It's summer and I have tickets to a Saints' game, so I'm in a baseball frame of mind........To describe the Inaugural Thunder Bay Blues Fest in baseball terms, I'd like to say that they hit a grand slam on the first pitch - if that was possible. I can't think of a better festival I've been to, or anything that could have made it better. This festival was a sell-out, and I guarantee that everyone who attended left with great musical memories and alot of pride in their community. The Thunder Bay Blues Festival is the little blues festival that could.
To start with, they lined up solid talent - more on that later. An army of capable volunteers donated everything from time spent cleaning up to designing a website. You could not tell that this was not all done by an unlimited staff of paid professionals. With only one stage, there was never a glitch in sound or more than a quick change between artists. In talking to Murray Armstrong, president of the Thunder Bay Blues Society, whose brainchild this festival is, I learned that from the very beginning, the festival received strong corporate backing from area businesses, especially TBayTel, and good government support as well. (The mayor only appeared to go home long enough to shower and change - everywhere I went for 3 days I saw the mayor lovin the blues.) Profits are all donated to Thunder Bay charities, and tickets were a bargain. A real presence at the festival was the gorgeous site itself: a wonderful park right on a bay reminiscent of Bayfront, but not as heavily industrialized, with the beautiful
Sleeping Giant watching, and hopefully listening, over it all. The stage itself is wonderfully simple and effective - who needs a new Metrodome? Performances at clubs after the shows every night were highly attended, high energy, and up close and personal. Merchandise and CD sales were brisk and substantial.
We talked to alot of Canadians that weekend, and many indicated that this blues fest developed out of a growing dissatisfaction with the Bayfront Blues Festival. Unexpectedly, there is a serious crop of blues lovers' in Thunder Bay, and apparently throughout Canada, as proven by the great Canadian blues acts who performed. (My Texas friend was not surprised at this. When telling her Dallas friends she was going to Thunder Bay, the first thing they did was look at the map, and then concluded, "Of course they have the blues. It's cold.") Many Canadians journey down to Bayfront, and have gotten sick of being robbed by Duluth hoteliers who charge up to triple the regular room rates during Bayfront. Duluth, are you listening? Add in the Canadian exchange rate, and they decided to just keep it across the border. These are also very compelling reasons for Americans to cross the line.
On to the show........
Friday night started with Osee Anderson from L.A. with the Reverb Rockers from Windsor - they hit the ground running. Next was YVR3 from Calgary, Big Dave McLean (Winnipeg), Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater (Chicago) who is quite a showman, and ending with the Powder Blues Band (Vancouver) whose performance left no doubt that this festival was going to be a huge success.
Saturday and Sunday afternoons both started with the Thunder Bay Blues All-Stars, a pretty solid assortment of local blues musicians whose longstanding love of the blues made it pretty clear onstage that Thunder Bay is a serious blues town. Saturday continued with Big Dave McLean (Winnipeg), the Reverb Rockers (Windsor), and Billy Joe Green (Edmonton) is an aboriginal artist, with an eery resemblance to SRV, who offered a nod to "our sleeping brother across the bay." Harper, from Melbourne, Australia and now working out of Detroit, was much anticipated, and gave a unique harp performance. He was recently at Famous Dave's - when he comes through town again, seek him out, as well as his CDs if you're a harp lover.
Photo © by Tom Asp
Big Walter Smith, who we all know, came next and was given an impromptu "Happy Birthday" song from the audience. Big Walter is a big crowd pleaser, and the same was true at this festival, but to me, his performances are cookiecuttered and uninspired. This writer continues her quest for a global, year-long moratorium on the inevitable "Mustang Sally," the most boring song in the entire world. With Big Walter's great horn section, at least take on "You Can Leave Your Hat On," which gets people to their feet just as fast. The evening ended with Colin James from Vancouver. I've looked for blues clubs in Vancouver - obviously I was looking in the wrong places, because Colin James is a wonderful performer whose CDs I will buy. I'm not much for singalongs, but the memory of "Nothing's Better Than Freedom" gives me a chill as I write. What a beautiful affirmation to end a great day of music! I spoke with many of these artists throughout the festival; particularly memorable is Harper who was very generous with his time and advice. While signing CD's, one fan asked if there was going to be a harp clinic, reminding me that many "fans" experience performances as musicians themselves. (Hopefully festival planners will pick up on the idea of a harp clinic - it's a good one.) When asked what advice he would give a harp player, Harper responded immediately with "Do situps. It strengthens your diaphragm."
Photo © by Ray Stiles
All of these artists could be found after the festival at venues promoted as the Blues Walk, great clubs like Gargoyle's, the Appollo Bar and the Prince Arthur Hotel. These are located just a stone's throw up from the festival park on the bay, and reminded us of Austin, Texas' nightlife.
On Saturday, my Texas friend and I had tracked down a Finnish restaurant she had read about, which turns out to be in a nearby little Finnish neighborhood. In this world, suddenly it was 1958. We feasted on abundant Finnish specialties, leaving me too full for the rice pudding I had promised myself for dessert. When telling our newfound Canadian friends that we had dined at the Hoito, we were told - you have to go back for the pancakes. And so we snuck off again on Sunday, and this time I saved room for rice pudding. I don't know much, but I know that in heaven they will be serving the Hoito's rice pudding.
Sunday continued with Tracy K (Winnipeg) and Rita Chiarelli (Toronto) who are wonderfully powerful musicians. We blabbed like we'd known each other for years. Tracy K has a bit of Janis in her, and is getting going again after a few years off with her kids. She asserts that music is a great place for women. Rita Chiarelli sings alot about Memphis, Elvis and the Mississippi - loves them like an American. Her songs are wonderful, coming out of her own life's lessons. She's being booked into Quebec, a startling development in Canada as Quebec is somewhat of a flyover zone, with a music culture unheard of elsewhere. I hope someone books these women into the Twin Cities. Their performances were all-out and soulful.
Photo © by Ray Stiles
Reverend Raven and the Chain Smokin' Altar Boys (from Milwaukee) came next and dragged along R.J. Mischo. I can never get enough of these guys. Like Lamont Cranston, who followed them, there is so much musical energy onstage that it just can't be contained. Their brand of blues is inspired and inspiring. I have so much respect for the Lamont Cranston band. They treat every performance like it's their first and their last. There's no holding back ever. I've listened to this band my entire adult life (which is a pretty long time) and their music is always changing, while distinctly their own.
Photo © by Ray Stiles
Jeff Healey and his Jazz Wizards were anticipated all weekend. Virtually every Canadian I talked to said that this is not the Jeff Healey band they are used to. From my perspective, it was the perfect end to a perfectly great festival. They played great old jazz - fabulous. Jeff Healey, who is blind, can play any instrument put in front of him, and does. His performance was soulful, edgey and energetic. He's a risk taker in his music, and not willing to limit himself. I don't know yet what his other stuff sounds like, but his jazz and blues are great. The crowd lost its energy with the female vocalist he featured for a bit too long, but came back for a strong finish, and a great ending to a festival successful beyond it's wildest dreams.
After the festival, everyone hoofed up the hill to the Prince Arthur, where Reverend Raven and R.J.Mischo were goin' at it. Lamont Cranston took over, with contributions from Tracy K. and Jeff Healey jammin with Pat Hayes on harps - an awesome performance.
Photo © by Ray Stiles
Several things made this weekend memorable. First of course, is just getting away to a beautiful place. On a whim I had dragged my friend up from Texas, cause I wanted her to see the beautiful North Shore. Next was the opportunity to hear some great musicians I had never heard of before - but definitely will again - mixed in with some favorites I already knew. All of these artists are international acts. Not to be forgotten are wonderful people associated with this festival, particularly Norm Sponchia, who I cannot say enough good things about, making sure I got access to every artist, Murray Armstrong who showed us all that one person's idea can make a difference in the world, Barry Streib whose technical expertise put this festival on a professional level and Charla Robinson. Next was just watching a real community pride grow in these cool Canadians. Hopes and plans are high for future festivals, including expansion of the park. I'll bet every resident of Thunder Bay would be happy to chip in on this one. This weekend prompted me to think alot about the effort and creativity we can bring to our lives and our work, those old hippie beliefs about making the world a better place. The world is definitely a better place with the TBay Bluesfest in it. The only bad thing about this weekend is that the music was so great, we didn't do any other sightseeing, and Thunder Bay is a gorgeous destination for that, with lots of historical stuff, art and unbelievable scenery. Next year I've promised myself I'll spend a day on the Sleeping Giant.
And, next year I want to get a busload or a planeload of people to go along........Check out the websites of all of these artists as well as the festival website: www.tbayblues.ca. Put this on your calendar - the weekend after the 4th of July. This is the best party you'll find. Dust off your passport. The only thing missing was fireworks. And a booth serving the Hoito's rice pudding
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