music by Cheryl Lescom
The Eighth Annual
Kitchener, ON August 7 - 10, 2008
Text and Photos by TIM HOLEK
It’s a free four day festival with five stages, 40 bands, more than 60 shows, and I’m not talking about the Chicago Blues Festival or the Biscuit! I’ve been to those festivals and many others. By comparison, everything about the Kitchener Blues Festival is done professionally, including superior sound and rock concert style stage lighting. As you arrive in the city, you are greeted by a huge blues festival banner that hangs over the main street. From that point on, it was nothing but the blues and unwavering camaraderie.
“It was started [in 2001] to fill a void. A very lively blues music festival scene was missing,” says Rob Deyman, 2008 Chair and co-founder of the festival. The inaugural event took place as a late afternoon/early evening blues concert and it attracted 3,000 people. Now with big name headliners, international artists, regional and local talent, and crowds in the 50,000 to 65,000 range, it is considered a tourism attraction for the city of Kitchener. A volunteer board of directors plays an integral part when it comes to organizing and putting on this festival. Kind donations by primary sponsors TD Canada Trust Music, Tim Horton’s, and the City of Kitchener kept the festival a free event. Costs were also offset from sales of festival t-shirts, CDs, beer can koozies, bags, lighted pins, and programs at a very reasonable price.
Over the years, the festival has added extra stages. This year a tent and children’s stage were added. All weekend there were young families present, which was great to see because that’s a way to introduce another generation to our music. The tent and main stages provide general admission seats but you are welcome to bring a lawn chair. They squish a lot of people into the main stage viewing area which includes some obstructed views due to trees. However, a big video screen assists to ensure almost everyone can see the main stage performers. The food vendors are very good especially the ones located beside the main and tent stages. All five stages are within easy walking distance from each other. During the festival, King Street is open to pedestrian traffic only. The main stage is located beside City Hall where access to City Hall provides relief from the heat (or this year from the cold and damp) and the use of clean washroom facilities. The Walper Terrace and Delta hotels are very close to all the stages. If you stay at either of these hotels, you are bound to run into artists. As an added bonus, you can go back to your room to freshen up or use a proper bathroom. While staying at these hotels, you get the sense that the festival is the biggest and best thing happening in town. In the lobby and elevators, you’ll find festival brochures and after party advertisements.
Temperatures were several degrees below normal, and on Saturday and Sunday it rained, man did it rain. This may have kept some people away but overall it was a solid turnout. I didn’t make it to all the stages and certainly didn’t/couldn’t see all of the bands, but despite the inclement weather, I managed to see everyone that I wanted to see.
Big Brother and the Holding Company featured two original members, David Getz (drums) and Peter Albin (bass). In between songs, they both reminisced about Janis Joplin. On Ball and Chain, Piece of My Heart, Me and Bobby McGee, and Mercedes Benz, screaming singer Mary Bridget had the Janis chops down pat and to her credit, Davies didn’t dress like Joplin nor did she copy her mannerisms. Later, on Friday, Commander Cody didn’t play blues but their high energy, southern rock ‘n’ boogie woogie on favourites Hot Rod Lincoln and Riot In Cell Block #9 was an extreme hit with the crowd. The Fabulous Thunderbirds (Jay Moeller drums, Johnny Moeller guitar, Randy Bermudes bass, and Mike Kellar guitar) did not feature a keyboard player, but they were absolutely brilliant. Together, they created a positive vibe and were a pure pleasure to listen to on rockin’ boogies that contained the classic hybrid sound and jovial style the band defined during the 1970s. Kim Wilson spent plenty of time on vocals and minimal time on harmonica until his excessive signature 15-minute spotlight harp solo. Look for their new CD which will be coming out later this year.
After the entertainment wraps up on the main stage at 10:45pm, you can continue your blues experience by participating in 12 bar blues. This is where a series of local establishments (nine in total not 12) host performers, who played on any of the various stages earlier in the day/evening. Most of the clubs are within walking distance from the festival site. Douglas Watson, son of Muddy Water’s final piano player Lovie Lee, was singing his heart out, erupting on bass, and his band was blasting the songs out. However, Harry’s (the club) was bursting at the seams with a young crowd, who were more interested in beer than music. At the historic Rum Runners pub, Mel Brown was picking smooth and precise notes on his guitar. Brown is the crown jewel of the blues in these parts. Not many can play real deal Mississippi blues guitar like Mel Brown. The Mississippi-born Brown performed and recorded with Bobby “Blue” Bland in the ’70s and Antone’s house band throughout the ’80s. Near the end of that decade he accepted an offer to work at a club in Kitchener. Ever since then he has remained in Canada. He doesn’t change his set much so he and Miss Angel performed the usual songs Summer Magic, Hey Joe, and Hipshake. As a bonus, Brown played quite a bit of piano. Mel Brown and Miss Angel are the only artists to play all eight Kitchener Blues Festivals, and just like every previous festival, they were the over headliners on the final day.
The charismatic Cheryl Lescom has been on the Canadian music scene since 1975 and was once a backup singer for Ronnie Hawkins. Cheryl Lescom & The Tucson Choir Boys is an all-acoustic act that features two accompanists (from Loco Zydeco) on guitar. It’s a great way to allow Lescom to focus on her potent vocals. She is a commanding singer, who puts everything she’s got into her performance. Her vocal delivery ranges from passionate and pretty to hard and heavy. A high point was her swooning and crooning during the emotional ballad Baby’s Crying.
The Downchild Blues Band has been putting on a similar show for approximately 39 years. No wonder they were so tight as a band and the show was so fantastic. These jump blues specialists have always combined danceable, lovable music with witty lyrics. Throughout, Donnie Walsh’s exhilarating slide guitar was steeped in southern blues while Chuck Jackson’s deep voice enticed on staples like Come On In, Wednesday Night, and Flip, Flop, and Fly.
Just two or three songs into Duke Robillard’s set, the heavens opened. It rained so hard on Saturday that the tent leaked. Quite possibly, the heaviest rains and most severe thunderstorm occurred during his set and just after it. Due to the severe weather, Derek Miller was forced to stop performing on the main stage shortly after 5pm. The stage remained shutdown for almost three hours. Things resumed with Big James Montgomery and The Chicago Playboys, who took to the stage in the pouring rain. His trombone-drenched music stopped the rain and brought out a most tremendous rainbow. No wonder Blind Pig Records has just signed him to their label. When he began, the number of fans was thin but by the time he had concluded playing funky songs like Don’t Take Your Coat Off and Johnnie Taylor’s Jody, the fans had come back in droves. Due to the weather, Big Jack Johnson was relocated from the main stage to the tent. There the crowd was sparse and the songs were from the so called set list from hell including the dreaded Sweet Home Chicago.
Later, in the clubs, Daddy Long Legs performed all original material that combined blues, alternative rock, and rockabilly. They are a four-piece band of young 20-somethings, who reminded me of a late ’60s era blues-based Black Sabbath without the gloom and doom lyrics and evil sounding rhythm patterns. They dressed ultra modern and looked as if they had just arrived in from a bowling alley. At the Starlite, Big James was funkin’ excellent as he performed a set of soul and blues songs from his latest CD Thank God I Got The Blues. Except for Da Blues Will Never Die, it was a totally different set from his main stage performance. I’ve seen him many times since 1996 and I can honestly say this was one of his best performances ever. The energy was running high, the band was on fire, and the (mainly younger University) crowd loved him. From the stage, Big James said he has played festivals all over the world and he feels Kitchener is one of the best.
By 1pm on Sunday afternoon, the heat was oppressive. You just knew another downpour of rain was bound to occur. Slick Ballinger still plays lively North Carolina and north Mississippi hill boogie but he no longer performs juke house blues. Now, his music is all about Jesus. Slick’s Holy Spirit-inspired energy made him an ideal act for a Sunday. Dressed in a suit, he must have been boiling like a witch’s cauldron while prancing around like a rubber-legged rooster. Three of the brightest stars to ever have been born in Mississippi came on next. Magic Slim’s music deeply defines what blues is all about. By the time his band, The Teardrops, played a couple warm up songs, it was raining extremely hard. Wearing his signature cowboy hat, Slim sauntered on to the stage, sat down, and proceeded to play very raw blues during Spider In My Stew, Going To Mississippi, and If You Got To Love Somebody.
Given the weather conditions, more than I thought came out in the rain to experience the exultant Mavis Staples, who appeared younger than her almost 70 years of age. Than again, we all have a natural fascination with individuals of extraordinary talent. It poured for the first three-quarters of her set but the elated spirits of the people weren’t dampened. If anything, the rain added a surreal feeling to Wade in the Water. Mid-way through her triumphant performance, she sat at the side of the stage, while her three-piece band (Rick Holmstrom guitar, Jeff Turmes bass, and Stephen Hodges drums) played three vigorous instrumentals that were in a north Mississippi hill style. During the final quarter of her set, the clouds cleared and the sun shined down. She was so inspirational and loaded with the Spirit; she pushed the storm system away. Her stories and songs from the Civil Rights Movement such as Why Am I Treated So Bad and Freedom Highway where heart wrenching. Staples continues to fight for what the movement began. You can hear it in newer songs like Down in Mississippi. I was moved to tears during We Shall Not Be Moved. I drove home with a big smile on my face and on a high, although feeling a bit exhausted. As for the weather?
The sun continued to shine as brightly as it did when Staples made the weather finally clear up.
Living Blues magazine said, "A Magic Slim disc is the next best thing to a Saturday night in a backstreet juke along with a half-pint of whiskey, a pig-ear sandwich, and a sexy companion." The same can be said about the Kitchener Blues Festival! Be sure to put it on your “must attend” list.
Visit www.kitchenerbluesfestival.com for updates and schedules.
Special thanks to Claude Cloutier.
>>>>> Story and Photos by Tim Holek
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