Weather-wise (compared to last year’s blazing hot and humid temps) Bluestfest’s 20th Anniversary was off to a great start with 21C temperatures and a nice gentle breeze. After a now traditional pre-Bluesfest opening night dinner at Mekong on Somerset, some friends and I headed down to Lebreton Flats for what would be a night of great music and awesome crowds. We arrived on scene to the end of Tegan and Sara’s undoubtedly poptastic set, and the night just continued to get better from there. July 3rd highlights are courtesy of Washington-based Americana singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen (https://www.facebook.com/noahgundersenmusic), and American country music singer and TV personality, Blake Shelton (https://www.facebook.com/blakeshelton).
Although 24-year-old Gundersen has had some good success (including here in Canada, where “Ledges” is a popular spin on CBC Radio), he still conveys an independent spirit in every sense of the word. Unassuming and humble, Noah (on acoustic guitar) was accompanied by his equally talented sister Abby, providing vocals and violin for an intimate show at the Barney Danson Theatre. I don’t recall this venue from previous Bluesfests, but it was the perfect setting for a self-proclaimed “sad bastard singer-songwriter”. As if reading the audience’s mind, Gundersen proclaimed early on that his music would have been lost in an open-air setting, competing against larger, louder acts.
The Gundersens played a 14-song set consisting of songs from Noah’s Family and Saints & Liars EPs, as well as from his debut full length CD, Ledges. Songs included, “Boathouse”, “Isaiah”, “Nashville”, “Fire”, “First Defeat”, current single, “Ledges” , as well as “Family” and “David” (which have both been featured on Sons of Anarchy).
The incredibly beautiful harmonies and raw, storyteller lyrics captivated those in attendance, and the vast majority was there from start to finish, which was nice to see in a festival setting where people can really come and go as they please. You really could hear a pin drop in that theatre; the audience was so attentive. Noah used his vocals, as well as the silence in between, to great effect. Some of the notes I took while listening were: amazing tone, haunting vocals, controlled, emotive, mesmerizing, crescendo!, and to borrow a line from “Poor Man’s Son”, chorus of angels. One note (“must find later!”) was in relation to “Jesus, Jesus” – a one-sided conversation, directed at the man himself, consisting of poignant yet innocent questions about the state of the world and the people in it. Simply beautiful, I actually teared up… and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. This video gives a pretty good idea of how the show went, with several of the above noted songs featured.
My friends left a bit early to catch another act, but when we met up again later, they said they genuinely liked what they had heard, but were disappointed that Noah didn’t talk at all. And they were partly right; it did take him a few songs before he said anything to the audience. But when he did, he was very funny and charming; sharing stories from the road, his and Abby’s travels in Canada so far, and his delight at seeing so many people at the show. All in all, this was an excellent start to this year’s Bluesfest.
While I absolutely love Blake Shelton’s big personality, sense of humour, and ongoing bromance with Adam Levine on NBC’s The Voice, I can’t say that I own any of his CDs and didn’t think I knew many of his songs. I was looking forward to seeing some of his set though, and apparently, so were (uneducated guess) 20,000 other people.
Continuing on his “Ten Times Crazier” Tour, Shelton and his energetic band played obvious fan favourites, “Austin”, “Honey Bee”, “Hillbilly Bone” (), “The More I Drink”, “All About Tonight”, “Some Beach” and newer singles “Doin’ What She Likes”, and “My Eyes” (with The Voice alum, Gwen Sebastian on hand to duet). I was excited when I heard what I thought was a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas” (seriously, listen to the intro here,) but it turned out to be Blake’s big hit “Sure Be Cool If You Did”. That said, “Sure Be Cool If You Did” sounded great and is now a favourite of mine. It also prompted fans to pull out all manner of lighters and cell phones for an impressive light show/display.
Covers of Michael Bublé’s “Home” and Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” were well received as well, with the former resulting in a massive singalong, and the latter the perfect, crowd pleasing choice at the end of the show as I made my exit to hopefully catch the bus before the crowds let out. All in all, I was very impressed by Shelton’s voice and set list, but even more so by his humility and likeability. His easy confidence and witty banter between songs resulted in great audience interaction and elicited cheers and hollers from the excitable and rowdy, country-loving crowd.
Clearly, Gundersen and Shelton are very different artists and personalities, but both put on enjoyable shows in their own unique way. A great start to this year’s Bluesfest!
Written by Valerie
Cover photo by Mark Horton