Taken from The Ottawa Citizen (July 10, 2006)
Franti and Spearhead come out blasting
by Lynn Saxberg, The Ottawa Citizen
The sunny female energy that shone through most of yesterday's programming at Cisco Systems Bluesfest was blasted into the stratosphere when Michael Franti and his band Spearhead came out with electric guitars blazing at rock-concert volume.
Now Franti is a pretty laidback guy, a peace-loving, yoga-performing, dreadlocked vegetarian from San Francisco who makes audiences feel they can change the world -- but usually with an acoustic guitar and a gentle hand.
So the turbocharged electric rock came as a bit of a surprise, although, as we soon witnessed, it accomplished the goal of grabbing the attention of the 15,000 or so fans stretched along Festival Plaza, and probably a few hundred more on the other side of Ottawa City Hall.
After a shout-out to all those people watching on the big screen, as well as the faithful arm-wavers in front of the stage, Franti took an acoustic and settled into a more characteristic groove, his throbbing, reggae-tinged songs sending a message of peace and goodwill all the way to Sandy Hill.
"How you feelin'?" he cried, and it seemed he was determined to give an extra-special show to make up for last time, when a sudden thunderstorm forced organizers to cancel the entire evening, including his headlining set.
Franti hadn't forgotten. "We want to thank Mother Nature for co-operating with us this time," he said, "although I had fun last time, dancing in the rain. So whatever weather we have, we give thanks."
We had great weather, by the way, for the third day in a row, and the sunny, breezy afternoon seemed to put everyone in good spirits. Festival organizers estimated attendance at 100,000 and declared the first weekend a success.
The feisty Ani DiFranco was in a particularly good mood for her early evening main-stage set, happy to be in Canada, happy with the festival and really happy with the fruit plate backstage.
"The strawberries tasted like strawberries," she told the crowd, barely able to contain her delight. "The melon tasted like melon. Go Ottawa."
Fuelled by the area produce, fresh and juicy became the key words for her performance as the influential Buffalo-born singer-songwriter-guitarist unveiled some new songs from her forthcoming disc, Reprieve, and played crowd favourites with a renewed energy.
Accompanied by bassist Todd Sickafoose, the chief executive officer of Righteous Babe Records revealed little of the social outrage that drives much of her songwriting -- at least not on her face. While her lyrics have a built-in edge, instead of spitting out the songs, she sang them more sweetly and played more elegantly.
"I decided to get happy recently," she said at one point, as if she felt her good humour required an explanation. "Actually it wasn't my decision. Someone came along and made me happy."
Until Franti took over, the main stage was a hotbed of female energy, the day's program beginning with the pop rock of Ottawa's up-and-comer Amanda Rheume, followed by the smoky electric blues of Sue Foley, an Ottawa-born guitar slinger with an international profile.
In an eye-catching pair of leopard-patterned pants, her sunburned shoulders almost as pink as her Telecaster, Foley and her top-notch band delivered a smouldering set that marked her first mainstage appearance at Bluesfest in four years.
By the time they got to the set-closer, New Used Car, the title track from her latest disc, the sleek blues was drawing the attention of the young, artsy women flocking to the front of the stage for their hero, DiFranco. A liberated bunch, it looked like Foley's assertiveness was winning them over.
On other stages, other performers that left people talking were the R & B ensemble Detroit Women, who counted one gal from Kitchener among their lineup, soul singer James Hunter and the Afro-groove of Amadou and Mariam.
Even blues regained its presence at Bluesfest this weekend, thanks to strong performances by the likes of Foley, Mem Shannon, Elmer Ferrer, Thornetta Davis and Solomon Burke.
Bluesfest continues until July 16. The Sam Roberts Band plays the main stage tonight, with Matt Mays and El Torpedo, and The Stills opening