Friday, October 22, 2010

Blues on the Road: 2010 Kitchener Blues Festival!

By Eric Steiner
This past August, I had the good fortune to attend the 10th Annual Kitchener Blues Festival in Ontario. When I heard that Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records was up for the Mel Brown Award, this piqued my curiosity as Mel had called Kitchener home since the late 80’s. When I read the festival’s line-up, I was intrigued in that I had not heard about 40% of the artists on the bill.

Kitchener is part of the Waterloo region of Ontario, and Waterloo is home to RIM – Research in Motion – the designer and manufacturer of the Blackberry smartphone. The region also offers an array of urban and rural tourism opportunities, and I hope this article encourages readers to learn more about not only the Kitchener Blues Festival, but Kitchener as a travel destination as well.
Honeyboy Edwards: Missisippi Delta Bluesman
The festival featured five stages and more than 60 shows over four days, and headliners included Dr. John, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Honeyboy Edwards, Jonny Lang, Debbie Davies, The Holmes Brothers, Watermelon Slim and the Workers, and Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, among many others. What initially attracted me were the acts I had not heard.

Cheryl Lescom & The Tucson Choir BoysKitchener songbird Cheryl Lescom, Miss Angel (a longtime singer with Mel Brown), guitarist David Wilcox, Jack De Keyser, and John Campbell each were new to my ears, and I think that is what a great blues festival does: it introduces fans to blues talent that may be new to them. Each of these Canadian blues artists put on a top-notch show, and I especially enjoyed rediscovering Moreland and Arbuckle, Paul Reddick and the young blues band Monkeyjunk, and acts like Delta Moon. The weekend also features local Blues in the Schools performances, and many songs are archived on the festival’s web site.

Open HandWhat also intrigued was the array of public and private sponsors the blues festival had. I expected to see local businesses support the event, but I was particularly impressed that there was a substantial investment from the provincial government, and from Heritage Canada, a federal agency that promotes the arts in Canada. The Ontario Cultural Attractions fund and the Ontario Trillium Foundation all support this festival, and I was pleased that this community of less than a quarter of a million people could host such a world-class event. I’ve been to blues festivals large and small, urban and rural, and the Kitchener Blues Festival is at the top of my list for great blues talent, accessibility, and just plan fun.

Each stage had a presenting sponsor: the Main Stage was sponsored by TD Canada Trust, and the Kitchener Business Improvement Area sponsored the Tent Stage, while Reliance (a local tankless water system manufacturer) sponsored the Children’s Stage. The provincial lottery, OLG, sponsored the Clocktower Stage in beautiful Victoria Park, and the Boathouse hosted workshops from Debbie Davies, Honeyboy Edwards, and the Paul James Band played a tribute to another great Chicagobased record label, Chess Records.

Local businesses pitched in an sponsored individual artists, and the 10-member committee behind the festival, the Kitchener Blues Community, Inc., has a real recipe for success in a market the size of the Kitchener-Waterloo region.

I also appreciated the downtown merchants association’s discount card, which I picked up at the BIA booth – it made my Canadian dollars go just a little bit farther at selected stores and restaurants.

The entire festival had a community feel vibe to it, several blocks of King Street closed to car traffic. Think of Seattle’s Ballard Wurst Festival or Saturday market in downtown Edmonds, but with five additional stages focused on blues music. Street vendors included the Grand River Blues Society (which I joined on the spot), the Kitchener Children’s Museum, each presenting sponsor, and local retailers. I went broke saving money at The Orbit thrift store, and the shop’s windows featured LPs of artists slated to play the festival and historical LPs like Junior Well’s Hoodoo ManBlues on Delmark and an early Etta James release on Cadet Records.

Kitchener has a very diverse community, and one of my favorite meals was the jerk chicken at Ellison’s. Proprietor Elvis Ellison (yes, I saw Elvis in Kitchener!) serves up some of the best Caribbean food I’ve ever tasted, and I look forward to returning to his restaurant.

While I thought I took in much of the four-day festival, I missed a lot, including the“12 Bar Blues,” where festival artists play in one of 12 blues bars until late in the night. There’s also a gospel brunch hosted by the Kitchener businesses (Note to self: try to get to each one next year!).

There’s only one remedy for that: when I return, I’ll stay one more night!

As I landed after an eventful four nights in Ontario, I wondered: how can the Washington Blues Society might work to help light the spark that someday, just someday, might turn in to a festival of this size and scope?

I enjoyed the Hampton Inn less than 20 minutes from downtown, and if I return, I’ll likely fly in and out of Toronto. Wait a minute. Make that “when,” and not “if.”

For more information on the Kitchener and Waterloo area, and this exciting blues festival, you can visit:

Ellison’s Bistro:
Kitchener Blues Festival:
Downtown Kitchener:
Kitchener-Waterloo Regional Tourism:
Waterloo Region Record:
More Video From the Festival:

1 comment:

  1. nice trave-a blog on our town and festival . well done but especially thanks for the honeyboy edwards clip. real nice to remember that show.