Simply The Best
“Back to the Blues.” Emblazoned on everything from posters to T-shirts to newspaper ads, the sixth annual Thunder Bay Blues Festival took every opportunity to proudly proclaim its intention to return to the music’s core.
Riding on the key concepts of quality and balance, a stellar lineup of twenty acts tackled the challenge head on in an unprecedented artistic display of vocal, guitar, harmonica and keyboard wizardry that offered concrete value for money, something for every musical taste and admirably gave the ladies their well deserved share of the spotlight. The result was immediate and unanimous as blues fans traveled from as far and wide as California, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, the Maritimes, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to declare the sixth annual Thunder Bay Blues Festival the best blues festival in Canada!
Marquee acts anchor any festival and the Thunder Bay Blues Festival had three stunning headline performers who packed Marina Park every night as the setting sun cast a rosy red glow across the harbor. Canada’s quintessential blues band for the past 35 years, the legendary Downchild Blues Band, were a crackling lightning bolt of swing, jazz and jive energy on Friday night. Like a volcano always threatening to erupt, Colin James pumped up the festivities on Saturday with an absolutely killer utterance that has made him the supreme tour guide of pop, blues and little big band drive for more than a quarter of a century. A wail rising to a roar, Freedom has been a highlight of the three Thunder Bay Blues Festivals at which James has appeared. We’ll discuss Sunday’s closer, the Jeff Healey Blues Band, later.
Far more than the last act of the day, a blues festival is an adventure in music that takes an audience down into the trenches where real people bump into real life and introduces them to performers that surprise, entice, tantalize and win them over to the music. Janiva Magness, stunning two-time consecutive winner for Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year, did precisely that with her opening vocal salvo of the festival. Acclaimed, decorated, revered, Colin Linden followed up with a rootsy performance that brandished earthy musical delights.
With masters like Charlie Baty, David Gogo, Sue Foley, Chris Duarte, Debbie Davies, Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Henry Carvajal on hand it’s not difficult to understand why the electric guitar has emerged as the dominant instrument in present-day blues music. Collectively, they worked their fret board magic on every style of playing from subtly sublime to over-the-top outrageous and every shade of blues, jazz, rock and swing leaving in tatters any and all preconceived notions of what a guitar might reasonably be expected to do.
Unwilling to be outdone in the virtuosity department or to have their cherished instrument take a back seat Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza, Donny Walsh and Chuck Jackson put the tiny but oh so tuneful harmonica through its wailing paces and Michael Kaeshammer and Honey Piazza opened eyes as well as ears with rollicking phrases and boogie-woogie thunder that was flat-out keyboard fun.
People must be wondering what they are putting in the drinking water in Saskatchewan after witnessing the zest and vitality of wonderful young talents like Roxanne Potvin (Regina) and Kyle Riabko (Saskatoon). And the Thunder Bay Blues Festival simply would not be complete without the horn driven R&B rhythms of Big Walter Smith & the Groove Merchants.
How about a huge round of applause for our home grown blues bands Slap Johnson & the Trowelers, the Carruthers Brothers Band, Dr. Buck & the Bluesbangers and Bourbon Haze who consistently set the performance bar so high that nothing but the finest effort from those who followed would do.
One of the most refreshing and disarming aspects about blues music is its lack of pretension. Most blues artists spurn bombast, push sincerity to the fore and keep their egos on a short leash in a hip pocket. Where else but a blues festival would you see a banner act like Colin James invite harmonica ace Rick Estrin on stage for the opening number of his set and call on Roxanne Potvin to light an encore duet on fire? Where else would you see Rod Piazza and Rick Estrin, two of the greatest harp players on planet earth, treat their audience to a lip-twisting harmonica extravaganza? Where else would you see Debbie Davies and Roxanne Potvin stand toe-to-toe and test each other riff-for-delicious riff? These were just some of the spontaneous pairings that made the sixth annual Thunder Bay Blues Festival not only memorable but truly unique!
Ultimately, blues music has always been about the song and the delivery; connecting the emotion of the right here and right now to an audience. The Thunder Bay Blues Festival may have presented the “Back to the Blues” theme on paper but more than any other act, Sunday night’s star attraction, the Jeff Healey Blues Band, captured the passion and spontaneity of its spirit transforming mere performance into emotional experience.
In a program cleverly conceived and expertly executed, Healy and company did it superbly, presenting a terse but telling lesson in the history of blues, roots and rock. Robert Johnson, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, The Band and ACDC, the names rolled by in a compelling pantheon of originators and innovators bringing people to their feet time and time again.
In a dazzling display of musical acumen, Healey’s encore performance of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps proved to be a not-so-subtle reminder of blues music’s continued ability to influence and inspire. However, the show stopper of the weekend was Healey’s astonishingly emotive and supercharged rendition of All Along the Watchtower that had Jimi Hendrix sitting up in his grave to listen and Bob Dylan grinning from ear to ear with paternal pride.
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 sponsors, politicians and tireless volunteers who breathed new life into the festival. Finally, thanks to everyone who put their iPods, mp3 players and remote controls on pause for the weekend and bought a ticket to support live music at the best blues festival in Canada, the sixth annual Thunder Bay Blues Festival. See you all next year.