Local author looks back on 20 years of Bluesfest

Local journalist and author Chris Cobb has published a book that might re-kindle some old debates surrounding Bluesfest, and even create a few new ones. Photo by Anita Grace.

Chances are, if you live in Kitchissippi, you have been to Bluesfest. The homegrown music festival consistently draws a large and faithful local audience.

“It’s become such a part of the fabric of the city,” says Chris Cobb. Cobb is a veteran Ottawa Citizen journalist and Kitchissippi resident, who has just released a book titled: Ottawa Bluesfest: Celebrating 20 Years 1994-2014.

The colourful, photo-illustrated soft cover is packed with anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories. It also lists each of the 1,940 acts from the last two decades. Cobb has already been commended for the book and these listings, many of which have settled some old arguments: What year did the Black Eyed Peas play? Exactly how many times has Blue Rodeo performed? But the book may also reignite old ones, since one person’s favourite performance may have been a snoozefest for another.

One debate in particular has plagued the festival from the get-go: a criticism that most of the performers are not, in fact, blues artists.

To that, Cobb argues that Bluesfest was never intended to be a pure blues event. “It’s more of a mixed music festival,” he explains, pointing out that other festivals like the Ottawa Jazz Festival also incorporate different genres. “Bluesfest was kind of a brand that carried on.”

But having written many concert reviews for the Ottawa Citizen over the years – and attended every edition of Bluesfest – Cobb knows well that “everybody’s got an opinion” about the event and the artists who perform there. He has come to realize that people can be very passionate about Bluesfest. “They love it,” he says, “but they are not afraid to criticize it.”

To explore what has made Bluesfest into the large-scale production it is today, Cobb’s book takes us back to the early years. The author particularly enjoyed discovering and relaying the “stories of the hand-to-mouth survival at the very beginning” when the festival struggled to stay afloat. They were “literally going from beer tent to beer tent” to collect enough money to pay the artist on stage.

To compile these stories and the details that fill 127 pages, Cobb secured the cooperation of Bluesfest executive and artistic director Mark Monahan, as well as many other individuals who have been part of the festival over the years.

For example, backstage catering manager Sandra Monsour provided some interesting anecdotes about her encounters with the celebrities, such as satisfying a last-minute demand for homemade apple pie from Van Morrison, and helping Sheryl Crow with wardrobe changes.

Cobb says the performance listings turned out to be the most challenging aspect of the book, since the festival does not have its own archives. To piece together the acts for each year, Cobb and former Bluesfest board member Bob Provick literally dug through plastic grocery bags filled with old programs and memorabilia.

The result is an engaging read and what will likely be for many a trip down musical memory lane. Signed copies are available at this year’s Bluesfest and can also be ordered online at bluesfestbook20.ca.

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