History of Ottawa Bluesfest should help it overcome stage collapse

Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan

A day before the stage collapse, Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan and his Caddy were aglow. (Copyright photo by Julia Pelish Photography)

OTTAWA — Nearly 24 hours before the nightmarish destruction of the main stage at his festival, Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan sat outside a trailer that was away from the crowd and talked about the dream that had come true. It started nearly two decades ago on a hunch and has turned into a multi-million-dollar, non-profit celebration of music. In the aftermath of what’s been called a freakish accident that reportedly sent four people to the hospital, talk of what Monahan has accomplished has to be tempered with somber acknowledgement of the incident on Sunday night that brought a premature end to what looks like another record year of attendance and revenue for the festival.

Still, despite the storm and near 100-kilometre winds that forced Cheap Trick away from the stage, the Ottawa Bluesfest remains one of the most noteworthy music events in North America. It started when Monahan was running the Penguin, a music club in the nation’s capital that booked a range of artists, including jazz acts who collectively would garner large numbers at festivals in Montreal and Vancouver but individually — without a massive marketing effort — didn’t bring in crowds.

“I booked some very, very good jazz acts but they just didn’t draw in a club. But when you see the success that jazz festivals were having, I really felt that if you did the same thing with a form of music that was a bit more popular you could grow it exponentially bigger,” Monahan said on Saturday afternoon as the Bluesfest’s 18th edition was closing its final weekend.

The Bluesfest began in 1994 with Clarence Clemons headlining a three-day event on Major’s Hill Park. By its second year, it already had a star-studded lineup of blues greats that featured Buddy Guy and John Hiatt as the top draws, and Koko Taylor and John Mayall on the second tier of performers. But it was the late Luther Allison who wowed a lot of us who saw him for the first time as he set the stage for Guy on the final night. In 1998, Monahan said the fest reached a point where he thought it could grow far beyond what he first envisioned.

“We booked Ray Charles and that was significant for us. He wasn’t a blues act. He was American soul or rhythm and blues and we sold out right away, all six thousand tickets.” At the same time, Monahan, who remains the festival’s executive and artistic director, said he was learning from the New Orleans Jazz Fest, which had become a huge event after it opened its roster to all kinds of popular music.

READ A REVIEW OF BLUE RODEO AT THE BLUESFEST

Dave Navarro at Ottawa Bluesfest 2011

Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction at Ottawa Bluesfest 2011. (Copyright photo by Julia Pelish)

In 1999, Monahan booked Sting and artists’ fees topped $1 million for the first time, he said. At this year’s festival the artists’ fees reached a staggering $5.5 million as more than 225 performances were staged during the festival that ran from July 5-17. Monahan said being a non-profit organization allows the event to continue to grow and innovate.

“My mindset from the beginning was to always pour whatever we made back into the artists’ fees and so far it’s worked. We’ve always sold more tickets,” he said, adding that the one musician he would love to see on stage at the Bluesfest is Eric Clapton. “I think having Clapton would be a big thing. For the festival, it would be great.”

This year’s festival, like previous years, was heavy on the Canadian content, because Monahan said bands like the Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo never fail to bring out huge crowds.

“They don’t draw in the States, but they consistently sell out for us and they do it as headliners. We’ve had Blue Rodeo here ten times now and every year they draw huge numbers, so we’re going to keep doing it.”

The enduring success of the festival, whose attendance figure this year is likely to top 350,000 again, has allowed Monahan to fulfill a dream of working on it full-time, which he said he’s been doing for the past 10 years. He said he booked the same amount of acts for the nearly two-week, six-stage festival at LeBreton Flats as he did during an entire year as a club promoter and operator. While the festival has a whopping 4,000 volunteers, it also has 10 staff members who work on organizing and marketing the event year-round. It also runs a Blues in Schools program that encourages school children to learn music and this year the festival featured 60 bands from the Ottawa area after Monahan and his team vetted 275 applications. For an area of 1 million people, that’s a lot of people playing music.

Monahan, who said he tried to be a musician but figured out as a teenager he was better on the business side of things, cited as proof of the event’s legacy the statistics from his organization that show more than 50 per cent of Ottawa-area residents have attended at least one Bluesfest performance in the past five years. It’s also a major tourist draw, bringing in $40 million in economic revenue for the city, he said.

Those are dramatic numbers that underscore the impact the festival has had on the capital region. While the necessary investigations will be undertaken to determine if there was any precautions that should have been followed to prevent the injuries from Sunday’s storm, you can expect the Bluesfest to continue to evolve. A few years ago Billboard named it one of the top 10 best music festivals in the world. For an event that was the brainchild of a club owner who thought he could fill a little park in the city with a few thousand blues fanatics, that’s quite a success story.

JANE’S ADDICTION VS. BLACKIE & THE RODEO KINGS

You want to know how diverse the Bluesfest has become? Just think about the contrast of two of the final acts performing concurrently on Saturday night. On the main stage, L.A.-based alternative rockers Jane’s Addiction, fronted by 52-year-old Perry Farrell who walked on stage like Dionysus, carrying a bottle of very good red wine and looking better than he did 20 years ago when drugs and weirdness addled him. On one of the event’s smaller stages, Canadian roots and blues band Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, a trio of hard-working musicians in their 50s or close to it who help prepare the stage and oversee the sound check themselves.

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings at Ottawa Bluesfest

Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings at the Ottawa Bluesfest. (© Julia Pelish Photography)

To Farrell’s right stands Dave Navarro, Carmen Elektra’s ex-husband who plays guitar without a shirt and tosses picks into the crowd, sending women half his age into hysterics as if he might’ve tossed them a room key. At the back of the stage, two blond women dance in fishnets while the band’s hit “Sex is Violent” sears. Meanwhile, the guys in Blackie (Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing — all fantastic songwriters, too) sweat through their matching black suits imprinted with flames, electrical towers, peace symbols and flower petals. They jam away on guitars that you can tell are prized possessions; Wilson’s even has signatures from the likes of Robbie Robertson.

Farrell and Navarro, who refused to speak to the media during their stay in Ottawa, keep things cool with typical rock-star poses and prances. It’s a high-energy, testosterone-serious attempt to prove they belong on the pedestal they occupy. They’re very good. Farrell’s voice soars, at times even sounding a bit like Ozzy Osbourne from his Black Sabbath days. Back on the BARK stage, the self-deprecating Wilson is playing a few chords from Jane’s Addiction’s hit “Jane Says” in anticipation of some festival-goers leaving his band to catch the headline act. Fearing, Linden and Wilson, as down to earth as you can get, perform with professional polish and genuine gratitude for the audience, which has only grown through their set. As usual, they close with “White Line,” a song written by the band’s inspiration, Willie P. Bennett, and one they play with gusto; Linden hops as he rips into his guitar during the song’s crescendo.

In the end, Farrell returned to holding his wine bottle for the encore while Blackie and the Rodeo Kings were accepting hugs and handshakes from a small gathering of friends, family and fans backstage. Both bands were excellent and earned huge applause, but it’s clear that if you’re going to cheer on one of them it should be the unpretentious trio from Canada who have no shame in showing their age or their hearts’ desire to keep making music no matter the bottom-line benefits and attention that may or may not come.

DEEP THOUGHTS BY TOM WILSON

Whether with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings or his other main project, Lee Harvey Osmond, Tom Wilson always mixes hilarious stories and one-liners with his stellar musicianship. Here are some of his gems from his performances on Saturday, which included an afternoon set with drummer Ray Farrugia, also a former member of Junkhouse.

“I’ve waited 35 years for Elliot Roberts, who is Neil Young’s manager, to call me and when he finally did it was for my kid.” Wilson’s son plays with Harlan Pepper, an emerging band from the GTA, and they played a session for Roberts earlier this year.

“I wanted to look good for you folks today so I made sure I brought a jacket with me before I came on stage, but then I walked on with my gardening shoes. To tell you the truth, I don’t do much gardening. I mostly just stand around in the backyard smoking weed.”

Later in the show: “I’ve been alcohol, heroin and cocaine free for 11 years.” After a round of applause, he added, “But I still garden.”

“This is a song I wrote about the Hamilton psych hospital, which I’ve managed to stay out of, so far.”

“Tomorrow, Ray and I will be in Kingston. We’re out on a day pass.” He was referring to the Kingston Penitentiary.

“Here’s a hit I wrote for Billy Ray Cyrus. And no it’s not ‘Achy, Breaky Heart.’ If I wrote ‘Achy, Breaky Heart’ I wouldn’t even be here right now.”

READ AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM WILSON

By the way, Wilson’s also an accomplished painter and his artwork will be displayed at a SoHo, New York gallery later this year.

A BAND TO WATCH

At first glance, Amos the Transparent looks like another Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene clone. There’s an energetic girl at the right of the stage who sings harmony and dances, a guitar player who uses a bow on a lot of songs, and a lead singer in plaid. Listen to their set, though, and you realize they’ve got catchy tunes, a tight sound and a following. One of the things to notice about this Ottawa band’s performance was the amount of fans who knew the words to their songs. They’ve played South by Southwest and put out an album in April – although the vocals during their live show sound much better than the songs on their website. No tour dates are scheduled at the moment, but keep an eye out for a Toronto performance.

MAN ON THE RUN

One of the oddest sights of the Bluesfest had to be the scene that followed the Nick Jonas mid-afternoon performance on Saturday. In another kind of marathon of hope, teenaged girls stampeded around the main stage in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse or more of their idol as he departed. No word on whether this member of the Disney-fabricated Jonas Brothers greeted his fans or did the smart thing and laid low until the storm of squeals passed. Backed by a stellar band called the Administration, Jonas wasn’t a disappointment musically, although his cover of Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” probably shouldn’t have been on the setlist (Jonas’ version was pretty much a straight copy of the original).

Ottawa Bluesfest 2011

Fans wait for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to take the stage as night nears on Saturday at the Bluesfest. (© Julia Pelish Photography)

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