ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 26, 2001
As any local fan will tell you, the Vancouver area has needed a full-fledged blues festival for so long that it hurts. Harmonica ace and CFMI Sunday Blues radio-show host Stormin’ Norm Casler tried getting an annual all-day blues fest going at Granville Island a few years back, but complaints about the midafternoon noise from bozos in False Creek kept that a one-time-only affair.
Fortunately, there are a few guitar-friendly folks with influence in Burnaby, and last year, in association with the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society, they produced the first Burnaby Blues Festival. It was headlined by Grammy Award winner Robert Cray and drew a crowd of 2,000 to the sunbaked shore of picturesque Deer Lake. Last Saturday (July 21), the second BBF took place under cloudy skies, with non–Grammy winner Colin James as the main draw, yet it drew an estimated 1,500 more people than the 2000 version. Now it looks as though the blues has found a permanent home among Greater Vancouver’s summer music festivals. It’s about friggin’ time!
Big Bill Morganfield—the son of legendary bluesman Muddy Waters—kicked the show off at 2 p.m., followed by a duet by Bay Area guitar-slinger Joe Louis Walker and pianist Chris Burns. Unfortunately for me, I missed them both, having had to wait for my three-year-old daughter to finish up her afternoon nap. She was already a little bluesed-out after taking in the morning performance of Blue’s Clues Live at the Queen E, but knowing what a great time she had at the first Burnaby Blues Festival, I wasn’t about to attend without her. It’s a terrific event for kids, who can dance around in the grass, hound you for trips to the Mini-Donut stand, or build cardboard guitars in the children’s arts ’n’ crafts tent. For those unencumbered by yard apes, there’s always the refreshing lure of the on-site beer garden, where—thanks to the acoustic expertise of Fred Michaels and the folks at Rocky Mountain Sound—you can still hear the music just fine.
When we got there just before 4, the Duke Robillard Band was in full swing, swing being the operative word. Although the grizzled music veteran covered a lot of styles, he kept returning to the jump blues of his former big band, Roomful of Blues. He was followed by the Holmes Brothers, a trio out of New York City that melded a smooth gospel vibe with gutsy roadhouse riffs. Particularly impressive was guitarist Wendell Holmes, whose stinging Strat work recalled Eric Clapton during his incendiary Derek & the Dominos phase.
Up next was Ottawa-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Sue Foley, touring behind her Juno Award–winning CD, Love Comin’ Down. Wielding her trademark pink paisley Telecaster, she displayed all the subtly effective fret tricks she picked up during an eight-year sojourn in Austin, Texas, and her wavering vocals were by turns innocent- and sexy-sounding. When she was done, a white van pulled up backstage and Colin James hopped out, ready to rock out in a bright-red T-shirt and black leather pants. With him was a crack band that included former Odds singer-songwriter-guitarist-comedian Craig Northey (in a Spice Girls T-shirt, natch) and powerhouse drummer Pat Steward, who’s rattled the skins for Bryan Adams and about a hundred other local rockers.
Since James’s latest CD, Fuse, is his least bluesy album ever, the timing seemed a bit off for his top billing at this event. But there’s no denying that the guy’s an energetic performer and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. And having Northey as a sidekick—handling rhythm guitar and background vocals, and yelling things like “Hey, there’s Mini-Donuts back there!”—didn’t hurt the set’s entertainment quotient. By the time we’d folded up our lawn chairs and headed for the car I knew I’d be back next year, ’cause it takes more than a little pop-edged rock to scare me off my blues.