One more report from Ottawa Bluesfest 2023 with Alvvays and The Smile

[Photos by Ross MacDonald and the review is from Karen Coughtrey. – AC]

One thing about Ottawa Bluesfest is that they have a knack of picking the perfect acts to close out the festival and the 2023 edition was no different. Taking to the main stage on the ninth and final night of the music festival were local band Paragon Cause , Toronto (by way of PEI) indie pop rock band Alvvays ,and Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead’s newest project, The Smile.

With all three bands experimenting with electronic music and two of three having members with east coast roots the audience was in for a night of otherworldly dulcet tones and strong haunting melodies.

Paragon Cause performed to a small but dedicated crowd but they are a small Ottawa band not to be sneezed at. They are doing big things like producing a remix of ‘Remember David’ for iconic 80’s band Flock of Seagulls and their latest album Autopilot won the East Coast Music Award for Electronic Album of the Year. They opened with ‘Making Up For Lost Time’ and closed with ‘Think I’m Going Crazy Over You’ and also entertained with ‘Something New’, ‘Separate Lies’, ‘Play Me’, and ‘I’m Not Here’ among others in between.

The crowd tripled in size with the anticipation of Alvvays’ (pronounced “always,” in case you didn’t know) turn on the stage and they appeared to the sounds of celtic music mixed with what sounded like it might be Inuit throat singing or other Indigenous vocal stylings. The white flag waving on the background screen gave no hint to the origin of the beautiful and intriguing music.

Ottawa Bluesfest Alvvays

With the squeal of an electronic guitar they were off to the races opening with ‘Pharmacist’ followed by ‘After The Earthquake’. Lead singer Molly, looking strikingly gorgeous in bright red, is the daughter of John Morris Rankin of the internationally renowned Rankin Family; but her music is all her own and those roots are found only in her confidence on stage and the beautiful transcendent melodies.

Ottawa Bluesfest Alvvays

One really needed to be familiar with the music of Alvvays to distinguish the end of one song from the beginning of the next, not because the songs don’t all sound the same, but because they spoke little to the crowd and the songs flowed seamlessly from one into the other. Although the band stopped to joke at one point about having just played in Ottawa this spring, that they should start calling themselves an Ottawa band. Molly’s beautiful voice was really showcased on ‘Fourth Figure’ which has an old world sound and it melted beautifully into ‘Archie, Marry Me’.

Ottawa Bluesfest Alvvays

Adding to the surrealness of the set were the videos accompanying each song. Artfully shot and a perfect addition to the perfectly mixed electronic tones and euphonic melodies, it was like getting to see the music video or getting a peek into the dreams of the band. So of course they played ’Dreams Tonite’ and then capped off their set with ‘Easy On Your Own?’.

Ottawa Bluesfest Alvvays

The crowd in front of the main stage continued to build as 30 minutes before the headliner eerie sounds as if beamed in from outer space in a tone impossible to ignore began to ring through the space setting the mood, the stage lit up in black and white.

No one seemed quite sure what to expect and some were placing bets on how much Radiohead they would hear (the answer was none) and if anyone thought the band name was indicative of a happy sound Thom Yorke cleared that up right away,
“We’re called The Smile” he said, “Not that kind of smile, the other kind, ya know?” And that explains the creepy eerie introductory music.

With a piano heavy intro, they opened with ‘Pana-Vision,’ a jazzy guitar intro moved them on to ‘The Opposite’ and it was a drum heavy intro for ‘A Hairdryer’. The lighting on this third song made the band look like it was telling a ghost story around a campfire or with a flashlight under their chin, perfect for their role as those in charge of winding down the evening for the audience and putting the festival to sleep for the year.

The lighting was a noticeable element of the show and featured nearly every colour and hopefully no one suffered any ill effects from the frantic strobe lighting used in several songs.

Although they are unlikely to self identify as such, The Smile has a jazzy sound to them as they are clearly experimenting with sounds and the performance had an improvised sound to it, both things having roots in and bringing to mind avant-garde jazz. That said there is also a deep history of experimental music in the electronic music scene.

The Smile has released just one album, the first single off which, ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ was a part of the lineup but “We’re a new band, we have to make new music.” Thom said and the crowd roared at the hint that a new album would be coming and they seemed to enjoy new songs ‘Under Our Pillows’ and ‘Read The Room’.

Another thoroughly enjoyed new song was ‘Colours Fly’ which featured Robert Stillman on saxophone, the crowd was also treated to this added texture to the music on ‘Teleharmonic’, ‘The Smoke’, and ‘People on Balconies’ among others.

Bluesfest 2023 would come to close as the ominous spectral unearthly sounds of The Smile came to an end, and they finished the night with Thom Yorke’s ‘Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses’.

The crowd may have thinned throughout the set (It was a Sunday night after all) but there was a sizable crowd of concert goers left at the end of the night to applaud the band, for what felt like an intimate show, and wish farewell to another edition (and a very successful and memorable one at that) of Ottawa’s largest summer music festival.

The Smile
Thom Yorke – vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards, piano
Jonny Greenwood – guitar, bass, keyboards, piano
Tom Skinner – drums, percussion, synthesizer, backing vocals
(Guest) Robert Stillman – saxophone

Molly Rankin – vocals, rhythm guitar, bass
Kerri MacLellan – keyboards, backing vocals
Alec O’Hanley – lead guitar
Sheridan Riley – drums, percussion, backing vocals
Abbey Blackwell – bass

Paragon Cause
Michelle Opthof – vocals
Jay Bonaparte – guitar

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37808 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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