Whistler Music Festival 2008Photos by Ronatron
Earlier last week Ron came down to see me in the basement of the building we work in (suitably referred to as the Joy Division) and told me that in addition to the media passes he had scored for Pemberton, he had also been given the green light to attend the Whistler Music Festival as well. The big question was whether or not I could go with him on the weekend. Considering that The Roots were headlining, and considering my previous declarations to anyone with ears that I would, and I quote, “sell my own grandmother to the circus to see them”, there was only one answer. So with Ron on the camera and me on the notepad, let’s get this review started!
There are some performers who will look out at a sparse crowd and then refuse to get on stage until more people show up (I’m looking at YOU Mix Master Mike…two and a half hours late…Jesus) and there are some who have the grace to take the stage on time and play their hearts out anyway. Canada’s own Serena Ryder is in the latter camp. Completely un-phased by the smallness of the initial crowd of thirty people, Ryder stepped up at the less-than-ideal 11am opening slot and served up an amazing show nonetheless. Serena Ryder’s voice, if anything, is more powerful every time I see her. Her range is amazing and although I’m not generally an outdoor show goer, I must say that it was nice to see her not crammed into a smaller club for once. The sound system set up for the Whistler Music Festival was much more impressive than I was expecting, and both vocals and guitars sounded amazing. Older songs like “Winter Waltz” and newer songs like “What I Want to Know” mixed seamlessly with one another, probably because Ryder’s lyrics reach a level of maturity and intimacy that utterly belie her 23 years of age. There is no better example of this than on her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy”. It takes a certain amount of world-weariness to pull of Cohen convincingly, which is why, for example, Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers fell short of the mark. However this is not to say that Serena Ryder is in any way mournful in sound or beleaguered in person. Quite the opposite. After her set she welcomed her fans back to the merch tables where she was wonderfully accommodating to everyone who wanted to meet her, seek autographs or photographs, or even just to say a few words. Don’t tell Ron I told you this, but I think he was smitten. All in all, Serena Ryder is a gem of Canadian music who clearly has an appreciation for her teachers. There is a necessity, she mentioned on stage, of “embracing where I come from…especially Canadian songwriters.” The kids at Ronatron sincerely wish her the best, and we’re sure that in the future upcoming artists will be covering her songs as an integral part of the Canadian canon.
I’ve been writing music reviews for a while now (I know, it doesn’t show. Haha.) and one thing I notice time and again is how going into a show with preconceptions is basically the worst thing you can do. Take for example Meshell Ndegeocello’s set at the Festival. I knew she was on the bill and without listening to any of her music, assumed that I was in for something similar to the adult contemporary (read: sonically comatose) stylings of Sade. I guess it’s because all I remembered of her was that she did a duet with John Cougar Mellencamp back in the day. Anyway, what I got instead was a welcome and complete sensory overload provided by a real revolutionary spirit. Opening the set with “Mass Transit” Ndegeocello and her band served up some of the heaviest progressive funk I’ve ever heard in my life. A veritable wave of rhythm served up by twin bass guitars – one played by Ndegeocello herself – which only got heavier in the next two songs; the second of which being a cover of Joy Division’s “Wilderness”. Can you get heavier than that? Nooooooot reaaaaaaaaaally. In anticipation of their next album, Ndegeocello’s band seem to have taken on a progressive sound, at least in live performances. Not in a white, 70’s jerk-off, Grateful Dead, oh-we’re-so-stoned way but rather in a contrasting groundswell of, I wouldn’t say aggression, but a seriousness that makes the detour from organized song structure worth taking for her listeners. The band as a collective frequently serves up that Rage Against the Machine chop that I’ve mentioned in previous articles. That juh-jugga-juh-JUH urgency during which Ndegeocello, rather than fronting her crew, elects to instead hang out back by the drummer, bobbing and weaving, fist up like a prizefighter while her bandmates serve it up. When it was time for her to get down to business, her siren voice broadcast up the mountain and probably caused more than a few mountain bikers to remove their helmets in order to figure out what in the hell was going on. When she is front and center, it’s two-hands on the mic all the way, posting that stand into the stage and delivering a sermon of real human emotion. I never in a million years thought I’d say this next sentence, let alone write it down, but the next time I got to my local record store, I’m going to buy “The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams”, her last release and if she ever comes to town I’ll be the first in line for a ticket. She was THAT good.
They’re Canadian. Ummm…their fans liked them? And they kinda play a rock/ska hybrid. What else…oh! There are three of them.
The Roots set was so amazing that it shocked my brain into catatonic state that prevented me from writing a single word about them while the show was in progress. I’m not kidding. I actually considered scanning and posting an image of the blank page in my notebook that just says “The Roots” at the top. Man, I’ve tried to write this review for the past hour and my usual style is just not working. I think I’m just going to point-form the whole thing and drop whatever memory flashes come to mind. Good? Great!
1) Even the music that they played before their set had such an astounding level of bass that it shook the kick drum skin like a puddle in Jurassic Park and made everyone in the first ten rows put a hand on their chest. It’s no joke! People with bad tickers should not have been anywhere near that stage before or during The Roots performance.
2) Questlove is the coolest person on the planet right now. There is no one cooler than Ahmir Thompson because that would require being able to fly and that’s just not possible. He’s not only a phenomenal drummer, but he single-handedly produced albums by Common and Erykah Badu, played on tracks by Blackalicious and the Dilated Peoples, dragged Fiona Apple out of her self-imposed exile, and helped Zach de la Rocha on his long-awaited solo album. Oh, and he played drums for almost every band during Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.
3) For those who don’t know, a tuba sounds like a foghorn when hooked up to a microphone and an amplifier. This is the single greatest thing I’ve ever witnessed at an outdoor show and that fact that The Roots’ tuba player calls himself Tuba Gooding Jr. just makes it all the more awesome.
4) Anyone who thinks that rap is “just talking over music” (Hi Dad!) should pay close attention to MC Black Thought. The man is a genius lyricist and his flow is second to none. Caution: Listening to Black Thought will cause you to dumpster your Eminem albums with the quickness.
5) Do time and space have any affect on reincarnation? Because if not, I’m certain that lead guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas is Jimi Hendrix reborn. During the Whistler Music Festival he lead the charge on a 20-minute cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” that so completely outshone the original that it didn’t even sound like the same song. Indeed, the first verse was set to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.
6) Owen Biddle is white AND he plays phenomenal bass guitar for The Roots. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us white folks when it comes to being cool. Just maybe…
7) I’ve seen over fifty bands this year alone, and nothing I’ve seen so far has even come close to the crowd reaction to The Roots cover of “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. I purposefully turned my camera’s flash on so that I could capture the amount of dust that went into the air from the wave of jumping people. Totally amazing!
Anyway, that’s it for me! I want to say a special thanks to the Whistler Music Festival organizers for being so liberal with their press passes this year, and I also want to say a great big thanks to Ron at ronatron.net for hooking us up for this one. I don’t have a very big list of must-see bands, but The Roots were high-up on that list until last weekend. A great day for sure.