Last night it was 34 degrees at 6pm (feeling more like 40 with the humidex) as I walked through downtown Ottawa on my way to the opening night of Bluesfest. I arrived here two days after Canada Day, just missing out on the day of national pride. But, aside from waving the red and white maple flag up Parliament Hill on July 1st, what could be more Canadian than going to a Bryan Adams’ concert in the city where he went to high school?
Boom, on he came and hit us with ‘Can’t Stop This Thing We’ve Started’ rolling straight into ‘Run To You’. I didn’t think I knew many of his songs – besides that one he sang with Mel C., and the Robin Hood one that was in the charts for 100 years – but it turns out Bryan is a one man hit machine, we know them all. Last night he knew what his audience wanted, and he delivered. He mixed it up: romantic ballad ‘Baby You’re All That I Want’ flowing full throttle into, ‘I’m Gonna Go Down Rockin’’. I (along with 21,000 others) was in love with him after just four songs. He kept it ramped it up with ‘Cloud Number 9’ (see, you doknow lots of his songs) and then he invited us to bum-wiggle along (his words) to the rockerbilly number, ‘You Belong to Me.’
The sun was setting, the dark sky torn with pale grey, and a warm breeze helped lift the lid on the humidity of the evening. The moths were illuminated by the stage spotlights, they looked like little fragments of cinder rising from a bonfire. It was perfect: he knew it, and we knew it. He flirted with all 21,000 of us and we swooned back at him. He he told a story about buying his first guitar in a Bank Street pawnshop. It’s not there anymore, he added, as if to answer my mental musings about Bank Street – close to where I stay when I’m here. No pawnshops now on the gentrified strip. I thought of T. as he played the first chord to go with his story. “When you meet him,” T. had said to me confidently, “tell him that Summer of ’69 is the best song in the world, bar none.” She’s right, and I reckon he hasplayed his guitar till his fingers bled, on many an occasion.
From time to time he would take his phone from his jeans’ hip pocket and film the crowd before him; a humble, down-to-earth gesture from a world famous rock star truly, that said: I’m enjoying this just as much as you are. “Here I am, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be,”he sang in a slow, plaintiff, pared back solo; I believed every word. There might be some mega-stars out there who avoid their greatest hit of all time, but not Bryan, and when he launched into ‘Everything I Do’ he had thousands of backing vocalists who, at that moment, would do anything for him.
His two backing guitarists, drummer and keyboard player all wore the Adams’ uniform: close fitting black tee shirt, over-dye blue jeans, and slicked-back hair, a buzz cut on the back and sides – an, ‘Elvis-joins-the-army’ look. Whist his band seemed to be pouring with sweat, Bryan (as lean as a triathlete) looked cool all night long, so cool that surely only he could pull off the corniest song ever – ‘The only thing that looks good on me, is you’ – while, somehow elevating it to high pop culture.
What I’ve not yet told you is about the tickets we had. P. bid for them at a charity auction, giving us backstage access (sorry, T., we didn’t meet him) and fantastic stage side positions. I tell you this not to gloat (ok, maybe a little) but to give you the context for what happened late on in the evening. A young woman leaned across the barrier from where the ‘ordinary people’ were (how quickly one’s head swells) and asked me if she could take a selfie with me. That’s odd, I thought, neither refusing or agreeing, as she told me, “You’re Bryan’s girlfriend, aren’t you?” And, yes, for those few seconds that I posed with her, I was Bryan Adams’ girlfriend. I did tell her the truth, by which stage neither of us wanted to believe me. “Are you sure?”she asked dubiously, “why else would you be in there?” She had a point. “No, I’m not so sure,”I answered, as I looked up at my would-be boyfriend, guitar slung across his chest like a Samurai warrior, shoulders back, hands on hips and gazing out to the crowd. He – the Roger Federer of rock – was loving it; he could have sung all night and I truly believed him when he told us in song that he’ll be ‘18 Till I Die!’
His two-hour set freewheeled effortlessly towards what we thought was the final song of the night – the Canadian anthem about making that walk to Ontario, ‘Get Up, It’s a Brand New Day’. He and the band lined up to take a theatrical bow, but the crowd weren’t going anywhere. Back on stage he came, once again proving his rock’n’roll credentials with, ‘C’mon Everybody’ followed by a rendition of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ (for his Irish girlfriend?) – whak fol ma daddy oh, to you too, Bryan! He finished the night with a poignant tribute to his parents, particularly his father who, he told us, had died just 10 days go. Aged 18 he asked his parents if the money they had saved to support him through college (a college he plainly wasn’t going to go to) could be spent instead on a piano. They agreed, and that summer, 40 years ago, he wrote ‘Straight From the Heart’ on his new piano and last night he went straight to ours. Thanks you P. and S. for a wonderful night and for making Bryan Adams the fire in our night.