Rush, Grace Potter & The Specials
RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest
OTTAWA — At their best, Rush is a magnificent rock entity characterized by prodigious ability and lofty musical ambitions. At their worst, the music is tedious and self-indulgent, understood only by obsessive fans.
We saw both sides of the Canadian power trio during a lengthy mainstage show at RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest on Monday. The newly minted Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers had an earlier start than any other headliner at the festival, presumably so they wouldn’t have to cut a note from their concert extravaganza.
“We’ve got a gazillion songs so let’s get started,” said singer and bassist Geddy Lee when he greeted the crowd, also commenting on the fact that he could see the Parliament Buildings from stage.
The concert began on a high with one of their best tunes, Subdivisions, sending the huge crowd into a blissful state that was only slightly dampened by a strident lecture of a number called Big Money. They risked losing a few more ears with the dense Grand Design but fortunately a majestic version of Limelight reeled everyone back. Guitar Alex Lifeson dazzled the guitar nerds, while Lee sang like a strangled banshee. Within minutes, master drummer Neil Peart made his presence known with the first overblown drum solo of the night.
The band is touring to promote their latest album, the Juno-winning Clockwork Angels, a set of songs that calls for a string ensemble, pyro and a state-of-the-art lighting rig. Good call, because songs like Anarchist, Carnies and The Wreckers aren’t particularly engaging. While one has to respect their desire to create new material, a few more classic Rush anthems on the setlist would have been appreciated.
Over on the Claridge stage, British new-wave legends The Specials delivered the goods with a taut, crisply paced show. A reformed edition of the ska revivalists, including original members Lynval Golding on guitar, Terry Hall on vocals, Horace Panter on bass, Roddy Radiation on guitar and John Bradbury on drums, plus a horn section and keyboardist, turned the grassy field into a dance floor as the aging punks demonstrated they haven’t forgotten how to skank to songs like Do The Dog, Dawning of a New Era and Gangsters.
In smart vintage duds, the band quickly hit stride, with Golding and Hall sharing frontman duties. One thing that struck them about Ottawa was the lack of garbage. “Ottawa, the land with no piece of litter,” Hall remarked. “Where’s the litter? Please drop some on the way out.”
Highlights of their fun romp included their cover of Toots and the Maytals’ MonkeyMan, as well as the nuggets Rat Race, Concrete Jungle and Stereotypes.
Earlier in the evening, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were faced with the daunting task of shoehorning an abundance of rock ‘n’ roll passion into a 45-minute time slot. As we saw last year at Bluesfest, this is a band that goes hard, filling every minute and making every gig feel like it might be their last.
Much of this attitude is due to the work of singer-songwriter Grace Potter, who’s got the looks to be a model, although she obviously isn’t concerned about the effects of humidity and sweat on her hair, ruining her nails on guitar strings, or even being photographed in an unladylike position, barefoot, sprawled on the floor of the stage.
No, this is a woman who devotes every molecule of her being to her performance. And when it’s a short set, she works even harder. Monday’s concert on the Claridge stage was a perfect demonstration of Potter’s commitment to rocking out.
In a slinky robe, the gorgeous singer unleashed a wail that echoed the anguish of Janis Joplin and the force of Grace Slick, backed by a high-octane band whose members clustered tight around her. They opened with the raucous Medicine, the first single from their third album, but also proceeded to destroy, in a good way, a batch of songs from last year’s album, the Lion the Beast The Beat, plus a swaggering cover of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl.