Local author looks back on 20 years of Bluesfest

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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.

One for the road

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Musician Cory Levesque will soon be able to strike one thing off his bucket list. Photo by Adam Feibel.

Cory Levesque is nervous.

He’s only been interviewed once before — years ago — and it didn’t go so well. Levesque has never been a huge talker, having often gone several days without uttering more than a few words. Here, sipping a pint at the Elmdale Oyster House, he’s having a hard time talking about himself.

But if you see him perform, you wouldn’t expect it. As soon as Levesque straps on his guitar, it’s “party mode” — a bravado born from a lifelong passion for sharing the fun of music.

The 26-year-old singer-songwriter grew up in Sarsfield, then Orleans and Rockland before settling down in the Ottawa core. Now he lives with his girlfriend on Beech Street in the southeast corner of Kitchissippi, makes a living working construction in Vanier, and does what he can to keep taking his music out of town.

Many people will say they love to travel, and so does Levesque. But he puts it differently — he likes “being away.” It’s a small difference, but one with an underlying meaning.

“I put a lot of stress and weight on myself,” he explains. “When I’m gone, nothing matters but getting to the next shows and playing songs and sharing that experience with people.”

Levesque performs his own solo music, and also with Ottawa bands Jonathan Becker & The North Fields and Fresh Hell. He has plans to release a new solo album within the next year, this time in hopes of recording it with a full band rather than just him and his acoustic guitar.

He’ll also have the privilege of playing this year’s Ottawa Bluesfest with The North Fields, which he still finds hard to believe.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” he says. “I never thought I’d play Bluesfest before because I never saw myself in a band that would fit, or a band that would be recognized.”

Levesque has been able to check a number of things off his to-do list — among them recording an album, touring the country, and now, playing a major festival — but he also appreciates the little things, like changing the brakes on a car, fixing things around the house, and even managing to several times drive a car to and from gigs that couldn’t go in reverse.

“If something needs to be done I learn how to do it,” he says. “Maybe I’m proud of my independence? As cheesy as that sounds.”

It’s that resourcefulness that allowed him to pursue his passion over the years.

“I was raised around music but never around instruments,” he says. He grew up listening to honky-tonk and country, but no one in his family ever played.

“I just happened to fall into a group of people who showed me music that blew my mind, and I just wanted to keep sharing.”

See Jonathan Becker & The North Fields perform live at Ottawa Bluesfest on July 12 at 3:00 p.m. on the River Stage. You can listen to their music at jonathanbecker.bandcamp.com.

New home for Bluesfest School of Music and Art

By Anita Grace –

The former Westboro United Church may no longer be filled with parishioners singing hymns, but the 100 year-old building will ring with music once again. This spring it will house the Bluesfest School of Music and Art.

 Wellington West’s Keith McCuaig will be teaching guitar and ukulele classes at the Bluesfest School of Music and Art. Photo by Anita Grace.
Wellington West’s Keith McCuaig will be teaching guitar and ukulele classes at the Bluesfest School of Music and Art. Photo by Anita Grace.

“We are planning on being an arts hub for the community,” explains Mark Monahan, Executive Director of RBC Bluesfest. “We’re really talking about being a place where people can come for music lessons, art lessons, and performances.

“It’s just generally a place to come and congregate with arts.”

The brick building on the corner of Churchill and Ravenhill Avenues began as a Presbyterian church in 1914. In 1926, it became home to members of Westboro United. In 2008, the church was closed for services when the congregation moved to Kitchissippi United Church on Island Park Drive. For the next four years, community groups such as the Kiwanis Music Festival and Churchill Carling Daycare occupied the space.

In the spring of 2014, the renovated building will be reborn as Festival House. The ground floor and mezzanine will be a hub for several local festivals, including RBC Bluesfest and the Ottawa Film Festival.

On the lower level, Kitchissippi Hall will host the Bluesfest School. Music and visual arts programming for individuals, families, and groups is being organized through a collaboration between Dovercourt Recreation Centre and Bluesfest.

“We have had a lot of requests over the years for more arts and music programming,” says Geoff Cass, Dovercourt’s Program Director. He is happy that this facility will enable Dovercourt to meet this demand. Kitchissippi Hall will include four private studios, large programming spaces for group lessons, and a small performance stage.

“It will be nice to have this dedicated arts community centre, to bring things under one roof,” says Keith McCuaig. The Wellington West guitarist is one of many local musicians and experienced teachers who will be teaching classes in the new venue.

Like many people in Westboro, McCuaig has fond memories of the building; he used to rehearse in the church basement as part of Nepean High School’s Children’s Theatre.

This archival photo is of a processional of the WUC Junior Choir in 1954. Now Bluesfest and Dovercourt will be bringing music back to this building in a new way. Photo courtesy of Kitchissippi United.
This archival photo is of a processional of the WUC Junior Choir in 1954. Now Bluesfest and Dovercourt will be bringing music back to this building in a new way. Photo courtesy of Kitchissippi United.

“This church has always been a community gathering place,” said Arnold Midgley at the decommissioning ceremony in 2012. He recalled dances every Saturday night and meetings of community groups such as the Scouts and Girl Guides. So it seems fitting that the space will once again be a gathering space in Westboro.

“We would love it to be a hub where people can come by and hang out and perhaps jam with other musicians,” says Cass. He is also really excited about the stage. “We will be able to do performances and small community events where musicians can demonstrate what they’ve learned and friends and family can come and hear them play.”

“Bluesfest for over 10 years now has produced ‘Blues in the Schools’, and more recently ‘Be in the Band’,” notes Monahan. “Both those programs have been in the community working with youth and children, teaching music to them and just broadening their perspective on music.”

While Bluesfest will continue their programs in schools, Kitchissippi Hall will house additional programs and provide spaces for youth performances. There will also be opportunities for new classes, like electronic music and DJing.

“We’ve been doing a number of focus groups with young people about what interests them,” says Monahan. Program directors have also met with local artists and music teachers to find out “what they feel they can deliver, what will be interesting.”

Registration will start on March 1, with programs scheduled to begin in late April. Visit ottawabluesfest.ca or dovercourt.org for more information.