Welcome To A Blast From The Past.
These articles are archives published at BluesWax as the Blues Beat,
we hope you enjoy reading them.
Originally Published July 21, 2004
Blues Festivals Canadian-Style
The 2004 Cisco Systems Ottawa Bluesfest
By Art Tipaldi
After ten days walking the streets of Ottawa by day and catching all the music at the Cisco Systems Ottawa Bluesfest at night, one thing jumps out, feets don’t fail me now! You do the numbers. Four stages and 125 music acts means you gotta keep movin’. But it was worth every blister.
Ottawa is a city devoted to its music festivals, and Bluesfest is only a part of this hip city’s summer festival lineup. Throughout the summer, there are citywide Classical, Folk, and Jazz fests that also take center stage. This year, Bluesfest attendance topped the 225,000 mark for nine days of music. Many festivals worry about having 5,000 fans attend each day; Bluesfest starts each day wondering how far over 20,000 the attendance will go.
Ottawa is a city that embraces the Blues and Roots music it presents. Each weeknight you will see families, friends, and couples walking downtown streets carrying chairs and blankets heading to the fest grounds. There is a full page of coverage each day in the Ottawa Citizen, reviewing the previous night and previewing the upcoming night. When you get back to your hotel, turn on Rogers TV, a festival sponsor, and you can watch excellent films of last year’s Main Stage performers. And the clubs like the Rainbow Room and Fat Tuesdays host late night, after-hours jams worth staying up for.
The Ottawa Bluesfest formula is very simple. Top the night with a huge attraction a la Funk Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaak, or Robert Cray and introduce the immense crowd to lesser-known American and Canadian Blues acts. Thus the thousands of people who arrived in droves all afternoon to get good lawn space to hear the sweet Motown of the Funk Brothers or Chris Isaak’s stylized retro music, were also treated to Eddy Clearwater, Charles Walker, Bettye LaVette, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. As each testified in his or her own voice to an ever-growing crowd of over 20,000, the universal reaction of the fans around me went from, “Who is this?” to enthusiastic “Wow!” In fact, by the time Isaak walked into the crowd to close out the Fest, Walker and LaVette had already paved the way, evidenced by their completely sold out CDs.
The Fest opened on Friday, July 9, with huge crowds packed shoulder to shoulder to hear the beer and boogie of George Thorogood on the Main Stage. While he played favorites like “Who Do You Love,” “Bad To The Bone,” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” Blues fans could bask in Eric Bibb’s pure acoustic music followed by Michael Burks’ frenzied electric attacks on the Roots Stage.
Saturday night drew the largest one-day attendance of 30,000 fans, many of whom were there to see the Canadian mega band Tragically Hip. However, the highlight of the day was appreciated by those who ventured to the Roots Stage to applaud Tim Duffy’s Music Maker lineup. From Lee Gates, Albert Collins’ look-alike cousin, to Beverly “Guitar” Watkins to Cool John Ferguson, Canadian fans at the Roots Stage witnessed a once in a lifetime event. The proof of their appreciation was in the fact that Music Maker sold out all the discs they brought. Give credit to the ever-present band of guitarists Tim Duffy and Mudcat and the rhythm section Sol and Ardie Dean who backed Music Maker performers from noon until seven.
How about this for a Saturday night; Taj Mahal on the Roots Stage playing for nearly 4,000 fans, while the Tragically Hip played for over 25,000 on the Main Stage. Taj and the Hula Band played old time Taj favorites like “My Creole Belle,” “Fishin’ Blues,” and “Paint My Mailbox Blue” with a three-ukulele rhythm section and Rudy Costa playing a soprano and tenor sax at the same time.
The Sunday Main Stage highlight was Motown’s Funk Brothers augmented by vocalists Sam Moore singing two songs and Joan Osborne beltin’ out “Heat Wave,” “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted,” and three others. From the opening note of “Get Ready,” the polite Canadians turned City Hall Plaza into a steamy Detroit nightclub. Everyone from grandparents to pre-teens cool jerked and Temptations-walked for the next 90 minutes. Funk Brother Jack Ashford is a national treasure as a musician and narrator. At times funny, at times poignant, Ashford kept the energetic show on target. Dressed in red jackets, the five remaining Funk Brothers vowed at the close that as long as one red jacket remained, someone would continue to spread this music.
After a day off Monday to city sightsee, the Fest scaled down to just two performances on two stages for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, giving visitors to the city more time to explore its hidden treasures.
On Tuesday, Canadian superstar guitarist Colin James opened for Bryan Adams. James’ combination of up tempo swing and soulful guitar laden Blues coupled with his effervescent attitude demonstrated why year after year he’s been the closing act for this festival. This year, however, he was only too happy to open for his friend Adams. Wednesday, Canadian Nellie Furtado drew a huge crowd of younger music fans who dig her songwriter style. Thursday, Jimmie Vaughan performed one of his strongest sets I’ve seen. Perhaps the birth of twins a month ago to Jimmie and his wife contributed to his joyful set. Midway through, he called up Lou Ann Barton to duet on “Sugar Coated Love” and others.
By the second weekend, there was no doubt that the hardest workers at the festival, besides me trying to see it all, were Kaz Kazanoff and the Texas Horns. Ottawa does something many other festivals should look into. Every year, it flies in Kaz and the Horns, John Mills on baritone and Gary Slechta on trumpet, so any act on any stage can have a top notch horn section for some or all of the set. These guys were never without a gig as they sat in with Michael Burks, Beverly Watkins, Lee Gates, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, JW-Jones, Colin James, Marcia Ball, the Holmes Brothers, Southside Steve, and Tony D. But the coolest time Kaz had was backing up Betty LaVette. The Texas Horns had worked with her a few weeks earlier in Portland under a similar arrangement. The addition of this crack unit turned each of LaVette’s songs into a precious gem.
A walk to the back stages produced some of the finest musical moments. Perhaps the most eye-opening act was Australia’s tussled haired Xavier Rudd. The barefoot Rudd so captivated the 2,000 fans at the Black Sheep stage with his rootsy mixture of Weissenborn lap guitar, stomp box rhythms, and breathtaking proficiency playing three didgeridoos (a hollowed out cypress root or branch played by breathing in a circular motion) at the same time. His music was so mesmerizing that festival bosses found a time slot for him before Keb’ Mo’ on the Main Stage. There was Rudd extracting haunting melodies on stage and Keb’ and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart watching in amazement from the wings.
While Lyle Lovett performed for 25,000, a walk off the beaten path showcased another highlight on the Black Sheep Stage. Soel is a French African world music project recorded and touted in Europe by none other then producer extraodinaire St. Germain. Soel was an eclectic mixture of reeds, trumpets, and heavy African and Funk rhythms. The multi-generational and multi-ethnic makeup of the audience was solid proof that this creative experiment touched something in each of us.
Earlier in the Festival, Rory Block recreated Robert Johnson and Son House, but by the second weekend, the girls were rocking the Blues. Ana Popovic stunned the Blues crowd at the Main Stage with her incendiary guitar work. New Yorker Danielia Cotton was little girl giddy before, during, and after each song. Her infectious smile and “I’m So happy to be here” gushes only made her music more enjoyable. Check out this new voice at her website. Speaking of new voices, Renee Austin let her five octave range soar on the Roots Stage Sunday before the Festival showcased a Gram Parsons Tribute to close out the weekend.
The surprise for many Canadian music fans was the emotionally charged singing of Bettye LaVette. LaVette is one of a few talented and experienced performers who actually lives within the words of every song she sings. Young singers need a course in LaVette. In her most poignant song, “Souvenirs,” there were times she couldn’t sing because she was crying over life’s losses. That intimacy touched the 10,000 there in the purest way.
The proliferation of Canadian Blues groups offered proof that the Blues thrives up North. Besides Colin James, Americans were treated to the Blues of Tony D, Trevor Finley, JW-Jones, Southside Steve, the Rick Fines Trio, Rocket Rached, and rising star Denise Potvin. On the acoustic stage, Canadian string wizard Colin Linden illustrated why he is someone more American fans of acoustic music must find. In fact, it was hard to find a stage without Linden playing or watching.Every Ottawa or Canadian Fest has its share or artists who cannot make it over the border. Though there were a handful who could not make it, that should not deter you from planning to hit Ottawa on next year’s festival scene. Festival bosses juggled early arrivers, made phone calls, or simply asked some to perform twice to rectify that situation.
As I’ve said over and over, Ottawa is the closest North American city you can travel to for a true European experience by day. And the Cisco Systems Ottawa Bluesfest gives you all the fun and diversity of music as New Orleans Jazzfest, but with only a quarter of the crowds. As always I come away from a festival like Ottawa with a renewed appreciation for the diversity within the Blues genre and a fresh outlook on other genres of music I might never have been exposed to. See y’all there next July.
By Art Tipaldi
About the Author: