Las Vegas indie rockers The Killers headlined Bluesfest Sunday night, delivering a flashy spectacle worthy of their hometown.
With charismatic frontman Brandon Flowers at centre stage, the group opened with two tracks off their 2004 debut Hot Fuss: “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and hard-edged new wave hit “Somebody Told Me.” Killers songs straddle genres while maintaining their standard slick sound, fusing the sometimes contradictory pleasures of power pop and arena rock with a splash of Broadway theatricality.
The visual accompaniment was delightfully devoid of subtlety. Giddy 2008 single “Spaceman,” for instance, employed trippy imagery that wouldn’t have been out of place at a prog show. With mismatched flashing lights and skyward-pointing laser beams (not to mention confetti and fireworks), the show felt like being inside of a casino.
They slowed things down a bit with 2012 power ballad “The Way It Was” and “Shot at the Night,” an anthem that could have been ripped right out of the eighties.
Flowers ironically donned a cowboy hat for braggadocios disco track “The Man,” which saw neon reliefs of cowboys and cowgirls flashing on the screens.
The band shifted gears again with “Run for Cover,” a propulsive track that was one of the more straight rock songs of the night. Next up was “Smile Like You Mean It” and anguished synth-pop banger “For Reasons Unknown,” one of the highlights of the set.
Americana story-song “Dustbowl Fairytale” was followed by an abridged acoustic cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (originated by Ottawa’s own Bruce Cockburn), before arena rock love song “Runaways.”
The next song, “Read My Mind,” almost felt like a showstopper; however, the lingering silhouette of Flowers against the spotlights dispelled any doubts that there would be an encore. They returned in fine form for crowd favourites “All These Things That I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young.”
Lebreton Flats felt like a karaoke bar as thousands of people sang along to the bare-bones sung/spoken intro of “Mr. Brightside;” the field felt like it was about to explode when the song finally kicked into gear.
It was, pardon the pun, a killer show.
Earlier in the evening, the City Stage showcased two other influential alternative acts.
Manchester indie rock band James showed off their diverse catalog, which ranged from raunchy breakout hit “Laid” (prominently featured in the American Pie movies, and buried in the middle of their Sunday setlist) to intense protest songs like “Heads.” Lead vocalist Tim Booth paused to condemn “fascists and racists” after the latter track, before switching gears for “non-political” (but still apocalyptic) love song “Leviathan.”
Next on the main stage were eighties new wave icons The Psychedelic Furs. The group displayed a quintessential British post-punk sound, with punky vocals and artsy arrangements in the service of effervescent pop-adjacent songs like “Pretty in Pink” and “Heartbreak Beat.”
Lead singer Richard Butler’s compelling and at times confrontational stage presence added some welcome bite, particularly on political songs like the scathing “President Gas.”
Acclaimed folk singer William Prince started the evening at the Bluesville Stage.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and his deep baritone voice, Prince played a mix of unreleased songs (he’s in the process of creating his second album) and tracks from his debut record Earthly Days.
The JUNO winner endeared himself to the crowd with his tender, earnest songs, as well as his humble stage presence and self-deprecating sense of humour. He occasionally poked fun at his propensity for slow, sad songs; towards the end of the show, he joked that “Eddy Boy” (a touching portrait of his late father, gospel singer Ed Prince) could be his “Free Bird.”
Prince concluded the set with his breakout hit “Breathless,” a moving tribute to the classic songs he grew up listening to his parents perform. “Never heard a song sound quite like Elvis,” he sang wistfully, capturing the magic of those long-ago moments.
After a brief absence (during which the house music came back on), he returned to the stage for an apparently unplanned encore. After reminiscing about his father on “Eddy Boy,” he closed with the cautiously optimistic “All I Know,” leading the crowd on a subdued sing-along after a melancholy chorus of “All I know, is all of this will all pay off…We pay the dues while they watch the clock.”
Line-up: William Prince (Bluesville Stage) / James / The Psychedelic Furs / The Killers (City Stage)
Venue: RBC Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats, Ottawa
Date: Sunday, July 7/2019