw him at Corel Centre in the fall of '06 and he thundered his way through classics like "Layla" and "Cocaine" as if the Rock and Roll gods were holding a '45 to his temple. And don't blame the sobriety. Clapton has been clean and sober since his son fell out that window.
Point is, some people play music because they love it. You used to. What happened to that moony, pukey, bittersweet poet, that powerful little mountain of a man? Is your reservoir depleted? Are you punching a clock? I sincerely hope that this was just a fluke and not representative of all of your shows these days.
Let your spirit fly!