Saskatoon Blues Festival
February 23 & 24, 2012
By Amelia Belamy-Royds
Blue skies, green grass, cold lemonade, and warm sunshine: these are things I think of when I imagine a perfect day for a blues festival. So I was rather surprised the first time I heard of the Saskatoon Blues Festival, held in late February every year. After all, a warm February day in this Canadian prairie city is one where the temperature reaches above freezing.
But as there aren’t many other opportunities this time of year to catch a weekend full of top-notch bands, an accomplice and I hit the road last week to find out how the Saskatoon Blues Society has kept the festival alive in the dead of winter for the past ten years. The first secret, of course, is to hold all the shows indoors.
We arrived at the main concert venue — a downtown nightclub that could hold a few hundred people and was about two-thirds full each night — just after the first band started Thursday evening. Eddy Robertson & the Electric Blues Band were playing tight, toe-tapping shuffles that had a few early birds warming up the dance floor. The festival’s promotional material described the band as a long-time mainstay of the Saskatoon scene and it was easy to see why. This fact was emphasized when the second local band hit the stage and the same drumer was behind the kit.
Brian and the Promises relaxed the tempo of the evening, while still demonstrating tight playing. They started with electrified country blues, led by Brian MacAreavey on a National Steel. A few songs in, MacAreavey switched to a Stratocaster and the music switched to moody, atmospheric instrumentals before settling in to modern roadhouse blues.
Drummer Laurie Currie played triple duty, backing up Chicago guitarist Jimmy D. Lane for the next set in a guitar-bass-drums trio format. Perhaps it was out of desire not to throw off his borrowed rhythm section, but Lane’s show lacked originality. Known as “the son of the blues” after his father Jimmy Rogers (Muddy Waters‘ guitarist), Lane does not copy his dad’s style, but instead seemed a little too deferential to his musical forefathers: “Crossroads” sounded like Clapton, “Hey Joe” sounded like Hendrix. His technique was excellent, and the songs were well-received, but there wasn’t much evidence of personal style.
The headliner for the night was Nigel Mack, a Saskatoon boy now well established on the Chicago scene. The show was a debut for Mack’s new “large band,” with his usual four-piece Blues Attack lineup (guitar, drums and bass, plus Mack singing and playing guitar or harmonica) supplemented by a trumpet and tenor sax. The music may not have been “big band” but it encompassed a bit of every other style of electric blues. Hints of Texas and Chicago, West Coast and Motown, and even classic country in Mack’s vocals, were all smoothly blended into a unique sound that was both relaxed and energetic. “Relaxed and energetic” also describes Mack personally; he spent the set bounding across the stage with a huge grin for each of his bandmate’s solos.
On Friday and Saturday, competing acoustic and electric concerts forced a difficult decision to skip what I’m sure was a wonderful performance by singer Rita Chiarelli, who had also been in town earlier in the week to present the film Music from the Big House which documents her work with inmates at Angola Prison in Louisiana.
Instead, we headed back to the Odeon nightclub for the electric triple-bill starting with the band Boogie Patrol, regulars on the Edmonton, Alberta, blues scene. After five years together, Boogie Patrol demonstrated just the right blend of enthusiasm and experience in their all-original, funk-soul numbers. The five musicians worked as a cohesive whole, creating a layered rhythm and chord structure that could not be easily separated into its component parts. However, special mention should be made of drummer Jeff Lisk, whose high-tempo beats never felt crowded, and guitarist Yuji Ihara, who was equally adept at soaring lead guitar and funky rhythms.
Nonetheless, front and center was always lead singer and harmonica player “Rott’n Dan,” and his witty but not pretentious lyrics. In one song he uses the hockey analogy of “taking a dive” to describe ending a relationship. In another, he offers the following advice, over a classic ’50′s Chicago riff (think J.B. Lenoir doing “Talk to Your Daughter”): “Bathe with your woman, that’s what you gotta do; if you don’t bathe with your woman, I think you’re a goddamn fool.”
There were no hygiene lessons from guirarist Elmer Ferrer, whose band took the stage next. I’ve had mixed impressions of Ferrer from previous encounters. At his best, he uses flurries of guitar notes to create infectious grooves that cross the border between latin jazz and funk and then build into crescendos inspired by psychadelic rock anthems. However, he can also show off with lightning-speed licks that come on so strongly they remind me of Shakespeare’s line about sound and fury, signifying nothing. I was glad to find that the majority of the pieces in the set list fell into the former category, with Ferrer playing off a strong rhythm section of fellow Cuban expatriates. A female vocalist contributed on the rock numbers, but lyrics were always secondary to the instruments.
For the headline set by Tracy Nelson, in contrast, the vocals were the main attraction. Nelson’s rich, vibrating voice commands attention without swooping or soaring. The four musicians and one singer supporting Nelson played in a country-swing style, with sweet harmonies and a easy-going rhythm. It gave a new feel to the many traditional blues songs they covered, including Bessie Smith‘s “Victim of the Blues” — which Nelson admitted she chose partly because she wanted to use the title for her album — and an encore of Memphis Slim‘s “Mother Earth,” which Nelson introduced by wryly calculating how many decades it has been since she formed the band of that name.
During the day on Saturday the festival held some free musicians’ workshops, a “swapmeet,” and a showcase performance by the nine teenagers who’d participated in a Blues Camp that week. The camp, led by Nigel Mack and members of the Blues Attack, was a more-intensive version of the blues society’s Blues in the Schools program that had been happened in the weeks leading up to the festival. Although there were a decent number of people cheering on the young musicians, the one workshop I peeked in on had only two participants, likely due to a lack of advance publicity. Despite the blustery, snowy weather, there was much better attendance at the unofficial event for Saturday afternoon, the weekly blues jam at local bar Bud’s on Broadway, where jammers included both young Blues in the Schools participants and pros who were featured festival performers.
Saturday evening we opted to check out the acoustic venue, a hotel banquet hall set up in cabaret style. On the bill were two Canadian guitarists better known for their electric performances.
First up was an artist I was not very familiar with, Steve Strongman from Hamilton, Ontario. He started off softly, with a style of playing I’d describe as finger-picking folk guitar except that he used a pick. The music got a little louder when he switched to a twelve-string and added slide for a driving rhythmic blues, then increased beyond what one could normally expect from a solo guitarist with the help of a pedal-operated loop machine to layer rhythm and lead guitar lines on top of each other.
I’d known coming in that Strongman would be an impressive guitar player as he was named best blues guitarist in Canada at this year’s Maple Blues Awards. Equally impressive, however, was his vocal dexterity, with clear and confident notes swelling for emphasis, a slight growl when appropriate, and outbreaks of a somewhat-goofy falsetto.
The second act of the night, David Gogo of Nanaimo, British Columbia, I have heard perform many times, but not often in a solo acoustic setting. Without his whammy bar and reverb pedals (nevermind the rest of his band), Gogo mostly abstained from the big blues ballads and up-tempo funk-rock numbers that dominate his electric shows. Instead, working-class blues standards and his own more darker songs were propelled by intricate rhythm guitar and slide playing. Lightening the mood, Gogo told the attentive audience stories of life on the road, musicians he knows, the origins of his songs, and the history of the two instruments he was playing, a 1930s-era National guitar with palm trees etched on the back and an even older parlour-sized Gibson acoustic.
As the show was ending, organizers offered discounted admission for anyone who wanted to catch headliner Coco Montoya finish off the night at the other stage. However, we’d already made plans to head over to one of the city’s other regular live music venues, Vangelli’s Tavern, to finish the weekend the way we started, with the crisp licks of Eddy Robertson and his Electric Blues Band.
There was a festival wrap-up party and jam at Vangelli’s on Sunday afternoon, but we had a long drive ahead of us and more snow in the forecast. You can’t escape winter completely, after all.
This is Amelia Belamy-Royds’ first article for BluesWax.
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