At the 16th annual Great Canadian Blues and BBQ Festival, over 18 acts performed on 4 stages throughout a 3 day event. The main stage (Norigen) is a wonderful lakeside setting with Toronto's impressive skyline acting as a background. In addition to the on-stage entertainment, there was also BBQ cooking demos, music workshops, and blues music films.
A pier party kicked things off on Friday evening which was the festival's only ticketed event. It was a night featuring two of the next generation of woman blues. Both ladies have won Handy Awards for their rich talent. Shemekia Copeland took the stage first with an omnipotence that demanded the attention of the entire audience. She was in a killer purple dress with newly blonde colored hair. Shemekia has the charisma of an entertainer who has performed for over 20 years even though she is only 22 years of age. She performed many songs from her 2 CDs. After a rocking "2AM", she held the audience in the palm of her hands. She even got down and outright sultry by bumpin' and grindin' with her guitarist. Copeland encouraged the typically subdued Toronto audience to interact with her and the band. She had great success with this on "My Kind of Guy" where she walked the ladies through developing some attitude. Other strong points were the performances of "I Always Get My Man" and "It Don't Hurt No More" where she used her huge, dynamic voice to include everything from a soft soul whisper to a growling, full-throated blues roar. Throughout the set, her road tested band was playing at full-throttle power.
At every show she dedicates a song to her father. This time it was "Ghetto Child" with its tear-your-heart-out lyrics. It was a highly emotional part of her set at which you could have heard a pin drop. She received a standing ovation after dramatically performing it. Later, she walked away from the microphone but kept pounding the lyrics out with her mighty, unamplified pipes. She then rhetorically asked the crowd whether they could hear her and after ecstatic shrieks of yes, she continued singing.
Alligator Records president, Bruce Iglauer, has said "The blues world has been waiting for someone like Shemekia for a long time." What is astounding is that we haven't begun to witness her true potential yet. Her set is available as a webcast. See for yourself, what the future of contemporary blues holds at http://www.primeticket.net/shows/shemekia/
Having only been exposed to Tedeschi on a blues radio program (that primarily plays rock), I was skeptical about her talent. However, I was blown away by her high energy, diverse musical set. She conceived me that she isn't just another blues-rocker but rather a talented entertainer who plays some damn good original roots music. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself in the long line to purchase her CD. The Massachusetts native comes packed with a triple-threat: great looks, intense vocals and diverse guitar playing. On this warm, summer night, she dressed in a long skirt and black top with her sandy, long, hair tied back.
Susan now challenges Delbert McClinton for the overall best roadhouse voice. She sounds like she has been guzzling whiskey and smoking for years. Yet quite amazingly, when she talks in between songs, she has one of those sweet, southern to-die-for voices. On "It Hurt So Bad", I felt like throwing a throat lozenge onstage as her throat had to be aching after pleading out the lyrics at the top of her lungs. The very talented guitarist played diversely without rehashing the same lead break on each tune. There was plenty of music from her debut CD. "Looking for Answers," reflected her gospel influence. While "Get Up Stand Up" and "Angel From Montgomery" proved her respect for reggae and country respectively.
At the Lakeside Terrace, the blues continued to burn with Canada's red hot Tony D. He has honed his craft in Ottawa's blues bars since the early `80's and has toured constantly. "Honipot" was a 50s style rock and roll. "The Right Kind of Crazy" included Tony's trademark blazing guitar and culminated with a jam that showed off the talent of his band.
On Saturday afternoon, Canadian blues icon Michael Pickett took the main stage amidst rain, thunder, lightening and blowing wind. The dynamite loaded set included songs from his 2 recent solo discs such as the funky blues of "Big Train" and the hypnotizing groove "Love Don't Mean It". Best known as a harp virtuoso, its always a pleasure when Pickett brings out his resophonic guitar. Today was no exception and the crowd was astonished by his diversity. Guitarist extraordinaire, Shawn Kellerman, received more of the spotlight than previous Pickett gigs. They have been playing together a long time now and are comfortable trading riffs off each other. "Shake" featured a different mix with Michael jamming on the harp first followed by a wicked solo from Shawn. Thanks to this adrenaline charged set, Pickett used numerous harps to blow the wind and rain out of town!
Now living north of the city, in Tobermory, Bobby Dean Blackburn was the most outstanding of the none big-name artists. He honed his craft in a jazz trio while performing constantly at a Yonge Street club in the late 60s. He is a rare Canadian blues musician with the sound, heart and soul of someone who was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. He played incredible organ throughout a far too-short set of covers like "Why I Sing Blues" and "Something On My Mind". He enabled the crowd to forget their troubles and escape into his music.
Henry Gray hails from just outside New Orleans. At the age of eight, he began to demonstrate his talent on piano. Since he wasn't allowed to play blues at home, Henry played blues wherever he could. In 1956, he joined Howlin' Wolf's band where he remained until 1968. During the last thirty years, Henry has been performed at numerous festivals and virtually all New Orleans Jazz Festivals.
He was backed by a tight band of experienced and talented musicians all primarily from Louisiana. They performed a lively set of danceable blues and early rock and roll. Timeless numbers like "Blueberry Hill", "The Twist" and "Just A Little Bit" had many of the audience shaking their booties for the first time in years. He provided a special treat when he requested his bass player to join his regular harp player in a double harp jam. The song received a standing ovation. Along with Pinetop Perkins, Gray is considered one of the best living exponents of the Windy City piano blues style. His many barrelhouse runs on the keys thrilled the crowd.
Super Chikan was hatched in Darling, Mississippi where he used to chase chickens around and tried to figure out what they were saying. Later, when he learned music, he taught his guitar to cackle like a chicken. From then on everybody knew him as Super Chikan. After Gray's foot-stompin', hip-shakin', house-rockin' set, the crowd didn't know how to react to ChiKan. Initially, I think he frightened them but they soon warmed to his infectious rhythms and raucous sounds of the Delta.
From clucks and crows to smooth lyrics and superb guitar, the birdman nearly did it all. Due to an incredibly weak rhythm section (including his daughter on drums) he needed to do it all. This excellent guitarist performed many original songs. All of them had a Mississippi boogie taken straight from the porch of a tin roof shack. He was able to get amazing fuzz-tone from his BC Rich Bitch guitar (a guitar most associated with heavy metal as opposed to blues). His vocal impressions of Roy Acuff yodeling and John Lee Hooker boom booming was a hit with the crowd. After many of the songs, he said one of his favorite lines: 'Don't shoot my rooster coz he don't crow like he used ter'
He also entertained with his unique dance that he jokingly claimed he learned when his mama would whoop him for yodeling like a white man. He even turned and shook his booty in everyone's face a few times. He certainly made his Toronto debut a memorable one. When he introduced his 2 backing musicians he had them 'scratch' out their names.
Harry Manx was scheduled to play numerous times but Saturday's weather forced the entertainment on the Ann Tindal stage to be canceled. With the dramatic change in weather on Sunday, Manx was given the opportunity to make up for lost time. A one-man-band, Manx is a master of the lap slide guitar, harmonica, banjo, and vocals. He also plays the Mohan veena - a 20-string Indian slide guitar. This allowed him to play a unique brand of cross cultural blues.
Former BB King, bassist Russell Jackson was booked to lead a bass workshop. Since the audience was primarily fans (as opposed to musicians) it turned out to be a blues history lesson set to music. Things started acoustically in the Delta and migrated north to the electric, funky blues of modern day Chicago. Jackson played both an acoustic upright and electric bass. He finished with "Why I Have The Blues" in a funky style first introduced by A King with some of the most wicked, wailing, rhythmic bass soloing ever to be heard.
Always sure to please, the Livin' Blues Band pulled out all the stops by assembling the horn players (Rocky Verweel and Simon Wallis) from the band's latest CD for their mid-afternoon set. They proceeded to play the entire new disc. This was obviously not the band's standard set as keyboard/singer Bill Speer needed the lyric sheets. As always, Larry Goodhand was exceptional on guitar.
We tore ourselves away from the blues festival and ended up at the Celebrate Toronto Street Festival. With enough energy to launch the space shuttle, the Carson Downey Band exploded onto the stage with "All The Way". This was followed by many more smokin' red hot contemporary blues from their debut disc. Downey was very energetic and played bewildering solos that made you think this guy is Hendrix reincarnated. He pushes the strings to their limit and broke at least 3. It's wicked, wild soloing enough to make Walter Trout sound like elevator music. They threw a couple of covers in namely, "Before You Accuse Me" and "Gotta Mind To Travel". However, if it wasn't for the words you wouldn't have recognized the songs because the Carson Downey chunka-chunka driving beat overpowered the original melody. As we walked away from the stage and the festival, I looked back and noticed a large mushroom cloud hovering over the stage.
Over the weekend, other performers included: Paul James, Raoul & the Big Time, Big Dave McLean, Tarbox Ramblers, Colin Linden, Boubacar Traore, Big Daddy G, Dawn Tyler Watson, Big Mark and the Blues Express and Susie Arioli.
For further information about Harbourfront waterfront festivals and activities, contact: www.harbourfront.on.ca
Henry Gray photo comes from Henry's website, and used with permission.
Super ChiKan photo is from the Rooster Records website, and used with permission.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.