In just 6 years the Ottawa Blues Festival has become the largest blues festival in Canada and second largest in North America. This can be attributed to executive director Mark Monahan. He runs a professional and well organized festival. The first one featured 3 days of music and attracted 10,000 people. This year’s festival ran for 5 days and was attended by an average of 20,000 daily!
It’s a festival proud to feature all types of roots music. In addition to the monster-sized main stage, today’s brightest gospel artists perform in the Gospel Tent while the sounds of the Delta can be heard coming from the Acoustic Stage. New this year were focused workshops held by blues luminaries such as Kaz Kazanoff and Dick Waterman. The only disappointing thing was the sound quality. The crew struggled all weekend to perfect it for each performer.
5 piece local band the Mud Boys lead off Saturday with a set of covers from the likes of Jr Wells and Billy Boy Arnold. Founding member Dean Dupuis was superb on the harp.
Bill ‘the Sauce Boss’ Wharton played an entertaining set while cooking a large pot of gumbo onstage. His ‘cooking’ antics were a huge hit. Some called it shtick or a gimmick, but Wharton says "it's two things that I've always loved to do--play music and cook dinner!" He and the band dished out a musical gumbo of southern rock, blues, swamp pop and R&B.
They began with Bill’s anthem "Let The Big Dog Eat" and he hit the stage wearing his trademark chef uniform. He is capable of playing some wicked slide and did that on Robert Johnson’s immortal "Walkin Blues". Excellent support was provided by the Ingredients especially JB on keyboards/organ. At times when Bill was busy ‘cooking’, the band broke into some New Orleans style boogie woogie. In 1999, Jimmy Buffett wrote a song called "I Will Play for Gumbo". Its about a day in the life of Wharton. As a tribute to his friend, Sauce Boss played a few bars of "Margaritaville" to the ecstatic crowd. As for the gumbo, the following comments where overheard: "it was stone cold", "best gumbo I have had", and "get me some water to wash this terrible taste from my mouth".
Sista Monica was the hottest contemporary female artist at the festival. Born and raised in Gary, IN, she spent almost ten years in Chicago, before relocating to California. She made a career move in 1992 to become the next blues lioness.
Her band began with some swinging blues that featured each member on a solo. Guitarist Sammy Varela was exceptional. Then the lady herself appeared with her rough voice and neon orange outfit that closely matched the colour of her hair. They played many originals such as "The Sista Don’t Play" with its laying down the law lyrics. She got the crowd jumping with James Brown’s "Put It In The Crock Pot" funk. Her powerful, rich voice was full of feeling and passion in her tribute to Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin on "Its A Shame, Its A Mystery". This song was the strongest to feature her gospel roots. "Stop Talkin’ Bout Me Stalkin’ You", was her final scorching number.
Acoustic trio Saffire -- The Uppity Blues Woman have become one of the blues' most popular attractions. They began with their hit "Middle Aged Blues Boogie". This was followed with a tune that describes what guitarist/vocalist Gaye Adegbalola sees in the mirror, a "Silver Beaver". This hilarious play on words had a special meaning to the mostly Canadian crowd since the beaver appears on a Canadian coin. Gaye went on to perform "Big Ovaries, Baby" from her recent solo CD. Their comical sexual innuendo laden lyrics had the crowd in hysterics while the musical talents of Gaye, Ann Rabson and Andra Faye were undeniable.
Mighty Sam McClain has persevered many hardships to become a legend of soul music. In the 60s, he recorded at Muscle Shoals studio but his career never really took off. Singing since age 5, Sam’s influences from the Gospel Church choir (where he first sang) are still evident. McClain was backed by a powerhouse 7 piece band complete with trombone, trumpet and sax. Mighty Sam took the stage wearing a dark jacket and pants which contrasted sharply with his uplifting lyrics. His sound was a mix of down-home blues and smooth soul. No wonder they call him "The Soul of America" in Europe. His voice was strong and confident and perfectly matched his lyrics which had a similar tone. The most recognized tune was "New Man In Town" commonly known from the Ally McBeal TV show. He finished with '‘Long Train Running". A perfect closer for his set filled with songs based about the power of love.
About 4 years ago, after a 14 year stint with Chicago's Sons of Blues, Carl Weathersby left in search of a chance to perform less traditional blues. As a youngster, Carl’s family had plenty of musical ties including Albert King. Weathersby still acknowledges King today by always finding time within a set to verbally thank and/or perform one of Albert’s songs.
From the first note of "Don’t Lay Your Blues On Me" the crowd witnessed one of the most intense, emotional, and physically draining performances of the entire weekend. His slick blue suit easily made him the sharpest dressed artist at the festival. The set showcased his triple strengths: a torrid, rapid-fire guitarist; warm and assured vocalist; and versatile songwriter. He performed many songs from his new Come to Papa CD. It is a more soulful and mature sound for Weathersby as compared with his previous discs and live performances. The new mix of songs gives him a chance to display the grace and strength of his soulful voice. However, the music is still unmistakably heartfelt and blues-based with the right amount of funk and R&B.
Carl still enjoys roaming off the stage and performing in the middle of the audience, a trick he did several times. Vital Support provided just that and second guitarist Paul Hendricks was brilliant, too bad he didn’t get to solo more. A touching tribute was given to Johnnie Taylor with "Sometimes All It Takes." Carl’s set culminated with some fierce guitar-playing between himself and Hendricks. You never hear or see the same thing twice with Weathersby.
Al Green was the first great soul singer of the '70s. His classic recordings from that period have retained their power and influence throughout the decades. Green looked like an angel when he appeared onstage dressed completely in white. He tossed red roses repeatedly into the crowd throughout his set. After a few gospel and soul numbers, he seductively sang his hits from the 70s complete with his soaring falsetto, wild moans and wails. He wasn’t deterred by the rain, he walked from the stage into the audience and proclaimed "I’m coming into the rain wi chew". About his 24 piece ensemble (including 3 piece brass, 4 backing singers and 3 dancers) he told the crowd "we packed as many artists from Memphis so you could experience the real thing".
Sunday began with rain and local act, the Trevor Finlay Band. They combined rockabilly, blues, rock and funk to create a high energy set that surely attracted new fans. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Trevor Finlay dressed brightly in red and had a lot of charisma despite the rain. He played passionately and sang fiery. The band absolutely burned through covers: "Bo Diddley", "Train I Ride", and "La Grange". A few originals from their debut CD, "Morning Man" supplemented the set. The raindrops that fell onto the stage, sizzled immediately thanks to the smokin’ heat of this band. Later, Finlay returned to the stage with TJ Wheeler for the Blues In The Schools set which featured local elementary and high school students jamming the blues.
Since 1993, the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings have been blasting out their high energy horn drenched brand of R&B and blues. Prior to '93, they were known as the Mellow Fellows, and they backed giant-sized soul/blues singer Big Twist until his tragic 1990 death. Tenor saxman Terry Ogolini and trumpeter Don Tenuto still comprise the blues’ most dangerous horn section while guitarist David Mick can wail with the best of them. At six-foot-five, 370 pounds new singer Ernie Peniston may almost be as large as Twist. Thanks to his thundering voice and his bright purple outfit, he couldn’t be missed on the musician packed stage. The boys began with a swinging instrumental and then blasted their way through a few covers like "Driving Wheel". But it was the original material from their debut CD that musically excelled. The humorous "Things That Make Me Mad" got even better with "Girlfriend, Woman And Wife". Ernie sang that he almost ruined his life by trying to keep a girlfriend, woman and wife.
Eddie Shaw and the Wolfgang were the original back-up for the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. Today, they are considered one of the premier Chicago blues bands. Eddie played his signature exuberant sax on standards "Howling For My Darling" and "MoJo Workin’". He even surprisingly through in some harp which was awesome. It rained so hard during his set, backstage rumour had it the festival was going to be called off. His son Eddie Vaan Shaw was brilliant on guitar and was easily spotted by his signature dreadlocks.
The pressure was immense for Ottawa-based Tony D. At last year’s festival he filled in for canceled headliner Gladys Knight and not only made the audience forget their disappointment but earned thousands of new fans.
Emigrating as a child with his family from Italy, Tony D has honed his craft in Ottawa's blues bars since the early `80's. Constant touring since then has made him a major draw throughout Canada and especially in Europe.
In fact the Tony D Band raced back from another successful European tour to perform at the Ottawa festival. Tony’s sound was raw and intense on "Hold It", "Collins Mix" and "The Right Kind Of Crazy". His guitar style contained one part B.B., one part Stevie and a double shot of Albert (Collins & King). D was smoldering to the point where his pink Strat was turning red.
He brought out many guest artists to ensure he thrilled the crowd for the second year in a row. Although he could have quite easily blown the crowd away without the guests. His set featured blazing guitar and horn thanks to Jordan Cook (a 16 year old guitar with from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan), John Mooney and the Texas Horns. There was barely any room left on the stage by the time they blistered through "I’m Going Down" for their finale.
Buddy Guy took the stage in trademark coveralls and played a blues guitar laden version of "Mojo Workin’". He followed that with his live staples: "5 Long Years", "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "19 Years Old". His band was stellar with organist Tony Z and former Ronnie Baker Brooks drummer Jerry Porter purely smoking. It was a treat to hear "Feels Like Rain" given the fact most of the audience spent the entire day in a downpour waiting to see this legend. Buddy’s traditional medley of rocker’s tunes from the likes of Clapton and Hendrix preceded the walking through the crowd version of "Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues". It didn’t seem to matter what he played, the crowd responded to his every move and note. He invited Kaz and the Texas Horns to come and jam. Their horn section made the overplayed "Mustang Sally" enjoyable. In typical master entertainer form, Buddy gave special thanks to John Lee Hooker whose spot Buddy took when Hooker canceled due to health reasons. Buddy and band then stormtrooped through "Boom Boom".
A few of the other performers at this year’s fest included: Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, Sue Foley, Geno Delafose, Colin James and Odetta. At the rate that it is growing, don’t be surprised if it becomes the biggest blues festival for all of North America!
This review is copyright © 2000 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.