Hot Blues by the Bay
“Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once
And when you’re dead you’re done, so
Let the good times roll”
Marvellous local blues singer, Chrissy Ewacha belted out those words from the Louis Jordan classic “Let the Good Times Roll” to launch her set and an incredible Saturday of blues music. The lyrics may be 60 years old but their sentiment of whole heartedly embracing life’s joyful moments is timeless and perfectly expressed the gala mood of the seventh annual Thunder Bay Blues Festival.
This year, more than 13,500 fans docked their iPods, surrendered their remote controls, parked their cares with their cars and set their fun meters to max as they headed down to Marina Park. They came for the music. But, they also came for the “blues festival experience” – the relaxed, carefree atmosphere, catching up on life with old friends while enjoying a cold beverage and three glorious days of sunny summer skies and cool Lake Superior breezes.
Unsurpassed in North America, the 2008 edition of the Thunder Bay Blues Festival featured a stellar international line up lifted directly from the pages of blues music’s who’s who. With a focus on the two dominant instruments of contemporary blues, the festival was a paradise for fans of the electric guitar and harmonica. Sixteen of the twenty-one bands had never played in the city before. Appropriately, they made their debut on the new permanent concrete stage at Marina Park. The audience was international too, coming from all over North America and as far away as Melbourne, Australia to join in the festivities.
“I’m going to play my guitar for you today like it’s my last time.” That’s the blues man’s credo as stated by Guitar Shorty, an unwritten work ethic to deliver the best show possible that every performer at this year’s blues festival achieved with flying colours. Not one prone to idle boasting, Guitar Shorty set a fine example on Sunday afternoon. With tone to die for and chops to live for, he made a record setting walk through the crowd playing his guitar with his teeth and derrière.
Expectations run high when it comes to headline acts but this year’s trio of closers easily rose to the challenge of putting nothing but their finest on stage. Wonderfully dynamic, Roomful of Blues lit up Friday night with a scintillating show full of bounce, jump and swing, as well as the punch of their world-famous horns. Holding nothing back on Saturday, Kenny Wayne Shepherd opened ears and eyes as he rocked Marina Park to its Precambrian foundation with a performance that smoked like an overheated Texas barbecue. Sunday’s marquee act, the Fabulous Thunder Birds, rolled out the supreme take on “cool.” A lip-twisting extended harmonica solo from bandleader Kim Wilson was the sweetest icing on a classic cake layered from Texas roadhouse fare, Memphis soul and West Coast jive.
The bulk of any blues festival belongs to those inclined to musical adventure and there were plenty of sonic wonders on offer. Consider Bernard Allison’s hip, funky groove machine, the ultimate lowdown on uptown blues that featured some startling slide guitar wizardry. The Slidin’ Clyde Roulette Band were the frisky purveyors of deluxe party merrymaking while Kelley Richey was a passionate powerhouse of guitar and vocal flourish.
No one captures a heart with a blue note better than the only performer to have played at each and every Thunder Bay blues Festival, Big Walter Smith & his ever “grooving” Merchants. It is hardly surprising that everyone was totally impressed with seventeen-year-old Canadian guitar sensation, Jimmy Bowskill. He’s the future of the genre and a total credit to it! B. B. King. Muddy Waters, gypsy violin with a blues obbligato, the off-the-wall spontaneity of Papa Duke drew a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd. Canada’s Mojomama, Tracy K and Her Right Hand Band were right on the money with an animated set of free wheeling standards and originals.
No one can fathom the level of talent that it takes to play with John Mayall’s legendary band the Bluesbreakers until they have experienced former members Coco Montoya and Walter Trout live. Unbelievable, dazzling virtuosos, to have these two stunning performers billed at the same festival was nothing less than extraordinary! Montoya spilled out the most exquisite slow blues solo of the weekend, while Trout, a guitar monster ever true to his reputation for lavish excess, overwhelmed with raging extravagance. Closing in on this sparkling mark was Jon Amor, a lanky Brit built on a 6’3’’ frame proffering blues rock and boogies as thick and luscious as fresh cream. Bolstered by the brassy excitement of trumpet and tenor sax, blues music’s Entertainer of the Year, Tommy Castro, put on a show bursting with hip California grooves (complete with dark shades) and killer, testifying guitar.
Amazing harmonica maestro, Jason Ricci and his genre-bending band New Blood took their audience for a flamboyant “Walk on the Wild Side” with a truly cutting edge, tour de force performance. Maple Blues Harmonica Player of the Year, David Rotundo and his troupe were the hardest working band at the festival. A genuine entertainer, Rotundo’s restless good-time tempos and double entendres were a smash hit.
Local blues outfits, Daisy Chain, Dr. Buck & the Bluesbangers and the Dirty Down Blues Band all turned in terrific performances that were definitely of the same calibre as this world-class event.
Every blues festival creates special moments that make it both unique and memorable. Here are just a few highlights. Chrissy Ewacha leading hundreds of fans singing Happy 78th Birthday to Big Walter Smith while Thunder Bay Community Auditorium general manager Bob Halvorsen presented the Ambassador to the Blues with a cake (lemon filling of course). Bernard Allison, David Rotundo and Vasyl Popadiuk performing up close in the crowd. The spectacle created by thousands on their feet singing the chorus of “Blue on Black” with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band. Walter Trout and Guitar Shorty standing toe-to-toe, notes arcing like sparks between fret boards literally inches apart. Heartfelt tributes paid to the memory of Jeff Healey who passed away on March 2 at age forty-one from peers Coco Montoya and Walter Trout and the Thunder Bay Blues Festival.
A very special thank you goes out to Bob Halvorsen and the hard-working staff at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium as well as the generous sponsors, politicians, tireless volunteers and faithful fans that make this festival happen. Special mention to the unsung heroes of live music, the technical staff who get the bands on stage and make them all sound great. See you all next year.