20 June 2015 - As odd pairings go, it was a doozy.
Ottawa-raised Bruce Cockburn making a celebrated return to his hometown -- tucked away in a full-to-bursting Laurier Ave. tent -- while the Philly-bred Roots crew invaded TD Ottawa Jazzfest's Main Stage, taking a Saturday night off from their house gig under the bright late-night television lights of The Tonight Show.
You could almost sense the spirit of Pete Seeger at the side of the stage, vowing to yank the plug.
But once Questlove, Blackthought and company took the stage, they left no doubt they were right where they belonged -- though some of the jazz traditionalists in the crowd may have disagreed, once their lawn chairs were evicted from prime dancing ground.
And while Tonight Show viewers are only treated to snippets around commercial breaks The Roots got to strut their stuff in front of a packed Confederation Park.
Launching into their signature The Next Movement -- with its acid jazz-infused Rhodes hook putting The Roots in a class of their own when they broke out with 1999's seminal Things Fall Apart -- the band did proceed to rock the mic with Proceed, The Fire and Mellow My Man, barely pausing to take a breath through the entire 90-minute set.
A late addition to the festival's star-studded roster -- and one that would have been circled on calendars of the young, urban crowd who might otherwise give Jazzfest a miss -- The Roots ended up bumping Bruce Cockburn to a side stage, and an earlier time slot, after he was originally announced as a Main Stage headliner.
It was a shame Cockburn's throng of fans didn't get to see him in all his glory, and while it's always a delicate dance at festivals, a wiser scheduling move may have seen the celebrated songwriter playing the Main Stage in the early evening slot, shifting Duchess and their Andrews Sisters-style torch songs to the tent.
As it was, the Laurier tent was already swelling to the seams by the time Cockburn emerged.
And so cherished is Cockburn, especially around his old stomping grounds, simply striding onstage earned his first of several standing ovations from the lucky 500 fans who crammed in to the standing room-only show.
Dressed head-to-toe in black, capped by a grey tuft and trademark round-rim glasses, Cockburn dug into his acoustic guitar on the instrumental opener Comets of Kandahar, his gruff and wonderfully strained vocals making their first appearance on Iris of the World, both drawn from his latest studio offering, 2011's Small Source of Comfort.
But as Cockburn acknowledged, the songs are "from my most recent album, which is not very recent."
"I got involved in writing a memoir, and it took up all my creative energy, so we're not here promoting an album, we're just here to play some music," he said to more applause.
He did just that, delighting his long-serving faithful with songbook staples like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Rumours of Glory and Lovers in a Dangerous Time, with its unmistakable opening chords ringing, setting things in motion for one of the all-time great lyrical entries into the Canadian canon.
Accompanied by the excellent Roberto Occhipinti, who has won Junos of his own as a renowned bassist, and drummer Gary Craig, Cockburn shone as an instrumentalist as well as a gifted wordsmith, with his acid-laced, politically-charged lyrics propelled by some absolutely menacing guitar work.
And, this being Jazzfest, he left plenty of room for Occhipinti to explore, which he did expertly, walking the length of the upright bass or breaking out the bow for the uncharted waters.
And while Duchess were delightful, with their Andrews Sisters-inspired torch song harmonies -- which they saucily trademarked as girl-on-girl harmony -- they may have been better suited to the cozy confines of the tent, if only to allow Cockburn and company to truly stretch out on the Main Stage.
~from Ottawa Sun by Aedan Helmer. Photos by Errol McGihon/Ottawa Sun/Postmedia Network.