Ever since I started attending the Ottawa Bluesfest there has been a consistent rumbling, a grudging mumbling, a curmudgeonly grumbling that has always mystified me. It went like this: “Why do they even call this a blues festival?” Fortunately this squeaky little whine never elevated to a full rallying cry, at least not one that could be heard over the volume of bands like Iron Maiden, Hedley, or Kool & the Gang. And while I understand that the most prominent bookings at the Bluesfest do not fall solidly into Jaybird Coleman-era field hollers or early John Lee Hooker haw-haw-haw-haw’s, I will argue all day long that there’s a good reason that every stage holds it’s fair share of I-IV-V progressions in a solid twelve-bar format, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’re done arguing.
However the more discerning argument against the naysayers (who can always be found somewhere on site, arms folded and frowning) can be capsulated here, in my reporting of July 9th, 2007 when I made my way to LeBreton Flats to catch a few chords (three, to be exact) and drink a few beers (again, probably three, maybe four).
I’ve said it before but here I am saying it again, in question form: Can you name ten blues acts? Hold on now, can you name ten blues acts that are alive? And for extra points, can you name ten blues acts that are currently on tour? (If you manage to name ten blues acts that are not only on tour, but are available for an Ontario booking in the first two weeks of July then you probably run a blues festival.)
If you succeeded, I’m assuming that the names Johnny Lang and Buddy Guy are on your list. They are? Well, whattya know, they both played sets at the festival on this night, I saw ‘em both, and they were both fantastic. So don’t say the Ottawa Bluesfest doesn’t book blues acts. They tend to book every single one that is available, and they put them on some of the biggest stages in front of some of the biggest audiences and give them one of the the biggest paycheques they will likely see on their whole tour.
Now don’t you even start! Yes, I know Hedley can hardly be called a blues band and that their teen-aimed set of power chord rockers on the main stage was far and away the biggest draw of this very evening, but just how do you think the fest is supposed to afford to pay acts like Buddy Guy and Johnny Lang the money they deserve and put them in front of such big crowds? By selling tickets to all the blues aficionados out there? Ha! Trust me, it’s been tried and failed a thousand times over, which is why a) blues festivals fail and b) the Bluesfest succeeds.
Niche is not very popular (by definition), so pop supports niche. This way everyone can be happy. Except niche purists, those nose-scrunching atavists who tend to stay home anyway and usually don’t have very many friends. To them I say unfold those arms and raise them up in the air, for the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll!
(And if Muddy Waters ain’t blues enough for you, well then I just don’t know what to tell ya.)