jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus

August 24, 2005

Edmonton Labatt Blues Festival

Written by
cindy mcleod

*** This posting is from guest blogger Lara Helm***

Edmonton Labatt Blues Festival

Three thousand fans crowded into the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park would agree, the final day of this year’s Blues Festival rocked.

I had been looking forward to this show all summer, it would be a great end to a busy summer of company and events. I was fortunate enough to attend with an old friend who just happens to be a musician herself and my husband. I was looking forward to a ‘mommy’s day off thing away from my five year old. I arrived to find that I had to take notes with a crayon that I keep in my purse to entertain my small man, I had forgotten my pen at home – so much for leaving my maternal role behind.

I don�t imagine Hunter S or Hemingway ever took notes with a Crayola but I was wearing my dancing shoes, that was really what mattered, besides, my notes, especially the bright yellow ones aren’t that hard to decipher!

Mary Flower kicked off Sunday’s show at 2:30 pm.
A native of Indiana and a prize winner in the National Fingerpicking Championship in 2000, becoming the second woman in 27 years to place in the top 3. Her unassuming style and superb skills as a guitarist were a nice opening for the day. It was one of summer’s hottest days and so the crowd can be forgiven for mostly just sitting back and grooving with her .

Edmonton was her first Alberta audience and she commented on things political during every monologue. She played well to Canadian pride by often complimenting us on our good sense and international political positions. She also played the hell out of her guitar and got everyone warmed up for the day. One comment I overheard during her part of the day was “this is gin drinkin’ wrist slittin’ blues but man she is good.” And truly she was. Mary Flower has 5 well received CD’s and two instructional videos on finger style blues.

In the brief intermission we had time to do some schmoosing with the folks around us do some crowd watching. At one point a young boy around 12 years old or so marched by with a hot dog and my friend commented about how refreshing it was to see a kid that age wearing a Bob Dylan concert shirt.

The crowd was really mixed. Grandmas to toddlers, all of them there to enjoy the day and the music. At one point a woman joined us at the ‘table of sin’ (the place one can find an ashtray) and shared with us a very recent catastrophic personal loss. The blues indeed. After a fairly long chat she moved on. This speaks well to the sense of community that this event fostered, and that really is what made it special. A whole bunch of people with a shared interest and no worries about being judged, everyone just there to share the beautiful day and the music.

Next on the stage was Craig Horton, a veteran blues guitarist and singer.
He and his band kicked up the atmosphere and the dance floor started to fill. Much more honky-tonk and louder than the previous performer, his band woke up the crowd. It was still early in the afternoon when the native of Arkansas took the stage, around 4:00 or so but the time didn’t seem to matter too much to the dancers, myself included. The announcer told us that Horton had played with legends like Buddy Guy and The Duke Ellington band.

This mattered less than the fact that what he played made it impossible to stay seated and made it necessary to get up and shake it� more than just a little. After spending most of his career playing with the greats, his 2001 release CD ‘In My Spirit’ allowed him to be seen as a bandleader. Craig Horton won Living Blues Magazine’s Best Debut Album in 2001 and The Bay Area Blues Society named his band as 2004’s Band of the Year.

After a brief intermission the air filled with electric guitar rifts of Amazing Grace.
The crowd hushed a bit and the gospel continued. Zac Harmon and the Mid-South Blues Revue hit the stage. A Jackson Mississippi native, Harmon proved this day that he has charisma to spare. Within minutes of his band taking the stage there was no where to dance and the crowd was rocking. It was suppertime in the City of Champions’ and no one in the park was eating, everyone was dancing.

This guy has presence to spare and his was the band that everyone talked about for the rest of the night. A story-telling blues artist, Harmon wove a spell and everyone fell captive. An outstanding performance by an artist who in January of 2004 won the International Blues Challenge ‘Best Unsigned Blues Band’ award. If these guys are not Grammy award winners next year or headliners at next years festival something is wrong in the world. Zac Harmon and his band, the best of which, for my money, was his harmonica maestro. Never in my life have I seen anything quite like this. The crowd had certainly ‘kicked it’ for Craig Horton, but for Zac Harmon and his band they would have gone to hell and back- just amazing musicians, an electric performance which set off the rest of the night for the bands to come. Zac Harmon and the Mid-South Blues Revue’s latest CD is ‘The Blues According to Zacariah’, released in April of 2005.

Next up, after a stage change, was a trilogy or trinity of blues greats, Steady Rolling Bob Margolin, with Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Rev. Billy C. Wirtz.

They opened with a really cool Louisiana Cajun style, and the dance floor never emptied. So far we had experienced an organ but the piano man here – Wirtz, rocked the world. Their set was terrific, mid-way through they brought out the harmonica or Louisiana Saxophonist from Zac Harmon’s band to jam, Harmon came as well and the place was hoppin’.

There wasn’t a spot left to dance underneath the covering of the amphitheatre which comfortably holds 500 , at least half that many again were all grooving to this amazing jam session. Bob Margolin has appeared on 10 albums with Muddy Waters, four of which won Grammy awards. He has appeared on more than two dozen albums as a guest musician, and released six solo recordings. Willy Smith is best known as the drummer for the Muddy Waters Blues Band. His most recent recording ‘Bluesin’ It’, explores his early talent as a harmonica player, singer and song writer. He has earned 7 W.C. Handy Awards as Best Instrumentalist – Drums. Rev. Billy Wirtz has appeared on 9 albums since 1989, he is a singer, songwriter and satirist in addition to teaching blues to youngsters in the Blues in the Schools programme.

As the evening drew to a close Delbert McClintontook the stage.
By this point, it had cooled off enough so that they had stopped the public service announcements between sets reminding folks to fill their water jugs, by this point in the evening the beer garden was full, the dance floor had never cleared, and the atmosphere was electric. When Delbert and his big band took the stage everyone was ready for him.

The dance floor never stopped grooving, even off the floor folks were dancing wherever there was a spot to move. His big band sound with the trumpet and saxophone section capped the evening perfectly. The Texas native sang old favourites and debuted some of his new work as well. The sound was smooth, well rehearsed and pure. What a great end to a terrific, festival. Delbert McClinton has had two #1 Blues Albums, two others in the Top Ten. He has won 2 Grammy Awards, his newest album, Cost of Living is set to release in Canada in a week or so, the release was timed to coincide with his performance in Edmonton and was available for purchase (before it sold out!) at the Festival Blues Store. Delbert McClinton has not played Edmonton in 15 years before his Sunday show, all of us hope he doesn’t wait another 15 to return.

This year’s Edmonton Labatt Blues Festival really was a hit.

This was the first year in its 7 year history that the festival has sold out.

The organizers planned excellent music and good food. Is there another place on this side of the border that you can have excellent Gumbo and hush puppies while listening to some of the finest blues musicians in the world, I don’t think so. Is there another venue where you can make excellent short term friends with perfect strangers, no matter what their walk of life, dance and sing with them for an entire day, and leave one another feeling like you have really shared something special, I don’t imagine so. The atmosphere was amazing, the food was great and the music, which is why all of us were there, was out of this world. Next year I intend to plan time for a three day pass so I don’t� miss the first two days! The motto for this years fest was ‘the blues and nothing but the blues’, this festival delivered in spades.

Lara Helm

References consulted:

Edmonton’s Labatt Blues Festival August 19 – 20 – 21 2005 Programme

Produced by: Blues International Heritage Amphitheatre Hawrelak Park Edmonton Alberta Canada

Co-producers Carol Deen and Cam Hayden.

Edmonton Journal

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