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Ottawa Bluesfest Day One – Gary Clark Jr.

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Ottawa Bluesfest Day One – Gary Clark Jr.

Written by Jonathan Duncan

Who: Gary Clark Jr.

From: Austin, Texas

Where: River Stage, Ottawa RBC Bluesfest

When: Day One, July 3rd, 2014

Performance: 9.7/10

In summation: mind-blowing.

When it came time for the headliners, I had already been at Bluesfest for a solid four hours. Walking around, listening to tunes, and eating over-priced grub. My feet and back hurt, I was tired and I was nowhere near drunk enough to deal with Blake Shelton’s fans (nor the factory produced pop-country that is his music).

I moseyed on over to Bluesfest’s River Stage to check out Gary Clark Jr.

And that’s when I heard it.


Deity music is the closest I’ll come to describing the beauty of Clark’s show in two words. I can easily picture “Ain’t Messin’ Around” blasting from St. Peter’s headphones as he works the white-velvet rope. And if “In the Evening” isn’t whispering gently in the background of ambrosia fuelled fuck-fests… Well, those lost-gods are missing out.

All day long I’d witness enticing stage antics: jumping around, being witty and cute, telling hilarious anecdotes… Clark did none of this. Yet I found his show so enthralling I started to remember what it was like to see appreciate my first pair of breasts. I remembered tasting chocolate for the first time. I recalled the first time I came in unison with someone I loved.

It wasn’t just his soulful, butter smooth voice, his amazing two man backup band, or his incredible mind shredding blues-guitar licks. It was like this: you know how Ben Harper sort of takes all his emotions and lays them out in his music? Well Clark is a little reminiscent of (bluesy) Harper, except instead of laying the emotions bare, he weaves them like a subtle tapestry through his music. It’s peeling an orange and finding an onion, peeling that to see a chocolate, cracking that and remembering a particularly sweet moment in your life, which brings you to the moment that sweetness ended. Over and over again. I swear I relived at least two of my most passionate relationships, with all their sweetness, bitterness, and roaring sexuality–rolled into an hour set.

As the 30-year-old wailed through “City Lights” I lost control of my legs. My world had become a warm ocean of sound. My body swayed and rocked as note-after-perfect—note smashed against me, washing all traces of angst, longing and desire from my body. 

Pure contentment, nirvana, heaven, Valhalla, call it what you will. I found it then and there, beneath Clarks stirring sea of sound.

But as with many great men, Clark was eventually brought down by small creatures.

About three quarters of the way into his set, he stopped to swat some of the moths away from his face. Saying that he was trying really hard to keep his concentration, but they were messing with him. This was an understatement. The moths were all over him, twisting his face into a frustrated grimace. I imagine it was a bit like trying to… well, play a complicated guitar solo with bugs all over your face.

I’m guessing this is why he ended the set a bit early (the only reason he doesn’t get a perfect score). With about five minutes left before he would have been kicked off, Clark left the stage with a thank you, and didn’t come back for the encore.

Technicalities: 9/10

The lightshow at the River Stage was decent. Nothing too flashy for the bluesman, and that worked perfectly. The crew did a good job matching colours with mood (Dark purples and blues for the soulful blues songs, and spinning, funky lights for the heavier stuff)

But the sound, oh my. The sound. Every single note, lyric, word, brush, and bassline came through the speakers with a sparkling clarity. Maybe it was just that the River Stage was a bit smaller in terms of capacity, so they didn’t have to crank it as loud, maybe the roadies took extra special care knowing how essential the nuances of Clark’s music was, maybe Apollo himself took a moment to PA check. In any case, this was the only time all day my ears truly appreciated the situation they were in.


Fans: 10/10

The best part about Blake Shelton playing at the same time: all the drunk, rowdy, literally-can’t-evens, were far, far away. Instead, Clark brought a slightly older (25-40+) crowd that was totally enamoured, engaged, and enraptured. Almost no one talked around me while he was playing. All eyes were busy on the stage, trying to come to grips with the discordant reality of seeing people and hearing angels.

Don’t get me wrong, these fans were some of the must guttural cheerers, and I’m sure the “woops” and “yeahs” echoed right across the river to Quebec. But when Clark played, people paid attention. They shut the fuck up, and let the music do its magic (not like they had much choice. He brought some herculean voodoo).

After Clark dipped off the set, the crowd even stuck around for a full 5 minutes shouting for “ONE MORE SONG”. It’s the first time I saw anything approaching fervor at such a public Ottawa show.

Venue: 6/10

In terms of appearance, the river stage is gorgeous. The audience area is set up on just enough of a hill that you can see the river over the fence/toilets. It’s a smaller, self-contained part of the festival.  With its own beer tent, food vendors, and enough porto-johns that I never had to wait in line.

In terms of logistics, it’s a Cronenberg-worthy nightmare. Throughout Clark’s entire set I kept hearing the bland “whomp” of B.S. country cacophony. You ever had an orgasm? It was the exact opposite of that, in every way. Every time a loud bassline interrupted, I was ejaculated from blissful unawareness to crash back amongst my weary reality.

Lucky for me, Clark is as skilled a musician as Don Juan was a lover. Never took me too long to get back into the groove, so to speak.


Pictures by Joey Fitzmaurice


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