Year in review: Top highlights of Ottawa’s arts scene in 2019

After a couple of decades covering the live music scene in Ottawa, my focus in recent years has expanded to include visual art, theatre, dance and orchestra happenings.

Lynn Saxberg Ottawa Citizen Updated: December 24, 2019

Artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is featured in a photo by Jamie Griffiths entitled “Silaup Putanga Iluani.” Julie Oliver / Postmedia

After a couple of decades covering the live music scene in Ottawa, my focus in recent years has expanded to include visual art, theatre, dance and orchestra happenings. The variety is great — I never get bored — but it does mean I’m not able to see every show I’d like to in a year.

Still, it was a busy year. I saw dozens of concerts at clubs, theatres and festivals, and took in many top-notch performances at the National Arts Centre. That’s why my best-of list for 2019 has a bit of everything.

Here’s what I enjoyed the most in Ottawa this year: 

Robert Plant. mads perch / mads perch /

Robert Plant

Performing with his Sensational Space Shifters at CityFolk in September, rock legend Robert Plant demonstrated that he knows how to grab an audience’s attention, take it down a rabbit hole of musical exploration and pull out a once-in-a-lifetime experience that leaves you changed. He reworked some old Led Zep tunes, to the delight of the crowd, and also brought his recent material to life, showing that he’s still a vibrant musical force at the age of 71. 

Alexander Shelley (R) and Canadian violinist James Ehnes during the NAC orchestra tour in Europe. CATTROLL FRED / jpg

National Arts Centre Orchestra

I developed a whole new appreciation for the NAC Orchestra and conductor Alexander Shelley this year, partly because of the performances on their 50th anniversary European tour but also for the skill and passion they bring to programs of contemporary and non-classical material. The NAC’s Sessions series, which matches singer-songwriters with the orchestra, featured Patrick Watson in January, Susan Aglukark in September and Dan Mangan in November. All three were sublime concerts. 

The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018) jpg

Come From Away

The hit musical, Come From Away, premiered on Broadway in 2017, but finally made it to Ottawa in 2019, telling the story of the airline passengers who were diverted to Gander, N.L. on Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre. The feel-good production illustrates the kindness, generosity and cheesy jokes of the residents of Gander, demonstrating the point that we all have the power to make things better for others. 

Minowin. Derek Dix / jpg

Mòshkamo Indigenous Arts Festival

From Sept. 11-26, aboriginal artists took over every one of the stages at the National Arts Centre, launching the new Indigenous Theatre department and celebrating the diversity of First Nations cultures. Highlights included a powerful production of Marie Clements’ play, The Unnatural and Accidental Women and the world premiere of a beautiful piece called Mînowin by B.C.’s Dancers of Damelahamid.

Pussy Riot. (Bluesfest handout) jpg

Pussy Riot

The Russian provocateurs Pussy Riot burst the escapist bubble of Bluesfest in July with a hard-hitting show that gave a snapshot of some of the world’s more flagrant abuses of social justice in the form of catchy dance-punk anthems brimming with slinky synthesizers, a lo-fi beat, and a video backdrop that flashed a constant stream of often disturbing images illustrating each song. 

Mother and daughter, Philomina Turkey Imam (left), and Yvonne June Imam (right), stand with fellow artist Putli Ganju (centre) in front of one of their four large murals from the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative in North East India. Numerous artists from all over the world were on hand Wednesday (Nov. 6, 2019) at the National Gallery of Canada for the preview of Àbadakone Continous Fire. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

Àbadakone: Continuous Fire

The National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from around the world consists of beautiful and eye-catching large-scale installations, including several that you can see for free in the gallery’s public spaces, as well as politically charged work that tackles issues affecting aboriginal people on every continent. Expectations are defied at every turn. It continues until April 5. 

Lead singer Brett Emmons performs in The Glorious Sons at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 6, 2019. Greg Kolz

The Glorious Sons

Fresh off an opening gig for the Rolling Stones, Kingston’s The Glorious Sons conquered the main stage at Bluesfest with a loose-limbed, hit-packed show that bore the influence of rock ‘n’ roll of decades past but also channeled the excitement of a young act with a tight live show. Thanks to a string of hit singles, including the angst-ridden anthem, S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun), the band’s popularity continues to grow, with a major North American tour kicking off in January. They’ll be back in Ottawa on March 28.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala

This edgy version of the Tchaikovsky ballet is unlike any other interpretation you’ve ever seen. Created by Irish choreographer, writer and director Michael Keegan-Dolan, and performed by his company, Teac Damsa, it’s set in the gritty world of modern Ireland and deals with sexual abuse by a priest, inventively combining dance, theatre, folklore and live music, with a cathartic explosion of feathers at the end. After extended runs in other cities, it was in Ottawa for one, sold-out night only. 

Fet.Nat. jpg


The Gatineau jazz-punk oddballs had a great year, with their latest album Le Mal making it to the shortlist for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize. They didn’t get the prize but they came home and played a triumphant show at the recently renovated Club SAW that was fearless in its experimentation but also completely engaging. Can’t wait to see what guitarist Pierre-Luc Clément, vocalist JFNO, saxophonist Linsey Wellman and drummer Olivier Fairfield come up with next. 

Rheostatics. Emily Smart / Six Shoot Records


The seminal Canadian art-rock band of the ’90s returned with compelling new music this year; Here Comes The Wolves was their first album in 15 years. Better yet, they also embarked on a short tour that included a stellar concert at the NAC’s Babs Asper theatre in November. With singer Martin Tielli in fine form and the band actively exploring new musical territory, they’re in good shape for next year’s 40th anniversary.

Honourable mentions: Dead South at TD Place, Neko Case at Bronson Centre, Jeff Ho’s play, Trace, at the NAC, Djely Tapa at Fourth Stage, Nebula Organ Trio at Bar Robo, Ian Tamblyn at Irene’s Pub, Kaia Kater at the Black Sheep Inn, Cracker at 27 Club, Souljazz Orchestra at Babylon, Matt Mays at NAC Babs Asper Theatre.

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