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Article by: Bill W. Barclay

Memories of Calabogie Blues & Ribfest

(August 17-19, 2012)

Gary Kendall

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After a hot and very sunny drive from outside of Montreal I turned off the highway just after Arnprior and headed down Route 508 to Calabogie and the blues Festival organized by the 101.9 Dawg FM, Ottawa's blues station, and Class Axe Guitars. I have crisscrossed this area many times before either to the north, Renfrew and Pembroke or the south and even the east and the west but I have never been to Calabogie and its ski center which is the site of the Festival. I was really surprised how pretty the drive in was and how soon after the turn off from the 417 that you enter cottage country. I figured that any place that contains within its name the word ‘boogie' would probably be a good place to have a blues Festival. That would prove to be true and I'd like to tell you about the first two days of the Festival.

I was particularly interested in the first two days of the Festival as organizer Yves Trottier had put together a line-up that featured two of Canada's iconic blues bands one from the east and the other from the west. This would be the first time that Downchild Blues Band and Powder Blues Band had appeared together in this area on the same stage in almost fifteen years, anchoring the Friday and Saturday nights of the Festival. Yves had also thrown into the mix Quebec's premier blues band, The Bob Walsh Band and so the table was set for a great weekend of blues with maybe a little friendly competition to get all the boys delivering their best shots. 

I was hustling to meet up with Randy MacNeil, who was shooting the Festival and Francine Aubrey who puts the whole thing together for us. We have all collaborated on Randy's Canadian blues portraits book and Dawg FM has offered help in publicity and exposure, so it seemed a good idea to meet with everyone at the Festival. Randy is one of the last photographers to shoot entirely in film, black and white. All he uses are two Nikon Fm2's, a 50mm and an 85mm lens, and two film speeds. Looking at all the array of expensive digital equipment in front of the stage, it was no surprise that someone asked him what those things he was carrying were. No matter what the conveniences of digital, nothing deals with light better than film.

Terry Gillespie Terry Gillespie was just about five songs from the end of his Festival opening set when I arrived so I can't tell you the set list but he was moving smoothly through a mix of blues and reggae, his two musical loves. I've known Terry for many years and for many before that he was one of the fixtures of the Ottawa blues scene, with Heaven's Radio. There is probably nobody in this country that can drop into a groove and stay there with more command than Terry. His rhythmic playing is as solid and as nuanced as it gets. It is his Detroit upbringing, where he played with Wolf and John Lee Hooker among others, pouring out of his pores every time he steps on a stage, as well as his love of the music of Jamaica that stamps Terry's sound. That sound is distinctive, interesting and hard won. Terry was anchored by a rhythm section of Lyndell Montgomery on bass and fiddle and Wayne Stoute on the drums. Lyndell is a classically trained multi instrumentalist who comes out of the folk world and brings that influence to the sound. Wayne Stoute arrived in Montreal from Trinadad via New York with his band Jab Jab. His influences are as varied as Trinidad and he brings them all. This is a band that can and does move easily wherever they want to go on any particular show. The crowd was starting to fill up by the end of the set and they were being put in the mood for the weekend of blues that was to follow.

Shakura S'Aida Unfortunately I had to go and do something with Terry Gillespie and so I didn't really get to hear much of Shakura S'Aida who followed them, but Randy was busy working the stage taking pictures and luckily I have heard her often. Shakura is a blues and jazz vocalist, born in the States who has settled in Toronto. She has worked with artists like Patti LaBelle, Jimmy Smith, and Ruth Brown among others. Her great voice allows her the versatility to do almost any form of blues and this has brought her to the top of the Canadian scene. She can strut and holler in high production Festival numbers dominating a stage and then turn very, very funky on a dime. My feeling is her exceptional voice can be best appreciated on the slow, soulful, quieter blues songs at which she is a master. She has been nominated for several Junos and this year she has been nominated in five separate categories of Maple Blues Awards, including "Contemporary Blues Female Artist" and she was a winner in 2011.

Downchild Blues Band I went for dinner and when I got back Downchild Blues Band was about to hit the stage. And hit it they did. A double harp intro attack, Donnie ‘Mr. Downchild" Walsh and vocalist Chuck Jackson jumped right into "Let's Go Dancin'". This is a band that plays with joy and energy and a sound that has no weak spots whatsoever. This line-up has been together since the mid nineties, although the Donnie and his brother Hock formed the band in 1969 and bassist Gary Kendall was there at the beginning. Keyboard player, Michael Fonfara, drummer, Mike Fitzpatrick and tenor sax, Pat Carey have been added to the mix and they are all veterans of the Toronto music scene. The result is a seamless union that plays straight up blues and plays it as well as anybody. Here are some highlights.

They can sound as raw as the Mississippi Delta as they did on the opener and then switch to a jump blues, R & B type sound as they immediately did, on "This Must Be Love", off their newest album, and then I Need a Hat, which even pokes fun at themselves about needing a gimmick to succeed in the blues. Then Chuck Jackson jumps in with "Down in the Delta" a fun boogie with him blowing harp and doing the vocals on a song that he wrote about Clarksdale, Mississippi and having fun out on Highway 49 at the Hopson Plantation. Donnie then follows with "Let's Get Together" and gives all the budding guitar players in the audience a little clinic on slide playing. Donnie and Chuck do almost all the song writing for the band and it is nice in blues to hear a band that performs its own material. Saying that, this high energy dynamic set then did a cover, Elmore James' "Madison Blues".

Donnie Walsh (Downchild Blues Band) Donnie took the mike and talked about a problem we have all had, tossing and turning in bed, its five A.M. unable to sleep, and he has two women he likes and he can't decide. The result is "Mr. Confused" which has a slide lead ala Elmore's in "It Hurts Me Too". Here the rhythm section, which is a very fine one indeed, stepped out and traded licks as they had been doing for the whole performance. This is an ensemble band and everyone has a place and everyone is capable of carrying the ball. Then a blues party breaks out, "C'mom Outta the Blues" and "Jump Right Up" two harps, slide guitar and a great driving piano. Donnie then does a solo harp piece with everyone else, keeping time with a drum stick while he is tearing through it. Donnie's at the mike doing a lead-in again, talking about life, "you marry your high school sweetheart , your world falls apart and there is nothing I can do, I need a gimmick, maybe "I Need a Hat" to get me through; a more personal and whimsical bit of songwriting. Then he introduces a song he wrote that was used on the first Blues Brothers album, "I Got Everything I Want, Almost". Then the ending, straight into their big hit, Joe Turner's "Flip. Flop & Fly" and finally Joe Turner again and his "T.V. Mama", you know the one with the big widescreen. The crowd was up a yelling for more as the stage shut down for the night. Downchild had really thrown down the gauntlet and delivered great blues to a partying crowd, they loved it.

Buck Tingley The next day was summer in Canada again, at its best, warm, sunny and green. I arrived only in time to see a few songs from the first band of the day, Rocket Rached and the Fat City Eight, lead by Jed Rached on vocals. The band consists of a compendium of the early Ottawa blues scene and they cooked in the little bit of it that I heard, Billy Brennan, drums, George Pendergast, bass, Vince Halfhide, guitar, Johnny Russell, piano, Zeke Gross, sax, Steve Trecarten, tenor sax and a Maritimer, Buck Tingley on guitar. All these guys are fine, experienced and very talented musicians who helped to put Ottawa on the blues map so that others could follow. It was fun to hear them.

Bill Durst Then Winnipegger Bill Durst gave us an hour of old fashion down and dirty blues and I mean that in the best possible way. There is lots of that repetitive rhythmic drone of the North Mississippi Hill style in his playing, anchored by his two man rhythm section. That's blues and I mean by that the guitar out front but understanding rhythm, working with it and fueling it. I had a talk with Yves Trottier, the Festival organizer. He was explaining that he really likes the ZZ Top's edge to Bill's music and that his beard was originally acquired when he played in a Tops cover band. Yves thought the Bill Durst Blues Band sounds like a three man Canned Heat and they did, "Let's get Together" just to emphasize. To finish the set, Bill and the boys played an interesting blues-based version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock".

Next up was the Bob Walsh Band who is Quebec's premier blues band, and another very interesting piece of this blues "summit". The band is really not that well known in the rest of Canada because they don't get that much exposure for a couple of reasons. One is that the language division, and the fact that the Quebec performers have not formed the industry connections to be booked across the country. Bob's band is proof they should be seen more often. The other reason is that they do so damn well in Quebec that they are not going to take a drop in pay to ride the club circuit to popularize themselves. The market for blues in Quebec is vibrant and crosses all the demographics, so they get session and TV work that is simply not freely available to bands from the other part of the country. As Steve Hill, the terrific guitar player from Quebec once told me, " It's when I don't play blues that I get into trouble". Bob's band is anchored by himself, sitting like a Buddha on his center stage chair, generating a big, tight and very listenable sound that flows from this center. He is the base while around him three superb musicians weave a musical tapestry.

Guy Belanger is his harp player and I think he is simply the best ensemble harpman in the country. His technical ability on his instrument is used to fill and compliment the vocal and guitar. He is everywhere, carrying the music and allowing Bob to be laid back and comfortable. There are harp players who front bands but Guy's role is to augment the sound and he does it so well that you might just take for granted. He isn't there to dazzle you just to make the whole thing sound better and he pulls it off with taste and skill. Add to that a keyboardist/arranger Jean-Fernand Girard and bassist Jean Cyr who support the whole enterprise adding flourishes where they are required, and you have a fine musical ensemble who are united in their presentation of each song. Kudos to Yves Trottier for bringing them in for the Festival.

Bob Walsh The set starts with Bob sitting and all the music is moving out from him and he goes into, "Inside I'm All Blue" the title song from his album. Bob plays an acoustic guitar with a pick-up, so the sound is relaxed but very rhythmic and yet there is no drummer and the sound just bops along. Guy Belanger's harp is everywhere, punctuating, as the band plays as a four man unit. This is rocking tasteful blues, strutting along where it has to and loping where needed. Bob is doing "Ain't No Sunshine. There is a slow paced intro, Bob's mournful voice punctuated by harp fills and smoky bar piano. Bob then starts, as he describes, his homage to Louis Armstrong. Just an acoustic guitar, his deep voice and Louis' "What A Wonderful World". Then T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday" with 40's piano intro by Jean-Fernand and Guy's masterful playing. Bob is building the show and each song tops the one before as he mines some classic blues standards. Jean Cyr's stand up base is perfect in this set of old time and standard blues, many written by Bob in that vein including his "Cancer Ward Blues", as he sings, "them old blues is alright". Then "Georgia", tough to do a song so identified with Ray Charles but he pulls it off. Bob does "Summertime" to finish off and the whole crowd is on its feet in a standing ovation that goes on and on; so the Festival tells them to do another and the encore is "Stand By Me" followed by another standing ovation.

Francine and Friends (Calabogie Blues & Ribfest, 2012) After the set, we were back stage getting information for Randy's book and talking to the band. Guy Belanger told me that they were blown away by the enthusiasm of the crowd. He felt they often had trouble getting a reaction outside of Quebec but he said they were thrilled by this crowd. I have to say I think the crowd was thrilled by them as well. Then, we went upstairs to talk and get information, Randy and Bob had a long chat and we talked to Yves Trottier and thanked him for the Festival's support and for Dawg's supportwith the book project. Randy sat with Ed Torres for a bit and thanked him for getting behind the book as a station. Ed was really enthusiastic. While all this is going on, a couple of cops are standing, talking to some girls at the counter and a guy comes in, sees the cops and says, "good costume buddy". Everybody laughs including the cops who are really loose and enjoying themselves.

Jack de Keyser During our work period, if you can call it that, we didn't get a chance to catch Jack de Keyser's set. Randy already had pictures that he was going to use and I had done a little interview with Jack in the back of the Rainbow a few months earlier, so we were able to use the time to get some other stuff done. But of course, we could hear the set and Jack was wowing the crowd. I have seen him many times and he is one of Canada's best and I would say most professional bluesmen. He is disciplined and he works hard taking his blues all over the country, He is a very fine guitar player and has played with everybody. He told me that he grew up three houses up the street in Hamilton from Richard Newell, King Biscuit Boy. Richard acted as a mentor to a fifteen year old Jack and really a young guitarist could not have had a better teacher than this seminal Canadian bluesman. Jack got to sit at the feet of a master and he has carried those lessons and that musical integrity throughout his entire career.

Saturday night brought the last of the "summit" bands to the stage. Tom Lavin's Powder Blues Band from Vancouver. Put together in !978 by Tom, his brother Jack and Willie MacCalder, Gastown's Powder Blues is a bit more of an uptown band, horn driven, than say Downchild. They have been on the road for 34 years says Tom and that time is reflected in the tightness of the playing, Today's line-up features Bill Runge on saxs, Vince Mai on trumpet, Mike Kalanj is the keyboard man, Tony Marryat handles the bass, and veteran drummer Tom Bona took over the drum kit for the evening. Tom Lavin's powder blue guitar is on a stand under a spot and then he comes out and as the band sets up, he nervously cleans his guitar with a towel. They opened up with a shuffle, horns out front, good ensemble playing and then he steps to the mike and asks, "Do you want to hear some blues' and they are off with Tom jumping into a classic guitar boogie. Then we are into Chick Willis' "Stoop Down Baby' followed by a Lowel Fulsom song that Tom had produced.

Tom Lavin (Powder Blues Band) Then Tom tells of going to Maxwell Street in Chicago when he was a kid and hearing the street players, and he starts, "The Same Old Blues" in beautiful, ringing single note picking that you might have heard Robert Nighthawk playing on Maxwell Street had you been there then. He follows this with B.B. King's "Cryin' Won't Help You". He has heated things up to the point that the crowd is all dancing. Tom then takes the mike and comments about how we are always looking for a scapegoat, it is never us, so he suggests, "Blame It On the Blues' the old Ma Rainey song. Then it's back to the catalogue and Rosco Gordon's "Just a Little Bit" with it hook, "just a teeny little bit of your love".

Then he switches and talks about doing Powder Blues' first album in 1973 with, "What Have I Been Drinkin'" a ripper that the band cuts loose on. They follow this up with The Bobby "Blue" Bland classic of love lost, "Further On Up The Road" with its line, "somebody goin' to hurt you like you hurt me'; we've all been there and that is the strength and power of the blues. Tom lances into a story that as a sixteen year old, he stole his mother's car keys for a "Joyride" and he sings it with passion. Then another story about his personal manager giving him a song that became a Powder Blues hit and has been covered all over the place, "Hear That Guitar Ring" and they blast right into and at full speed, "Doin' It Right", "On The Wrong Side of Town" their biggest hit and a great song.. Then it is over and the crowd is up standing and cheering and calling for more, but there is more planned by the Festival - FIREWORKS!!

Tom Lavin (Powder Blues Band)

A guy standing behind me hands me something and tells me put them on. He is the fireworks supplier and he is handing out free 3D glasses to watch the fireworks. Now I don't know if you have ever seen fireworks with 3D glasses but if you haven't, run out and buy $5000.00 worth of fireworks and some 3D glasses for the family and the neighbours. You will be amazed! Maybe everyone knows about this experience - except me - but I don't think so, judging by the wild laughter around me. With the glasses on, the whole sky turned into a kaleidoscope -- just like 1966 again -- except when you took off the glasses, the effect didn't continue, much easier for driving home or, for that matter, finding home.

So the second Calabogie Festival was a total success, and Yves Trottier and 101.9 Dawg FM are to be congratulated for programming such an amazing line-up. They presented the best in Canadian blues and the artistic level was first class. Attendance was way up over last year. I saw dozens of faces I recognized from previous Ottawa Festivals. The real blues fans were in Calabogie.

The Festival features easy and plentiful parking, a VIP section and Johnny Russell tells me a really nice camping scene and a good vibe. Here's to hoping to see you at Calabogie, August 16-18, 2013.

Calabogie Blues & Ribfest, 2012 (Poster)

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