Party people flocked to the National Arts Centre Saturday night to enjoy the sounds of four unique Canadian artists in the fifth-anniversary celebration of the NAC Presents series.
Openers The Lionyls funked it up to start the evening off fresh. They were the 2014 winners of the Live 88.5 FM Big Money Shot, a music contest between Canada’s best and brightest. A rock and soul band from Ottawa who credit Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Freddie Mercury as musical inspirations, frontman Zach Raynor grooved with his dreads swaying as he strutted across the stage. Guitarist Robbie Rigg, fingers flying, drew a lot of accolades from the crowd.
“The energy is nuts man, people are crazy,” said Raynor of the crowd at the event. “If they’re smiling and they’re reacting, I have no choice, my blood starts flowing and I start jumping up and down.” Used to playing smaller gigs and covers, the band is currently recording their first album of original songs in Ottawa at Pebble Studios.
DJ Noah from Live 88.5 FM hosted the event, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and more often than not tempting gravity as he stood above the crowd on the second floor balcony demanding more enthusiasm.
Mehdi Cayenne Club followed up the energetic start with a more laid-back but still pumped-up rock set with ’70s guitar sound. Showcasing tongue-in-cheek but catchy tunes such as “O Canada,” the bilingual artist alternatively grimaced and smiled wide while stirring up the crowd, joking that he showered this month just so he could crowd surf.
Born in Algeria but finding his home turf in Ottawa-Gatineau, singer Mehdi Hamdad got his start in the spoken-word community. His lyricism is sharp and intelligent, with a strong exuberance of feeling. He released his newest album, Aube, last November.
“It was super nice to be included in this line-up,” said Hamdad. “I’m a big, big fan of A Tribe Called Red. I think it’s really significant, and wonderful, that they’re headlining and I’m very honoured in that regard.”
“The fact that Tribe is headlining speaks of a new, “old” Canada that I can feel for. That sense of respect of culture without appropriation, the sense of diversity.”
U.S. Girls, anchored by the often one-woman act Meg Remy, was the third performer of the evening. Born in Illinois but currently based in Toronto, she’s married to Slim Twig, a.k.a. Max Turnbull, a Canadian singer-songwriter creating subversive pop tunes. Her ethereal voice, paired with pounding bass, swept over the crowd as a mellow counterpoint to the earlier energetic sets. Her use of four-track recordings to back up her vocals, on good old cassette tapes, lent a nostalgic pop vibe.
Simone Deneau, producer of NAC Presents, said the series’ raison d’etre is to give exposure to an eclectic mix of emerging and established Canadian stars.
“We look for integrity and uniqueness and quality and in some cases, adventurous programming. Just the very best,” said Deneau.
Deneau has worked with the NAC for the last 30 years, bringing in acts and artists to the iconic centre. NAC Presents was born when Deneau and Peter Hernndorf, president and CEO of the NAC, decided it was time to have a showcase of great home-grown sound and performance.
In five years, the series has doubled its performances to 60-plus shows a year, and is looking to expand the number of shows and collaborate more with the NAC Orchestra.
“More, more, more,” laughed Deneau. They also plan to bring the show on the road and showcase artists in other cities.
At midnight, the crowd was frenzied as A Tribe Called Red came on the stage. When you describe your group as “bursting forth from Canada’s capital,” listeners expect a high-energy performance. And they certainly didn’t disappoint. The powerful beats blended seamlessly with hip-hop lyrics, instrumental electronica, and traditional pow-wow vocals. A hoop dancer in neon was a highlight, who mixed more traditional movements with breakdancing.
DJ NDN, Bear Witness and 2oolman are the current creative influences behind the group. They’ve released two full-length albums and have collaborated with artists such as hip-hop group Das Racist, rapper Angel Haze and folk legend Buffy Sainte-Marie. They’ve also been contenders for the prestigious Polaris Prize two years running.
On their website, the group describes themselves as the “face of an urban Native youth renaissance,” and is well known for being a voice for Canada’s indigenous community.
The innovative group was a big draw for many at the event.
“I’m Aboriginal myself, and just to see them put their music out there … and get awareness for our culture, that’s why I love them,” said Celine Debassige, who attends Immaculata High School in Ottawa.
The NAC will be holding a series of events incorporating indigenous storytelling and reconciliation throughout January and February.