Bluesfest Day 3; Earl Sweatshirt & Preoccupations

July 11th, 2016 by  |  Published in Concerts

Earl Sweatshirt at Ottawa Bluesfest 2016
Saturday, July 9th marked the third day of Ottawa’s Bluesfest. With tons of awesome acts to pick from, I’m sure plenty of people had a hard time deciding how to organize their viewing for the day, but I certainly did not have that issue.

Bands like London Souls, the Cult, and the Lumineers had people excited, promising to be great sets, but as soon as I saw Earl Sweatshirt on the bill, catching his set became my main priority. I didn’t really care what else I ended up seeing.

Earl gained prominence as a member of the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All collective, quickly asserting himself as the strongest lyricist of the group. The catch, however, is that as Odd Future began to climb higher and higher in the public eye, Earl was missing. His mother had sent him to a sort of camp for delinquents in Samoa to straighten him out, prompting the rapidly growing fan base to adopt a mantra of “Free Earl”.
Earl Sweatshirt at Ottawa Bluesfest 2016
When he finally returned, he was suddenly incredibly famous and a fixture within a movement that he now had little personal connection to. There was a slightly awkward period of adjustment, but since his first album back, Doris, he’s taken a few steps away from the goofy and sometimes needlessly vulgar content he and Odd Future were initially known for.

So it was a calmer and more professional Earl that took City Stage at 7:00PM Saturday. I once read an article that referred to OF member Mike G as “chronically chill”, but I have to say that after seeing a subtly dreaded, monotone-voiced Earl, swaying back and fourth with a towel on his head, that title has now been usurped, and rightfully so.

The stage set up was extremely minimal with just Earl and his DJ performing for the rowdy crowd, rather than his normal crew of friends running around screaming his lines with him. It was definitely more personal in that way than his shows can sometimes be. He stuck pretty close to content from his latest release, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, but also slipped in a few new tunes which were received very well.

Despite his calm, low-key cadence, the set definitely delved into bass-heavy, high energy bangers every once in a while, feeding the already hyperactive, borderline violent energy that was pulsing through the crowd. It wasn’t very hard to distinguish the people in attendance who were there less for Earl and more so as an excuse to release pent-up testosterone upon the audience in the form of fists and elbows, thinly disguised as “moshing”.

Despite these annoying aspects of the experience, as well as bucket hat clad 15-year-olds belting out very dated cries of “Free Earl!”, Sweatshirt did not disappoint in delivering a great, and masterfully crafted set. He was completely engaging and funny, as well as grateful to the audience for putting up with the rain.

Earl Sweatshirt at Ottawa Bluesfest 2016


For the end of the night, while many people were crowding City Stage for the Lumineers, I opted for the Black Sheep Stage to see Calgary post-punk band Preoccupations. If you’ve never heard of Preoccupations, you might know them by their former and controversy-generating name, Viet Cong.

Armed with a new name and a handful of new tunes, Preoccupations completely blew me away. Although I was vaguely aware of them beforehand, I was not expecting such a uniquely atmospheric experience. As a four piece with the lead singer on bass, the two guitarists would switch periodically to their individual synth setups, located in arms reach of the areas where their extensive pedal boards sat. So with a mixture of synth, guitar effects, and one of the guitarists using a twelve-string, the sound was like a massive sonic blanket that they laid over the heads of the crowd.

Not only masters of ambient, atmospheric sound, they would also jump into fast-paced, aggressive shredding and roaring yells. The way they walked the line between serenity and aggression was captivating, bringing you in with a sense of calm before jarringly ripping it away like a wax strip on a hairy chest. It was both disorienting and a completely involved listening experience.

Very early into the set, I became captivated by guitarist Danny Christiansen who one song in broke a string while hunched over on his knees, cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was incredibly entertaining to watch, throwing his whole body into his performance.

As the set went on, the songs continued along with their 80’s post-punk, sometimes gothic vibe, balancing between beauty and chaos. Near the last quarter of their performance, Danny began experiencing malfunctions with his gear. A song started and stopped before Danny gave the band the OK to jump back into it. He may have spoken too soon as his gear was still cutting in and out, eventually just crapping out completely. Frustrated by his rain-fried equipment, he furiously ripped all the strings off the guitar and, with a shit-eating grin on his face, smashed it into the stage with an eruption of cheers from the audience.

The band continued playing on as Danny grabbed another guitar, plugging it in with no success yet again. Now looking much less amused and clearly fed up with plugging and unplugging multiple chords and pedals, he smashed the second guitar into the stage. Realizing it was his only option left, he walked over his synth and proceeded to improvise on it for the remainder of the set.

It was this forced adaptation that really made the show one of the best I’ve ever seen. To watch a musician live every performer’s literal nightmare yet roll with the punches and change the nature of what the songs normally are out of survival made it a very exciting and endearing concert experience. Though I was only a casual fan before the set, It’s safe to say that I am now 100% sold on Preoccupations.

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