The first 2 days of the Halifax Jazz Fest might not have had the household name recognition, or a similar cachet to that of day 3 headliners Blue Rodeo, but that is by no means saying that those first two nights were short on talent. Arguably, this year’s festival suffers from a lack of name recognition, especially following last year’s festival which featured prominent acts Lauren Hill, Nile Rodgers, City and Colour and Metric, but c’mon, the talent is still more than abundant. Having the fest kick off with Jesse Royal and Jo Mersa Marley was amazing, but following that up with Juno-award winner Bria Skonberg for night 2 was nothing short of genius.
Which brings us to the mainstage for night 3 of the Halifax Jazz Festival, where the tandem of Ron Sexsmith and the Canadian musical gems Blue Rodeo were set to perform. The night kicked off with a somewhat subdued performance by the esteemed singer songwriter. It wasn’t exactly your typical opening act performance, instead it was a great introduction to Ron Sexsmith’s subdued folk stylings for some (myself included). When the news broke that the St. Catherine’s native would be taking the stage in advance of Blue Rodeo, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the talented artist, who holds a great deal of cachet with many folks in the know.
The excitement quickly waned as we got deeper into Sexsmith’s set. As technically solid as it may have been, it threw a damper on the packed festival groups and proceeded to dial down the enthusiasm of the Haligoons in attendance. I don’t necessarily feel a big stage such as that at the TD Halifax Jazz Fest was the best place for Ron to showcase his material. His songwriting skill-set would be ideal for a Rebecca Cohn show, or a show at the Carleton, as those venues physically feel more intimate and geared for the intent listening that would be required for this set. It was an adept set, it just failed to fire up the crowd in attendance.
Knowing the following that Toronto’s Blue Rodeo has, and the fact that they just packed the Scotiabank Centre to the rafters back at the end of February, it was no surprise that the TD Halifax Jazz Festival grounds were jam-packed with a legion of loyal BR fans. It’s normally in the dead of winter when Blue Rodeo rolls into town, but it was a definite treat to see the evolving lineup play Halifax on a warm July evening. Two of the coolest front-men in all of rock n roll (Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy) were front and centre for the evening, but the admiration they have for the talented cast of characters that round out the band’s lineup is clearly apparent. From Colin Cripps, who set the stage ablaze a few times on Friday evening with his searing guitar solos, to the hometown guy in Bazil Donovan, to the latest lineup addition of talented musician Jim Bowskill.
It’s that ever evolving lineup that has allowed Blue Rodeo to enjoy the career longevity afforded to very few. The band has been around for well over 40 years, and has a laundry list of huge iconic hit songs, which include such notable numbers as “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “5 Days in May”, “Try” and “Diamond Mine”; and while the band continues to record new material (the show in February was in support of their recent release 1000 Arms), I’d be willing to bet that the folks stoked to hear the new tunes would be a distinct minority. A wise man once likened a Blue Rodeo show to ordering pizza: you could definitely hit up that new trendy joint down the street, but instead you opt for the tried and true shop around the corner as you know exactly what you’re going to get. There isn’t any doubt, and disappointment is unlikely. The same idea applies to Blue Rodeo, as they are a band that sells out most venues in town, and it’s largely based on the fact that the audience knows what to expect, and they leave the venue happy and satisfied.
Friday night was no exception, as Greg, Jim, Jimmy, Bazil and co. sounded as good as ever, the hits were played, and we were treated to a few tunes we didn’t hear at Scotiabank Centre earlier this year. It was something of an unusual set, as some of the big hits were omitted (“Diamond Mine” and “Bad Timing”), but it didn’t detract in the slightest. Even for a band that has been around for 40 years, they continue to surprise. “Lost Together” has become something of a closing number for the band, and on this evening Jim and Greg welcomed Ron Sexsmith back to the stage, and then brought out some local gems in Adam Baldwin, Rose Cousins and Matt Mays. Mays and Baldwin looked like kids on Christmas morning, as they both got to perform a verse from the Blue Rodeo classic.
It was another special night at the TD Halifax Jazz Festival, and we were only at night 3. The following evening would be the performance of festival headliner Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, but thus far, the festival organizers had knocked this year’s lineup out of the park.