When you are the country’s largest blues festival, you have to be prepared for lots of criticism from fans and media alike. The organizers of the 9th annual Cisco Systems Ottawa Bluesfest were ready for the onslaught and did not let it affect them presenting an incredible 9 day music festival. Some of this year’s hottest debates where over the festival site, whether lawnchairs should be permitted and why there were so many non-blues artists included on the bill. When all the debates and theories were over, no one could deny that this festival was one of the most professionally and successfully run on the North American continent. In order to make things run so smoothly it took the combined staff efforts of 7 full-time, 12 part-time and over 1200 volunteers. Sure, it might take you some additional planning in order to find when and where the blues is scheduled. Yet, you didn’t have to look long to find a ton of top-notch blues artists. Bluesfest staff even assist with finding/booking accommodations for out-of-towners. Numerous downtown hotels participated in festival package deals. Ours (conveniently booked through Bluesfest) had blues music piped into the lobby and the daily entertainment lineup posted in the elevator.
Since the festival first began in 1994, it has lived a life of a gypsy without a permanent home. The original site, Confederation Park was quickly outgrown and the most recent site, the vast and sprawling LeBreton Flats, is under redevelopment. So organizers brought the festival back to the street where it’s 5 stages encompassed Festival Plaza, Confederation Park, First Baptist Church and the Drill Hall. The incredibly loud mainstage was naturally enclosed by a downtown street and City Hall. Access to City Hall provided relief from the heat and the use of clean washroom facilities as opposed to port-a-johns. The mainstage’s backdrop was the dull looking national defense building which ensured festival-goers kept their eyes on the entertainment or each other. Events on the mainstage were broadcast on large screens throughout the crowd so that those furthest from the stage could see what was going on up front. The southern stage, located in Confederation Park, was a gem. It featured a Louisiana theme with food vendors that sold gumbo and poboys and a stage decorated like Bourbon Street. Three other stages featured acoustic, sacred and late night entertainment.
Anyone looking for the blues was surely thrilled with the lineup for the second weekend July 12-14. Kicking off the blues-saturated weekend was Ottawa’s own JW-Jones Blues Band. Although only in his early 20s, JW is not your stereotypical young guitar sensation. He isn’t into gunning solos at 100 mph or blues-rock. Rather he plays precision-timed boogie guitar on some of the finest west coast swing you will hear. The only hint of his youth was found in his voice which isn’t well aged. Their set consisted primarily of energetic original songs. Throughout it, Southside Steve Marriner delivered well-timed classic harp. In fact, his teenage talent could well be more fascinating than that of the bandleader. How refreshing and encouraging to know that some of today’s youth are capable of being the real deal. Kim Wilson is a special guest on the band’s newest CD. He and the Texas Horns came out and jammed with band for the set’s obvious highlight.
Wearing a bright red jacket, cream pants, and a black shirt with multicolored stripes, Vancouver-based Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne was easily the evening’s best dressed performer. Backing Kenny was Mel Brown and The Homewreckers. Given the fact that only Kenny and Mel had previously performed together, the rest of the Homewreckers did a fantastic job. Their sound was the kind expected of seasoned veterans who have performed together for years. Kenny’s boogie-woogie and barrelhouse piano playing returned us to the glory years of early rock and roll and R&B. On his piano solos, he practically made contact with all the ebonies and ivories. In fact, his 88s twinkled brighter than a Christmas tree.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds are best known as the butt-rockin group that spawned the careers of Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan over 25 years ago. Only Wilson remains from the original incarnation but the latest edition of the band offers the same musical diversity that made them a household name in the southwest U.S.. Kim is quoted on the festival website as saying, ‘We started as a straight blues band … and we’re much higher energy than we were before.’
The energy came across the most from Gene Taylor (piano) who had a cigar hanging from his mouth for the entire show. Together with the other members, the T-Birds put on a hot rockin set that was filled with plenty of jams as individuals and as a band. By the sharp, shrill cheers of the crowd, it was obvious the majority of 17,000 festivalgoers was there to see headliner Lauryn Hill. Though she may be talented, she isn’t the blues so we left.
Saturday July 13 began with impressive Ottawa talent. For the locals in the audience, experiencing the Mudboys was nothing they haven’t seen many times in the past. However, for out-of-towners it was a sweet treat. The band performed their style of rockabilly-bop-blues on many originals from their "Dustkickers Palace" CD. They were the most electrifying during their version of "Hip Shake".
The time in between sets was passed cleverly and quickly due to the pastor of musical disaster, Reverend Billy Wirtz. Throughout the afternoon, he performed three times using just his piano and his humorous lyrics. He is one of those artists that you either loved or hated. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy him.
Fathead is a 5 piece blues and R&B band based out of Toronto. Together since 1994, they have won many awards from the Canadian Blues Music Industry. Band leader Al Lerman plays harp and sax and was a protégé of Chicago harp legend Carey Bell. Lead vocalist John Mays was an absolute pleasure to watch perform. He has a very smooth sounding voice and originally hails from Georgia. Their early afternoon gig was intended to be a party and the boys achieved their goal. Songs such as "Blues Weather", "Livin Like A King" and "Share The Wealth" featured their musical gumbo of roots, blues and funk. You may have heard of jump blues, swing blues, delta blues, rock’n blues, well Fathead plays party blues. In a previous interview, Al Lerman told me, "We want to do something different with the blues. Let’s face it I didn’t grow up in the Mississippi Delta so the blues have a different feeling for me and hopefully that will allow us to take the blues where they haven’t been before."
A ferocious blues-rock solo artist since 1994, California’s Coco Montoya made a name for himself during his many years spent with Albert Collins' and John Mayall's backing bands. He didn’t waste the opportunity to learn from these masters. From Collins he learned to take time and not to be in a rush. From Mayall, he learned to accept himself. "I accept me … vocally and musically", Montoya is quoted as saying.
Coco wore a vibrantly colored and decorated shirt with a desert theme which perfectly suited his fiery musical style. Together with long-time musical partner, Benny Yee on keys and Hammond organ, they erupted into "You Didn’t Think About That", "Can’t Get My Ass In Gear" and "Tumbleweed". On "Wish I Could Be That Strong", Benny synthesized the sounds of a full horn section. Throughout his riveting performance he excelled at demonstrating the lessons learned from Albert and John. Self-taught Montoya played guitar that was so chilling it penetrated with a burning heat. An emotional part of the set came when he publicly acknowledged the work and support of writer Art Tipaldi. Art has been an avid supporter and fan of Coco and the Ottawa Bluesfest and was again in attendance at this year’s festival.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Mel Brown grew up in a family where playing music was as instinctive as breathing the Delta air. He has been both Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s and Albert Collins’ regular guitarist. In 1989, he relocated to Kitchener, Ontario for a steady gig and has remained there ever since. Mel’s set was very typical of his simple, down-home, electric blues and featured mostly covers and standards such as "Born Under A Bad Sign", "Woman Wanted" and "Billie Jean". Mel didn’t mesmerize with speed but rather chose to hypnotize with smooth, sharp, precise note pickin’. Imagine what you would get if you removed the aggression from Son Seals and added the grace of Johnnie Bassett. By far this transplanted Texan is a finer guitar player than singer yet this doesn’t discourage him from using his growl-like voice. While jamming methodically, Mel grunted and groaned with satisfaction. His friends from the Antone’s days, Kaz Kasonoff and the Texas Horns, added a full and rich sound. Keyboardist extraordinaire, John Lee, spent much of his career with Canada’s Prime Minister of the Blues, Dutch Mason but has been a permanent Homewrecker for over 10 years. Throughout the performance he blazed across the keys proving to be as well trained as Brown.
According to Joe Louis Walker, ‘One of music’s best qualities is to inspire you’. Having recorded 10 discs in 10 years, this prolific artist never seems to lack inspiration. Born in San Francisco on Christmas day 1949, Joe grew up in the West Coast blues renaissance of the 1960s. His primary inspirations were Mississippi Fred McDowell and Lightnin’ Hopkins who taught him that blues is easy to learn but hard to master. In the ‘70s, Walker strayed from the blues and had a regular gig with a gospel group called the Spiritual Corinthians. When they performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the mid-80s, Walker reconnected with his roots. He has been playing the blues ever since.
During his debut Ottawa Bluesfest appearance, Walker delivered a full spectrum of blues using his interesting musical arrangements, unique voice and gold Gibson Les Paul guitar. Dressed in black and sporting a new braided hairstyle, JLW proved why he has received W.C. Handy Awards for Contemporary Artist and Blues Band of the Year. After opening with a stalking instrumental, he intelligently paced himself through many selections from his two popular 2002 releases including "Imitation Ice Cream Blues" and "Leave That Girl Alone". While maintaining a perpetual smile he also performed "Sugar", "Natural Ball" and "Mile-High Club" which featured Kaz and the Texas Horns. He was loved so much by the crowd, they demanded an encore. JLW returned and played "Where Jesus Leads". It was a simple acoustic song sung by a spiritually-convicted Walker. He is an extremely controlled musician although at times his enthusiastic and excited screams were out of control.
The appearance of legendary Chicago blues guitarist Otis Rush was one of this year’s highlights. At an age when most of the working population retires, Otis is still tearing up the stages and being the talk of the town. His incredible all Chicago band (including a 6 string bass guitarist) warmed up the crowd before the legend took to the stage. Otis started with an immaculate instrumental and followed it with "All Your Love". He continued with blues standards such as "Stormy Monday", "Feel So Bad" and "Walking The Back Streets". Rush’s soothing guitar playing was more relaxing than a Caribbean Island. "Crosscut Saw" featured youthful 2nd guitarist, Giles Corey, playing his heart and soul out. Corey has great timing unlike so many of today’s young guitarists. Throughout, Rush played his signature candy apple red Gibson ES which stood out against his gray suit. Beginning in the late 50s, Mississippi-born Rush led the pack in creating what was to become known as West Side Chicago Blues.
Sunday July 14 began with another hometown hero, Trevor Finlay. He has performed at the festival in the same timeslot in prior years and this was the first time it didn’t rain during his finely textured performance. He dressed in a blue shirt that featured devilish skulls. Then he added a touch of blue to his goatee to complete the ensemble. Finlay avoided getting trapped into any one musical genre. His roots-based, radio-friendly tunes appealed to many. Beginning with a regular from his band’s live repertoire, "Jambalaya", they continued with many originals such as "Better Than Other Days" and "Mother Goose". Trevor was exceptional at interacting with the crowd. He playfully threw out Mardi Gras beads and asked "why does the southern stage get all the fun?" Part of Finlay’s diversity comes from his wide collection of guitars. He was seen playing a Guild, Telecaster and Stratocaster. They performed "Coffee" with wild jams between guitar and bass. It came across as if they were strung out on many cups of double-double from Canada’s favorite coffee. "Midnight Ferry Ride’ was country rock influenced and featured excellent vocal harmonies between Finlay and his bass player. On "Hurry Up" they had many of the crowd flipping the bird. They concluded with their usual "Bo Diddley". Here, there was a magnificent guitar solo that started soft and slow but crescendoed to incite the drummer and percussionist into taking their own solo.
Not many in the crowd would have known that Lucky Peterson was a blues boy-wonder. In 1968, at the age of five, he recorded his first album and appeared on the Tonight Show. By age eight, he had recorded a couple albums and appeared on What’s My Line and To Tell The Truth. Since those days he has constantly performed and has become a master entertainer and musician.
Having experienced Lucky Peterson’s wizardry at the Pocono Blues Festival 2001, my expectations were high. They were exceeded! His outrageously energetic set began with the band doing an instrumental that featured guitarist Rico McFarland. Then Lucky hit the stage in a vibrant green shirt. He started on organ/piano and raced through a series of contemporary blues burners like "Smooth Sailing". Then he slowed down some of the crowd’s hysteria with a surprising performance of "Lucky Strikes" from the album bearing the same name. After that he switched to his gold Gibson ES guitar. This resulted in a double guitar attack with Rico on "Sweet Home Chicago". Unlike the previous Ottawa festival site, there wasn’t an easy way for artists to get into the audience. Lucky was the only artist that managed to beat the barricades in order to walk through the crowd while performing. The audience was absolutely ecstatic. He proceeded through the crowd and back onto the stage while playing wild rocking jams that included a few Hendrix riffs. It was the most energetic performance of the weekend by the most exhausted performer. The previous night they performed in Colorado Springs, CO. They barely made it to Ottawa with anytime to spare.
After the amazing set we spoke backstage where he told me that he never had a doubt that he would be a blues musician. He explained, "blues is not sad music … blues is life and life is blues. The best inspiration was getting married because I experienced life on a new level."
At every festival, I come across an artist who completely catches me by surprise. In Ottawa, it was Otis Grand. His gentle giant guitar playing blew me away. All I knew was that he is enormously popular in Europe but not so in North America. He performed with an all Canadian band except singer Brian Templeton who was dressed sharply in a purple suit. Also backing him was an expanded edition of the Texas horns which included multiple saxes and trumpets. They performed "Things I Used To Do" and "Last Nite I Got Loaded" with a big-band blues sound that vibrantly incorporated swing, rock, and R&B into a sound they proudly call their own Then Otis had the horns leave and he played an instrumental tribute to his favorite guitar influences. What an exhilarating experience it was to behold Grand’s spastic facial grimaces mixed with his wondrous guitar playing that combined the styles of Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and SRV into his own.
Dressed in black, Jimmie Vaughan and his beat up and well traveled Stratocaster worked wonders on "Flooding In Texas", "Driving Me" and "I Like It Like That".
Fellow Texas Legend, Lou Ann Barton joined Jimmie’s band onstage for startling renditions of "Sugar Coated Love", "In The Middle Of The Night" and "Power Of Love". Just as on the recordings, Bill Willis was awesome on B3. His set ended far too quickly with the usual closer "Boom Bapa Boom".
In a career that spans 7 decades, 81 year old Alberta Adams has performed and toured with everybody who is anybody including: T-Bone Walker; Louis Jordan; and Duke Ellington. She performed nonstop in the '40s and '50s. Her flexible and soulful landmark voice has kept this great lady in the blues and jazz spotlight.
By the time Detroit’s Queen of the Blues took the Southern stage the crowd was ready to rock. Their affection for the blues empress was obvious by the loud reaction she received in between each song. In her striking green frock, Miss Alberta Adams was definitely the best dressed artist of the evening. Vibrant support was provided by R.J. Spangler’s Rhythm Rockers which included Joe Piccolo (sax), Paul Carey (guitar) and the pulse of the Detroit blues heartbeat on drums (R.J.). They let it rip through four numbers before Alberta commanded the stage. "He May Be Your Man" and "Goin’ Home Tomorrow" were vivacious and fun and full of her signature dog howls. The grand lady of the blues didn’t allow being seated in a chair stop her from being rambunctious.
Once again Tony D filled the challenging spot as the second final act on the final evening of the festival. With his signature pink Stratocaster, Tony and his band put on a fire hot live performance full of spontaneous energy. The heavy, raw blues guitar of Tony D was honed in Ottawa's blues bars since the early `80's. As a child, Ottawa based Tony D emigrated from Italy with his family. On originals "The Right Kind of Crazy", "Honipot" and "Not A Day Goes By" D’s vocals were loud and clear while the tunes showcased Tony’s talented band. Both Zeke Gross (sax) and his bass player looked like they came straight from the bowling club thanks to their retro shirts. All along, Jimmie Vaughan watched from the side of the stage. This was a terrific compliment for Tony but obviously added some pressure. Tony told the crowd of 20,000 that the Ottawa Bluesfest is like Christmas. I agree as the city is showered with presence of blues greats. Near the end of the set, Otis Grand was asked to come out and jam. This was a return favour that was due to Tony jamming with Otis a few years earlier. They did an electric instrumental jam that was awesome and then culminated with "Hot Little Mama".
There was far too much blues for any one festivalgoer to behold. Some of the other artists that appeared included: Colin Linden, Omar & The Howlers, John Primer, The Holmes Brothers, Harry Manx, Dawn Tyler Blues Project, Curley Bridges, Joe Murphy, Jody Williams, Guitar Shorty and Bryan Lee. No one knows for sure where next year’s festival will be held. All that is known is the 10th annual festival is sure to be the biggest and best. Start making your travel plans now!
Special thanks goes to Andre J. Sauve. For further information about the Ottawa Bluesfest, please visit www.ottawa-bluesfest.ca
Some of the artist quotes have been taken from "Children Of The Blues" by Art Tipaldi and re-used by kind permission from the author.
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