For 3 ice-cold Canadian winter days in Toronto, 150 blues professionals of all types (media, promoters, agents, labels, musicians) from all across North America gathered at the first ever Blues Summit. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for many to network amongst blues industry peers. Throughout the conference, there were numerous sessions on: marketing the blues; history of the blues; running blues festivals and life in the blues clubs. From a fan's perspective, one of the highlights was the musical showcases presented each evening. The culmination of the extravagant event occurred at the 6th annual Maple Blues Awards. These yearly awards are presented to honour excellence in the field of Canadian Blues talent.
Things kicked off Saturday evening with a welcome reception hosted by Fred Litwin's award winning NorthernBlues Music. It was a great way to meet, greet and put a face to a name behind an e-mail address. Those present felt like an extended family brought together by the love of the music and a common goal to keep it alive. There, Litwin made a couple special announcements. His label has signed Toni Lynn Washington and is working on a Johnny Cash tribute CD. Later that evening, Steve Rowe heated up the Silver Dollar Room by performing many tunes from his soon to be released 2nd CD "No Refund No Return". However, Kenny 'Blues Boss' Wayne easily stole the show with his dazzling dexterity on the 88s. His Kansas City boogie-woogie piano had the house hopping.
The conference keynote speaker was Alligator Records founder and president, Bruce Iglauer. He addressed all the delegates at a Sunday luncheon. In this forum, he was not in his usual element. He appears far more at home dressed in a baseball cap with a cigar in hand when you encounter him at clubs in Chicago and festivals in the U.S.. However, his quick wit and approachable nature dissipated any discomfort. After thanking Richard Flohil and Dick Waterman (both in attendance) Iglauer returned to his written script. Loosely following it, he spoke about 2003 being the Year Of The Blues. He addressed the need to nurture artists to take over the blues ambassadorship from B.B. King when he can do it no longer. Bruce also spoke about the importance of nurturing new fans to the genre to keep it alive before reminiscing about the old days at Teresa's. In those days, blues was a neighbourhood institution played by people who had grown up together. The music was like a medicine and it captivated him because he had never been in an environment with more joy even though the club performers and regulars were oppressed. Blues was a healing music for those who lived it. In order for the blues to thrive in the generations to come, he recommended 2 things. One, forget playing the stereotypical, traditional blues songs. The blues will not continue if it's songs are about the past as opposed to what is relevant now. Two, forget the extended guitar solos and focus on what came first - the words/vocals and the groove. When it comes time for the guitar solo, it needs to be performed with the same emotions as the vocals. Take your time, build toward a climax and the important notes will come out. Bottom line - don't make new blues that sounds like old blues. (Wait a minute Bruce, these are excellent points but hasn't Alligator just released CDs featuring blues guitarists and old style Chicago blues?) Mr. Iglauer was quite taken back when his talk received a standing ovation.
Later, Dick Waterman told fantastic stories to match his emotion-laden photos. The best story was when he chewed out Muddy Waters in front of his band-members after an inadequate performance. Waters called Dick aside and told him he deserved the scolding and suggested that Dick keep managing blues artists and producing blues events. Right then and there, Waterman knew his days as a sports writer were over for good. Dick Waterman has been more than just the eye behind the photo lens. He has lived the blues with its artists. The evening's surprise smash at the showcases was the Pappy Johns Band. This award-winning First Peoples blues act delivered awesome soul and R&B. Lead vocalist, Faron Johns, resembles John Candy but has more roadhouse in him than Delbert McClinton. Songwriter/keyboard player Murray Porter impressed with his chops too. Their original tunes spoke of the red man singing the black man's blues living in a white man's world. Jack de Keyzer was absolutely on fire with the spark of harp-meister David Rotundo. The songs in Jack's set included most cuts from his stunning "Six String Lover" CD. Throughout, he took extended guitar solos and jammed amazingly with harp demon David. They must have heard Iglauer as all solos where saturated with feeling. de Keyzer received the loudest crowd reaction of the evening. They simply loved him. It was his night and he owned them. Soul, R&B, and funk-grinders Fathead were up to the challenge of following Jack and closing the showcase. Two of Fathead's more distinguished sounds came from Al Lerman's notorious harp and John Mays' enchanting vocals. Other Summit showcase performers included Sue Foley, Charlie A'Court, Tony D, David Gogo, Doc Maclean, Rob Lutes, Michael Pickett and Michael Jerome Browne.
Canada's version of the Handys took place on what felt like the coldest night of the year. However, once inside the Phoenix Concert Theatre, the excitement and camaraderie began to melt the cold-front that held the city in its grasp. This year's host was Colin James. He dedicated the Awards show to Richard Newell (King Biscuit Boy), a Canadian blues legend who died in January. The party began with a stunning performance by the Maple Blues Band. This group of elite Canadian Blues talent included: Gary Kendall musical director/bass, Tom Bona drums, Michael Fonfara keyboards, Jack de Keyzer guitar, Al Lerman harmonica/tenor sax, Chris Murphy sax and Pat Carey sax. Just listening to this band was worth the price of admission. Hopefully someone with the Toronto Blues Society was wise enough to capture it for a CD release. Colin James joined the band and burned with his style of swinging, rockin' blues. Then it was time to hand out the awards. Blues industry leaders were used as the presenters. They included: Rob Bowman, Bruce Iglauer, Brent Staeben, Danny Marks, Colin James, Bill King, Holger Petersen and Derek Andrews. To break the monotony, there were performances after every few awards. Those who entertained were: Kenny 'Blues Boss' Wayne, Michael Jerome Browne and Sue Foley.
Once again singer/songwriter/guitarist Sue Foley took home the most awards. For the third year in a row she won Entertainer of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. After receiving her first 3 awards, it became increasingly difficult to have something to say. On her fourth trip to the podium, she couldn't think of anyone to thank except the fans. (Shouldn't they always be thanked first?) Her fifth and final acceptance speech simply consisted of 'thanks'.
Once the awards had all been handed out, it was time for the musical highlight of the evening. The Maple Blues Band broke into a jam with many of the award winners. First, Colin James got up and kicked it out one final time. Then, individually, Chuck Jackson, John Mays, David Gogo, Sue Foley, David Rotundo and Kenny 'Blues Boss' Wayne came up and demonstrated why they received awards earlier in the evening. The musical orgy climaxed with David Gogo, Terry Wilkins, Chuck Jackson, David Rotundo and Southside Steve Marriner joining the Maple Blues Band for an incredible bursting blues blowout.
The 6th Annual Maple Blues Award winners were as follows, in order of presentation:
Acoustic Act of the Year: Harry Manx
Electric Act of the Year: Sue Foley
New Artist of the Year: David Rotundo & The Blue Canadians
International Artist of the Year: Duke Robillard
Drummer of the Year: Tom Bona
Bassist of the Year: Gary Kendall
Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year: Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne
Horn Player of the Year: Pat Carey
Harmonica Player of the Year: Michael Pickett
Guitarist of the Year: David Gogo
Male Vocalist of the Year: John Mays
Female Vocalist of the Year: Sue Foley
Recording of the Year: Where the Action Is (Sue Foley)
Producer of the Year: Colin Linden
SOCAN Songwriter of the Year: Sue Foley
Entertainer of the Year: Sue Foley
Blues With a Feeling Award: Chuck Jackson
Blues Booster of the Year: Andrew Galloway
Was Sue Foley really deserving of 5 awards? No awards ceremony is perfect and so this year's winners will probably be debated right up until next year's awards are handed out. Award nominees are selected by a distinguished panel of blues DJs and journalists from across Canada. The winners were chosen by votes from TBS members, in conjunction with members of blues organizations in Montreal, Ottawa, Windsor and Thunder Bay as well as the Manitoba Blues Society, the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society in B.C., CBC Radio's Saturday Night Blues, and the Harvest Jazz and
Blues Festival in New Brunswick. The general public was also invited to vote by simply requesting a ballot from the TBS. One thing is for sure - Derek Andrews and the rest of the Toronto Blues Society are to be commended for putting the Summit and Awards on.
For further information about the Blues Summit and the Maple Blues Awards, contact the Toronto Blues Society: www.torontobluessociety.com
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