Billed as a 'carnival of the blues', Canada's biggest blues festival celebrated its 10th anniversary on a grandiose scale over 10 nights with world music featured on 10 stages. The music ranged from hard core blues (Pinetop Perkins, Walter 'Wolfman' Washington) to pop (Blue Rodeo) to classic rock (Allman Brothers) to funk (Kool & The Gang) and everything in between. Its hard to imagine the promoters having the foresight to know what their inaugural one-stage, three-day event was to become. Initially, the format included local blues artists with a few national and international acts. It quickly attracted the largest names in the blues such as Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison and Robert Cray. As the years passed, the venue changed locales many times from its initial Majors Hill Park site. Other locations included: Confederation Park and LeBreton Flats while additional stages were added with the following themes: gospel, acoustic and Louisiana. As the duration of the festival increased, a wider range of music began to be booked on the ever increasing number of stages. Music of all genres is now represented. This has been a contentious issue for blues purists. However, at the end of the day, there is still plenty of blues to be found at this festival. Attendees may need to spend a little extra time scanning the schedule to find the blues but it is still there. Having attended many blues festivals throughout Canada and the United States, the Ottawa Bluesfest continues to be one of the most professionally organized and proficiently run events on North American soil. In fact, this year they were recipients of the prestigious Keeping The Blues Alive Award presented by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. Nowadays, the headliners are rarely blues, e.g., Dan Ackroyd, Jim Belushi and Blue Rodeo, but this means there is extra time to enjoy the city's restaurants and nightlife. This year's festivities took place in and around City Hall. What follows are the highlights from the second weekend, July 11-13, of the festival.
Massachusetts native Susan Tedeschi hit the stage with a quadruple-threat: great looks, intense vocals, diverse guitar playing and wide-appealing songs. Anyone who enjoys upbeat music with a catchy beat was transfixed. Susan's glorious vocals and boastful guitar was heard on a series of cuts from both of her stunning CDs. "Hampmotized" was a modern-day get down and shake it tune. The greasy funk on this heavy mix contained rampant picking. "I Fell In Love" was a 1950s rock and roll groove in the vein of "Whole Lotta Shakin". Later, she dedicated a song to Pinetop Perkins who was seated at the side of the stage. She is obviously a fan of swirling piano-works having had Johnnie Johnson guest on her latest disc. With radiant confidence, Susan Tedeschi and her delicate-yet-decadent vocals holds the future of roots rock. There were only three disappointments: although her husband, Derek Trucks, was backstage he did not jam with her, she couldn't quite belt out the lyrics to "It Hurt So Bad" and the Pooh guitar was missing.
23,000 came out to witness classic rock legends, the Allman Brothers Band, and no one left disappointed. They opened with "It's Not My Cross To Bear" and proceeded to play plenty of tunes from the new CD Hittin' The Note. Pinetop Perkins came out and jammed on "Little School Girl". Staple tunes such as "Statesboro Blues", "Southbound", "No One To Run With" and "Elizabeth Reed" drove the masses into a sheer frenzy throughout the band's two and a half hour concert. The one and only encore was "One Way Out". The psychedelic light show was new and improved since the last I saw them in '99.
Former International Blues Challenge winner Richard Johnston performed on the acoustic stage which was set up in the city council chambers. Having seen Johnston perform at his regular gig on Memphis' Beale Street, this was not his customary setting. Surprisingly, most of his first-ever Canadian audience was unaware of his style of music, his accomplishments and his uniqueness. They received a ballistic orientation to foot-stomping, primitive hillbilly country blues. Johnson mixes North Mississippi blues with Appalachian bluegrass to create a music that is a sign of the times. His music lends itself to the hip-hop culture giving the blues new freedom and life. Richard's big eyes and big smile indicated how much fun he was having as he performed in coveralls and played barefoot. The Houston, TX native spent time in Japan before returning to the U.S. in '98. He settled in the Memphis area where he heard Junior Kimbrough's music and went nuts. He still gets excited when recalling that moment. Johnson stated, "I'm never coming down from that experience. Some people say Junior is the beginning and ending of all music and they just might be right." He became enthralled with Kimbrough and was determined to learn his style of music. "I believe if you want to study Kung Fu, then go to China. If you want to learn the blues, go to Mississippi." He did just that and ended up holding a steady gig at Junior's Juke Joint. Although a one-man act, he essentially gets the sounds of a three piece (drums, guitar & bass) at a minimum. Since he is in complete control, he gets to mix things up and take the music in different directions. He feels he, "could never get a band to do that unless I owned them like robots. There's never been anyone like me on the festival circuit. Some clubs won't book me because they think I can't hold the interest of a crowd for three hours. I play seven to eight hours on Beale for thousands and they don't go anywhere. That proves what you can do with the right equipment in your hands." His Lowe Bo (a diddley bo made from a cigar box by John Lowe) never fails to astound the public. "People respond to it because its such a simple instrument. They can't believe the sound you get from it."
Bob Margolin met Muddy Waters in 1973 and was a member of his band until 1980. Since 2000, Margolin's traveling revues have included many of the surviving Chicago blues greats. Prior to Pinetop Perkins taking the stage, Bob warmed up the crowd with a series of old-style pure blues songs from his All-Star Blues Jam album. He played his obligatory wicked slide guitar. Best known for his days spent with Muddy Waters, acclaimed pianist Perkins never became a major star. He has always been more comfortable backing up someone else and playing with friends. However, when it comes to blues piano, the frail 90 year old Perkins may easily be the heavyweight champ after nearly a 70 year career. Pinetop was perky on piano but after the set he looked very frail and needed to be escorted to the CD tent via a ride in a golf cart. Southside Steve Marriner and Johnny Sansone jammed on the harp with Margolin & Pinetop in what must have been a thrill of a lifetime for them.
Some artists require a few tunes before their nerves settle and the audience really gets into their music. That was not the case with Tommy Castro. His grooves instantly got into the listener's bloodstream and memory banks. Songwriting is just one of Tommy's talents. All tunes performed featured his signature whiskey-drenched voice and flawless vital guitar playing. Tommy and his band have contributed significantly to developing the contemporary roots rock sound of today. Backing Castro was a clan of seasoned supremos including the wild and lively bass playing of Randy McDonald.
With hair like Joe Cocker at Woodstock, a retro dressed Anthony Gomes fused blues, soul, gospel, R&B, funk and rock into every note, vocal and song he delivered. When you look and listen to him, you can't help thinking he is living in the wrong era. A born and bred Canadian, Anthony Gomes relocated to Chicago and trained at the hand of the Windy City's blues greats and contemporary artists. Most recently he has been tried and true at Nashville's Congo Square. Later he reflected upon spending time in two of America's most musical towns. "Chicago raised the bar and made me realize I had to be more original and embrace what is me. Nashville was more transitional. I had a bigger band and it was a good growth period." Festival-goers celebrated and danced to his high energy, careening blues which deviates from stereotypical down-in-the-dumps blues. His intense backing band almost had as much enthusiasm as him especially Dustin Sargent on bass. Nothing about his music revealed Anthony's youth. Without a doubt, he is vocally and musically ahead of his time. His guitar work was stellar and on each pumping tune he exuded the fact that he felt the music in his soul. Although he performs with lots of facial grimaces, Gomes isn't one to simply go though the motions. "I always follow my heart. Whatever I do will never be contrived. I feel like I have a responsibility to entertain. People have a tough life. The worst thing is when you go to see a band and they aren't happy to be there. My job is to entertain and present people with a rich, musical experience and make them feel good about living. At the same time, you got to have a balance. You need a serious side to the playful side." Take for instance his inspirational and emotionally charged rendering of "Darkest Before The Dawn". "I look at songs as messages. Its tough being on the road, running on next to no sleep, dealing with club owners who give you a hard time, etc. Then someone approaches you and says my daughter died of cancer and your song helped me through it. My songs are very personal but they aren't about me, they are about everybody. It's about healing, it's about nurturing." The spectators experienced plenty of that with the steamy, hip-grindin', funkified blues of Anthony Gomes. "I want to keep getting better and keep giving back to the audience. We kick ass and give 110% whether its five or 5,000. I would like mainstream media become less centralized and less controlled by the MTVs and corporations. Whether or not everyone with the money wants that to happen or not it will because you can't build something on a shaky foundation and that is what they have done. Record sells are down, people are tired of it and real music will survive."
Prior to this year's Handy Awards, I had heard rumblings about an exciting and exceptional new artist. Since I had not seen or heard Robert Randolph, I wasn't prepared for the alluring and unorthodox experience at the Handys. For his Ottawa appearance, my expectations were exceptionally high and I wasn't disappointed. A carnival of American roots music is the best way to describe what he does. A few notes into his raucous sacred steel set, he was dripping in sweat, giving it his all. Both Gomes and Randolph had energy with a purpose that the congregation sensed and fed upon. They delivered similar messages (love and peace) but you just knew Robert's hard times have been more intense than Anthony's. Like my first Randolph experience, much of the gathering couldn't believe their eyes and ears. His performance was truly amazing and a magical moment. He just tore it up for over an hour and the witnesses loved him. Even Mark Monahan (artistic director for the festival) & A.J. Sauve (festival director of communications) came out to see what all the fuzz was about. Randolph played many songs from his Handy Award winning CD Live At The Wetlands including "The March", "Pressing My Way" and "I Don't Know What You Come To Do". The later was bountiful in Pentecostal connections. It was truly the best 75 minutes I have experienced musically for a long time. Without a doubt, Robert was the best artist who did not appear on the mainstage yet was worthy of performing on it. For those who missed his act, quite simply they missed the best act of the weekend. Randolph left many feeling high and happy with silly giddiness. Two things hit you when you see or hear Robert perform: 1) you get so caught up in the music, you become oblivious to everything else in your life 2) you know you are experiencing something new and great which is bound for glory. Finally, after years of big corporations determining what we hear and what we don't hear, real music has returned. The wait is over, the messiah is here.
For the most part, the festival was blessed with fantastic weather which resulted in more than 220,000 attending over the ten days. On the second weekend, who was it that really stood out? For artists I hadn't seen before, it was the soul of Curtis Salgado and the funky Louisiana grooves of Walter Washington. For previously seen artists, it was Richard Johnson, Robert Randolph and Anthony Gomes. These three artists will attract new fans to the blues while inspiring others that the genre is alive and well. If you have been finding it difficult to convince your friends to attend a blues festival, why not suggest the Ottawa Bluesfest? It offers more than blues and will therefore appeal to a wider and more diverse assembly of patrons. Besides, we all know the artists that your friends will end up enjoying the most are the 'real blues' bands.
Special thanks goes to Andre J. Sauve. For further information about the Ottawa Bluesfest, please visit www.ottawa-bluesfest.ca
Tim Holek - Freelance Journalist/Photographer
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