Ottawa Bluesfest 2015 – Blakdenim
The set began with a quiet, sparsely populated crowd, country music bleeding over onto their stage. But it ended with an electric crowd dancing, shouting and calling for more.
Blakdenim’s Thursday night Bluesfest set didn’t come easy, but it proved that Ottawa is more than capable of putting out truly elite talent.
Horns squealed in lip-splitting solos, vocalist Erin Tompkins sang with the passion and poise of a 20-year soul veteran and frontman Precise Kenny Creole’s infectious personality bled into the crowd from start to finish.
All of this was emphasized by the country music backdrop of the rest of the night. While country musicians may be working on reconciling their past, they’ve still got a long way to go.
When Creole spat verses about racial profiling, police shootings, and gave a direct call-out to Ferguson, it was hard not to wonder how many people would turn out for Jason Aldean wearing confederate flag memorabilia.
In a furious rendition of “DeCypher,” Creole wove a hard-hitting narrative of the struggles of a young black girl.
At the song’s finale, Creole rapped over a single haunting flute, “Live by the gun die by the culture created/ gotta say we made it.”
His lines addressed both the North American culture of hatred and the issues prevalent within the group’s own hip-hop genre.
“I don’t even gotta say shit/ I don’t agree with it becoming a term of endearment/ It’s in the song so sing along with it/ Making it okay to say the names they gave the slaves and shit.”
The band’s politics were abundantly clear in “Horticulture,” where they called upon the crowd to join in the chorus, singing “Tell me who’s worried about the oil/ Officer I’m just planting seeds in the soil.”
The chorus built with Creole’s declaration of “I push knowledge,” before Tompkins broke in with a heart-wrenching chorus that soared above the climbing horns, a sparkling gleam in her eye beneath the stage lights.
It wasn’t the heavy verses that pulled in the crowd however, it was the intoxicating funk and contagious energy of the entire band.
Unswayed by the quiet audience at the beginning, the band was clearly just happy to be there from the first song. All smiles and dancing, the atmosphere pulled more listeners toward their riverside stage.
A few songs in, the audience’s cheering drowned out the sound flooding over from the next stage. The joy that the group took in that was painted in neon colours across each member’s face.
By the time Creole and multi-instrumentalist Vick Bernard broke into a dance-off midway through the set, the captive audience had tripled in size. The two performers slid across the stage smooth as the calm water beside them, laughing as they broke out impressively fluid dance moves.
At the show’s climax, Creole got the crowd to join in a memorable chant of “Blakdenim one word no C, what?” while the band jammed. Then he broke out his freestyle chops.
Creole’s improvised verses were hilariously meta and self-effacing, admitting his own freestyling flaws and smiling the entire time.
Even amidst all the impressive vocals, it was impossible to ignore the talent of the instrumentalists. Bassist Karl Acelin and drummer Sacha Nagy held the night’s set together with their tight rhythm section. Mark Onderwater’s moody keys added drama and built tension when the band needed it, and the horn section took the music to the next level.
The lows of Sebastien Christopher’s tuba vibrated through your chest while Ed Lister’s crisp and chaotic trumpets brought the funk. Bernard proved to be the band’s jack-of-all trades, providing poignant trombone, atmospheric flutes, haunting back-up vocals and of course the aforementioned dance moves.
When it came time for the final song, the group had the audience singing the chorus of “Hold up, Hold On.” Creole ran backstage only to reappear in the crowd, jumping and dancing around with his newly won fans.
Blakdenim’s Bluesfest set was simply monumental, perfectly displaying the talents of one of Ottawa’s most creative and impressive acts. Familiarize yourself with Blakdenim’s catalogue, because they’re going places.
Photos by Danyca MacDonald and provided by Bluesfest