Great Big Sea at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

I remember a few months ago, my trip to Minnesota with K to transport her apiaries in preparation for her and E’s move from Massachusetts.  We drove 26 hours over the course of two days, then spent a week at her parents’ house.  One night I spent 12 hours in bed.  I’d wake up every few hours and then fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  I’d never spent that much time in bed before.  I was wrecked; completely emotionally spent after months of emotional upheaval and heart break.  That trip was very healing for me.

At some point in the trip, K told me that I’m like a hipster, except that I earnestly enjoy the things that hipsters enjoy “ironically.”  I never would have thought to put it that way, but after a few months’ reflection, I think she’s right.  I do only enjoy earnestly.  The idea of enjoying an experience solely to mock it for its kitsch value is foreign to me; does not even sound like enjoyment, but rather the ghastly phantom shell where genuine enjoyment ought to live.

I spent most of last week in Ottawa.  Partly I came for Bluesfest (which I’ve been promising myself I’d make it to for many years), but mostly I came because being in Canada, especially being in Ottawa, is an experience which I earnestly, wholeheartedly enjoy.  The evening I saw Great Big Sea perform on LeBreton Flats was a capstone experience from my trip (at least, the Bluesfest portion of my trip).  There was something incredibly moving about seeing them play for an audience of 30 thousand, all of whom knew and loved their music at least as much as I do.  My tastes for Canadian cultural touchstones usually separate me.  They introduce an element of otherness.  To find myself in an enormous crowd of people who also knew every word to every song and were singing along at the top of their lungs transformed, for those moments, something that in my day-to-day life distances me into something that connected me.  I am so accustomed to the distance that I am scarcely conscious of it, but it does pervade.  To find that distance lifted, briefly, was validating.  I can think of no better word for it.

It’s not just about Great Big Sea.  It’s not really about them at all, though I did thoroughly enjoy the show (and the Waterboys who played before them – between the two acts, the evening felt like a giant céilidh).  But it wasn’t about the music.  It’s about Canada; but more than that, it’s about feeling validated in my experience; and even more fundamental than that, it’s about feeling connected.  There is a subtext here having to do with other issues in my life and not feeling quite right in my assigned identity, but I don’t want to overlook the text itself, the most obvious level of this.  My Canadian fixations are not simply a veneer for other things, attractive and tidy as that explanation may be.  I genuinely, earnestly connect with this place and love my experiences there by their own rights.

As far as the show itself – I loved it.  The band from Newfoundland (Great Big Sea) and the band from Ireland (the Waterboys) were unabashedly joyful in a way that perhaps only the traditionally downtrodden can be, and I found myself thinking about the conversation K and I had about hipsters and ironic enjoyment.  No one in the audience was enjoying the music ironically – and unlike bands that may curry greater favour with trend setters, Great Big Sea was not playing music which deifies ambivalence and mediocrity.  They were playing their hearts out on songs that they love; songs they’ve written about the people, places, and things that they love.  And we, the audience, were reflecting that beautiful, earnest, joyous energy right back, giving back 100%.  And that’s what was so validating for me – simply letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, in the midst of many others doing exactly the same.



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