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Article by: Bill W. Barclay

Festival International du Blues de Tremblant 2012

Nanette Workman with back up singers

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As the summer blues festival scene in Canada has changed, the Tremblant Blues Festival has emerged as the premier festival in Central Canada. In this, its nineteenth year, it has continued to offer a stellar blues program in a really beautiful setting. Despite changes in the world's financial situation and ensuing cuts to festivals everywhere, Tremblant have continued to do what they do best; that is offer an interesting mix of the finest in local and international blues acts. They have done this through very savvy booking by a group that understands blues and the music scene, and they have pulled this off without straying very far from the base, blues. Added to this is the fact that they offer both a fine selection of Quebec talent and acts from the rest of Canada in French and English. To this mix, they continue to bring in interesting American and international acts. Their standards are the highest and the Festival reflects this fact. Every day of the ten day festival, they run an interesting, varying and consistently fine program. All this is free to the people who attend, and is located in a beautiful setting at the base of Eastern Canada's best ski hill.

The festival takes place in the ski village at the base of Mont Tremblant and there is plenty of accommodation either in hotels or condos for fans. This is a ski resort and its restaurants and bars can handle lots of people. The bars run every night with blues bands that start up when the main stages shut down. Crowds are large but not so large that it is overwhelming, and the blues continues late into the night. There are two large main stages, two smaller ones and several minor venues where acts are continually playing. I have been skiing Tremblant since I was a kid in the early sixties so I have seen the changes. Today this area, an hour and half north of Montreal has accommodation, fine food, championship golf courses, spas and some of Canada's best recreational living properties. For two weeks in July, it also has the blues.

In an article like this, it is difficult to do more than give an introduction to the festival and an overview of the bands. I will highlight some of the artists that particularly struck me as well as artists I know personally. Now in a festival of this size, it is difficult to see everything and I didn't, but I did see a lot. This article will be an introduction and cover some of my personal choices. Randy MacNeil's black and white photographs, shot on film will accompany the article. Francine is providing media support as we expand all this coverage over the next little while, regularly adding video interviews, music clips, more photos and articles to offer a really interesting mix of coverage. You will be able to hear the music and see the people I am talking about.

Tremblant likes to name a spokesman to handle local media chores but more than that, to offer the festival avenues to reach different types of audiences and to interest them in coming to see the blues. Quebecers are very supportive of blues and the demographic is surprisingly all-inclusive among French speaking fans.

Normand Brathwaite Elizabeth Blouin Brathwaite Stephan McNicoll Valerie Cormier

This year, the spokesman is Quebec musical TV personality, Norman Brathwaite, who came with his stellar band and a blues program that featured guest performers. Norman's father came to Quebec at the same time as Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones was married to Joanne Blouin, who is a well-known French Canadian singer, so he bridges society. The guest performers include up-and-coming bluesman, Adam Karsh, keyboardist Valerie Cormier, Stéphanie Bédard, his daughter Elizabeth Blouin-Brathwaite, his son Edouard and Cirque du Soleil vocalist & gymnast, Stephan McNicoll.

James Super Chikan Johnson An old friend of mine from Clarksdale, Mississippi was on the bill for the opening day, James "Super Chikan" Johnson and it was nice to see him again. He did a workshop in the afternoon in front of a full and enthusiastic house. He interacted with the crowd, explaining the development of his music and all Delta blues from the dilly-bow, a one string bass made of broom wire, nailed to the wall of a sharecropper's shack. James is as well known for his folk art as he is for his blues. He discussed how that developed as the art of a poor community that had to find its own way and, with little money, made almost everything they needed including the instruments they made music with. All the while, he is playing on a guitar that looks like a car, another a gun, or another made from a cigar box. He really brought home the folk origins of the music to the crowd and they loved it. That evening on the upper main stage, he brought the house down with his all girl band, the "Fighting Cocks" as they ran through a set of fiery Delta blues.

Layla Zoe with Bill Barclay Layla Zoe is originally from the West Coast and has settled down in Montreal. She has a huge voice that has been compared to Janis Joplin, but for my part, I prefer a comparison to Tracy Nelson from her Mother Earth days, say on "Down So Low". Layla has been recording in Germany with Henrik Freischlader and his band and is writing more of her own material. This fact along with her voice allows her to explore different areas of the blues from shouter to more introspective material. She had the Tremblant audience wishing for more.

I was walking by the same stage a couple of hours later and I came across a band from Montreal that I had never heard before, the Ben Racine Band. It is my home town so I was a bit surprised and very pleasantly. I like horn-driven bands despite my love of the blues. This was an unabashed R & B band, guitar, tenor and baritone, big fat punchy sound. Ben is full of energy and his guitar and voice drive the band along. His tenor player, Little Frankie Thiffault is full of tones, reminiscent of King Curtis and Junior Walker, both of whom I saw at Montreal's famous Esquire Show Bar. Moose Mousseau's baritone keeps the bottom. Kevin Marks, a Montreal fixture, is on bass and Nicky Estor is the drummer who counts Richard Innes as an influence and luckily for the audience, Richard would be at Tremblant with Kim Wilson a few days later.

Tower of Power Before going up the hill to watch Super Chikan's nighttime set, I wanted to catch a piece of the legendary Oakland band, Tower of Power, Forty Years of Funk, one of the great horn bands. Put together in the late sixties, the band continues with the original nucleus. Emilio Castillo, second tenor and second vocalist met Doc Kupka, baritone sax, in Oakland. They got together to play music in the style of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Sly and The Family Stone. They quickly added funky bass player Rocco Prestia and the other half of the rhythm section, drummer David Garibaldi. These four drive the band. B3 player Roger Smith is a well-known jazzman while guitarist Jerry Cortez is comfortable pushing the rhythm or laying down great lead. Tom Politzer is the lead tenorman and the two trumpets are Adolfo Acosta and Sal Cracchiolo. Fronting the whole outfit is Larry Bragg with his huge voice. His range allows him to cover their entire catalogue from "What is Hip" to their present day material. It was great to finally have seen them.

Reese Wynans & Marcia Ball The next day dawned sunny and warm, the norm for the festival. I had arranged to do an interview with Marcia Ball so I went to the stage to see what was up, sat down and looked at my neighbour to the right and it was Marcia. I asked her about the interview and she talked.

She told me she had seen so many great musicians here that she had never heard of before. Then she said she had caught a sound check down at the lower stage and the band was terrific. Her bassist chimed in with "the bass player was one of the best I have ever heard". Who were they was the question. I looked in the program and realized it must have been Jordan John and the Blue Angels they had heard. I had recently seen Jordan and his band at a benefit for a blues musician friend, Brian Monty, so I knew. I said, "That is Jordan John and he has just signed a record deal with David Foster. His bass player is his father Prakash John who played for years in George Clinton's band and is a member of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame". Prakash was playing with George Clinton's band, then Bootsy Collins joined from the James Brown Band, and he and Prakesh continued as dual bassists.

Soon a band that I was looking forward to seeing hit the stage, The Bart Walker Band. They placed second at Memphis' 2012 International Blues Challenge and Bart was named Gibson's Best Blues Guitarist. Also in the line-up was B3 master Reese Wynans, formerly of Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan's band. This is a good band. Bart has a good voice and he writes good songs like "Left turn" or "Who I Am". Ain't nothin wrong with good, except that it really doesn't describe how damn good they truly are. Tastefully played guitar, a dynamite organist, a masterful and tight rhythm section make for a great band and a new sound. The hour flew by.

Anthony Gomes I am not a big fan of blues rock, I like them both but the problem as I see it is mixing them. There is a tendency, maybe even a trend to overdo it and layer it up with effects and lose track of the music. I know lots of people love it and talk about the latest whiz but I'm not really there. I have seen both Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck live and once you've seen that, you tend to be less than wild about the latest guitar sensations. This is all a lead in to say that I was very surprised by to see Anthony Gomes do his acoustic work.

Both his playing and his singing were terrific during this afternoon performance on one of the smaller intimate stages. He held the audience and delivered a textured and nuanced set that, to my surprise, I really liked. So the lesson here is go and listen, then make up your mind - like it or not - but don't pre-judge anything. That is the value of a festival, you get to see a lot of different acts for as long or as little as you want. There are surprises waiting on the stages for you that you would not discover if it were an inside show.

Jordan John Prakash John

I then wandered down to the lower main stage to see Jordan John who, it is safe to say, is going to be a star. He has great stage presence, a really good voice, good looks and he can drop into a groove and play fine guitar. He is backed, and that is not the correct word, by his father, bassist Prakash John and drummer Al Cross, both of whom are exceptional musicians.

During this set I watched Prakash play some of the best bass I have heard. This is a bassist who can transform that instrument into something you have to listen to. I have never seen the Lincolns, Prakash's legendary Toronto R & B band, but I guess I have to. Al Cross' drums and backing vocals fill the niches and carry the songs. I just listened, swept away by the music, realizing, enjoy it now because this guy is going to the top. The crowd was on their feet and the hour flashed by finishing with Al Green's, "Take Me to the River" Wow!

Marcia Ball Then back up the hill to meet up with Marcia Ball to do our interview. I walked up in the interest of health but could have opted for a short gondola ride to the upper stage. Marcia and I found a quiet spot and I was able to do a twenty minute interview with her which you will be able to see shortly on this site. She described how impressed she was by the musicians she had been able to catch at the festival. We talked about a lot; a cold night down in Arkansas that she had played for about forty of us; philosophy, hers is simple, "everyday you're living is a good day". Amen. Marcia is an easy-going, intelligent, person and of course a great Louisiana boogie piano player.

Reese Wynans & Bart Walker The night show on the upper stage featured this Texas-born, Louisiana-raised epitome of Southern elegance, who is now living in Texas. She combines a swampy mix of blues, R & B and Zydeco. Marcia keeps her keyboard pushing out energy and she doesn't let up. With her band of Don Bennett, Dan Bechdolt, Mike Schermer and Damien Llanes, she launched into 'Look Before you Leap' right off the top, setting the stage for the evening. A party was about to break out as it does everytime she performs. She played songs from her new and very good album, Roadside Attraction including the title song and "We Fell Hard". Then she brought out Reese Wynans and the party was really cooking. They got together for some wonderful keyboard boogies. The place was rockin'. Highlights included "Where Can You Go When You Can't go home", written for the people who suffered in the Katrina aftermath, followed by 'Tool For the Job' before slowing it down for Randy Newman's 'Louisiana 1927' which affected everyone, as after all, French Quebecers are the Acadians' kin and they can feel it. The final encore was off Roadside Attractions, 'The Party Still Going On'. Then it had to end but the crowd went home happy.

On my way back to my car, I went into a jam-packed bar, and against the wall playing, was Steve Hill in a black cowboy hat, singing a Buck Owens song, doing his Bakerfield boogie thing. I remember first seeing Steve about fifteen years ago when he played my local bar in Hudson, Quebec. After two songs, I turned to the owner and said "well, that's the best guitarist that I've ever heard in here". Steve was playing the Festival over the next two days but I wouldn't be there to see him. Also missed was the Royal Southern Brotherhood, Cyrill Neville, Devon Allman and Mike Zito. I wish I could have seen what the festival calls The Acoustic Summit, a day of musicians getting together to play. This year's line-up featured musicians Adam Karsh, Jack de Keyzer, Steve Hill, Anthony Gomes, Paul Deslauriers, Danny Marks and Dawn Tyler Watson. The second missed day included Popa Chubby and Monkey Junk but unfortunately, I couldn't be there to see them either.

Bobby Rush Bobby Rush

On Wednesday I got back to Tremblant in time to see an old acquaintance from down South, Bobby Rush. Bobby and I did some filming together in Mississippi a decade ago. He has been on the Board of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas.

We renewed our friendship and I watched him do an informal set on the Promenade Deslauriers which had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. As you may know, Bobby's act has always been aimed at entertaining black audiences so it is a little ribald. He cleans it up a little when he travels but he is a consummate entertainer who can read an audience. He realized that this Quebec audience could handle what he was pitching and so he had fun with the crowd and they loved it.

Bobby also can change his act around a bit to be more rootsy when he is in front of an intimate crowd and he did, although it still had plenty of swagger and suggestion. He is a master entertainer and his crowd relating skills are the best. He talked to the crowd, he gave away CDs to people he had fun with - a tour de force by a guy who has been in the business over fifty years. Afterwards, we went to a quiet place and Bobby talked for about ten minutes. We will be posting that interview in due course.

Jumpin' Johnny Sansone Tony D & Matt Sobb, Monkey Junk

When I finally made it to the upper stage, I was just in time to see a bit of Johnny Sansone backed by Monkey Junk and I was glad to be able to see them both. Johnny is New Orleans based. He delivered a great set of jumping blues along with his buddies Tony D, Steve Marriner and Matt Sobb.

Monkey Junk are this year's Juno "Blues Album of the Year" award winners and have played with Johnny numerous times. They work very well together as a unit so the music was hopping.

After the set I had a little talk with Johnny. He told me that he is trying to organize a Little Walter Festival in Marksville, Louisiana, Walter's native town. At about age twelve, Walter ran away from home. Robert Lockwood told me he showed up playing his harp on the street corners of Helena, Arkansas. I wish Johnny lots of luck with this idea as Walter was perhaps the greatest harp blower who ever lived. The town of Marksville is badly depressed and could do with a shot in the arm.

Normand Brathwaite Adam Karsh & Stéphanie Bédard Stephan McNicoll & Normand Brathwaite

I ran down the hill to catch the stage show of Festival spokesman, Norman Brathwaite with his fine band. He offered up a full blues program and, like all really good schooled musicians, he carries all the influences in his pocket. He turned his band loose behind a series of singers led off by Adam Karsh who worked his way through a series of blues numbers, even pulling out Robert Johnson.

Then followed Norman's daughter, Elizabeth. Norman's passion for the blues and R & B was evident. His keyboardist, Valerie Cormier took her turn and finally, ex-Cirque de Soleil vocalist, singer-songwriter and gymnast, Stephan McNicoll, gave us a Mick Jagger moment or two before Normand finished blowing harp and playing keyboards.

Charlie Musselwhite & Brian Slack I went running back up the hill in time to see Mississippi native Charlie Musselwhite. Charlie put out a fine new album last year, "The Well" which won two Blues Music Awards. He gave the crowd what they wanted. "The Well" is his first full album of original material on which he tells you about highway 61, "it runs from my backdoor down to the setting sun". The courage he found while dealing with the emotions, as revealed in "The Well", led him to quit drinking and his music is better for it. He even faces the heartbreaking murder of his mother on "Sad and Beautiful World". Charlie and Paul Butterfield were the two most important members of the "white blues movement" in Chicago. It is hard to realize that he has been performing for over fifty years. Unlike Butterfield, Charlie's music carries with it that trance-like aspect of the Delta. Over the course of his career he has played with virtually everyone in the blues. He is one of the great harp players and his vocals just keep getting better. The crowd loved his no nonsense, honest blues and so did I.

Marquise Knox Thursday started slowly and I was keen to see Marquise Knox as I had heard a lot about him - a young Delta born black man who had moved to St. Louis and was starting to make noise as an up-and-coming person to be watched. His blues pedigree is impeccable. He is the nephew of Big George Brock, the St. Louis harp player. Marquise is also a nephew of the late Big Jack Johnson, Clarksdale's favourite son - one third of the Jelly Roll Kings along with drummer Sam Carr, Robert Nighthawk's son, and multi-instrumentalist Frank Frost. He is also in some way a cousin of Super Chikan, so it is no surprise that Marquise plays the blues. I mention this because as blues has increased in popularity, it has lost its African American base, even in the Delta, although maybe less so there. So to see a young African American take up the blues as seriously as Marquise has is extremely important for the continued health of the music. This is an art form, the first non native art form to emerge in North America and it would be a tragedy to see it fade in the community that created it.

Marquise was also closely associated in St. Louis with Henry Townsend and David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Both these men were companions of Robert Johnson so the lessons they could teach go back to the beginnings of the blues in modern form. Henry Townsend is the only man to have made recordings, and good ones, in eight consecutive decades, from the twenties to the first decade of the current century. Honeyboy was on the bill that night, August 13, 1938 in Three Forks, Mississippi when Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband.

Marquise's blues are marked by his intensity. He has a mission, the blues is the story of African American culture and he is determined to deliver that message with all the force and drive he can muster. He is young, still only twenty-three and his blues are his own, he writes his songs. To see him is to understand how Charlie Patton, Son House or Howlin' Wolf delivered their blues, there is no halfway measure with Marquise. Many of Marquise's songs are overtly political and he doesn't shy away from these subjects. This is unusual in blues and really only J.B. Lenoir, Willie King with his incredible "Terrorized, you talk about terror I've been terrorized all my days", and another major influence on Marquise, Louisiana Red, with whom Marquise spent lots of time, have taken the blues down this road. Marquise Knox is an emerging major talent and you owe it to yourself to listen to his music.

Nannette Workman Nannette Workman a native of Jackson, Mississippi is a member of the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame but she is a huge star in Quebec, singing mostly in French. She is one of the best known music stars in Quebec and has made the province her home. She grew up in a musical family, her father played trumpet in Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra. She left The University of Southern Mississippi at 18 for Broadway where she worked and eventually met a guy from Quebec and recorded in French. Then she move to England where she sang backing vocals on both "You Can't Always Get what You Want" and "Country Honk" off the Rolling Stones "Let It Bleed" and then sang on the single, "Honky Tonk Women". Some time in France followed and then she settled in Quebec where she began a very successful career which has lasted until today. The State of Mississippi honoured her in 2007 by opening "The Nanette Workman French House" on the campus of Mississippi State University. There, students live and study in French. Nanette kept a huge crowd totally entertained while combining the French version of "Lady Marmalade" and English songs - roadhouse, R&B, the blues she grew up with and the Stones songs she appeared on.

Bobby Rush The final stop of the evening was to the upper stage to catch Bobby Rush's set. I had tried to pull off a meeting between these two Jackson Mississippi natives who had never met. Bobby said he'd love to meet Nanette and would try to get down to see her before his set. I told Nanette during our interview that Bobby wanted to meet her and she said she'd love to meet him but their start times were tight so it didn't happen.

Bobby had his full show with him when he hit the main stage that night. For those who have never seen Bobby Rush, he is a great entertainer. He freely admits there are better harp or guitar players, but he claims the title of entertainer and he is one. Bobby also has pride that he is a black entertainer and as he travels outside the South, he believes in bringing his chitling circuit show to audiences that have never seen it. It is raunchy and bawdy and Bobby makes no apologies. He has the girls with the huge bums that Southern black audiences love. He trots out the whole show and does it with fun and a good spirit. Only Ronnie Hawkins can be as absolutely outrageous on stage and get away with it. Bobby believes in preserving and presenting this authentic black entertainment, and the crowd has fun. He is strutting and being suggestive, showing the girls, getting them to wiggle, throwing panties, playing great harp and guitar, all driven by a great band that has been together for years. This is Bobby Rush.

Kim Wilson Kim Wilson's Blues All-Stars finished off Friday night and it was a fitting end to the day, West Coast blues at its very best. The band is driven by a great rhythm section, bassist, Randy Bermudes and West Coast drummer par excellence, Richard Innes. Bharath RajaKumar took us all down to the stage to enjoy a driving set of blues featuring Kim's harp and vocals. From my view on the side, I enjoyed the music and watched a real veteran bluesman give the crowd everything. Then somehow, most of us ended up in our hotel room for food prepared by Bharath's guitarist Colin Perry, co-owner of Montreal's new hot restaurant, Dinette Triple Crown. We enjoyed hours of road stories, by that I mean all Kim's band, Bharath and all his band. Richard Innes led the way, regaling the crowd with crazy stories and all the guys were talking shop, obscure cuts from the early days, old blues and who got what sound and how. As a guy I knew in India once said, "we sit around tell some lies and shoot some shit" and that went on til late.

Bharath Rajakumar & his Rythm Four Bharath Rajakumar & his Rythm Four

Saturday, I went to see Bharath do his workshop in a small tent near the main stage with a crowd of about fifty people, there wasn't much room. He was with his band of Ben Caissie, drums, Costa Zafirapoulos, bass and Colin Perry, guitar and a very funny thing happened at the workshop. The band cooked, it took off and it soared, literally stunning everyone in the tent who were expecting a simple workshop. In my opinion Bharath is one of the best, and may well be the best traditional harp player not only in Canada, but in the world. He has mastered his instrument and can get sounds and tones not heard since Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Sugar Brown, Ben Caissie, Costa Zafiropoulos, Kim Wilson, Sandra Ruel & Bharath Rajakumar This day Bharath took off and the band followed, stunningly complex playing filled with nuance and space. Notes coming at you at a dizzying speed but each one with a space left around it so the ear could attune to the tones and pacing. It was music played at its highest level. All the members of the band arrived at some plateau of magic where they all focused on delivering the same message. On Little Walter's "Rocker" the notes were dazzlingly fast and yet each one stood alone. It was a tour de force by a great artist in absolute command of his instrument. The crowd realized what they were hearing, that they were sharing a special time and they were on their feet after every song shouting their encouragement. Bharath told me after that he thought it was the best set they had played that year.

For me, the 2012 Tremblant Blues Festival ended on this incredibly high note. I didn't have the opportunity to see everything but I've told you some of the things that I did see. Tremblant is a great festival to wander and see acts; not just the headliners either. All the performers at Tremblant are carefully picked and so surprises await you everywhere as you visit the various venues. Add to that the setting, the restaurants, the accommodation and you have a perfect place for a week of blues.

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