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The blues sing on PDF Print E-mail
Written by MAYAN FREEBORN   
Friday, 13 August 2010 08:40

Lack of live blues venues in city does not hinder growth of the Blues Festival

Looking down the Red Mile (17th Ave SW) considered a hotspot for Calgary nightlife, there isn’t a single venue solely dedicated to blues music.   The King Edward Hotel on Ninth Avenue S.E. closed six years ago, leaving only the Shamrock Hotel, and Mikey’s Juke Joint and Eatery to hold onto Calgary’s blues scene by a thread. Still, attendance is high at the Calgary International Blues Festival, says Cindy McLeod, one of the producers of the 6th annual Blues Fest, which takes place August 2-8.

John Rutherford will perform as a solo act at Calgary’s International Blues Festival.
Photo courtesy of John Rutherford
“There is a strong and very loyal audience base out there for the blues,” McLeod says, adding that people enjoy live blues music, but that it’s tough to find in the city.

John Rutherford, a blues musician who has lived in Calgary for 25 years, was a part of the old King Edward Hotel scene for many years.

“The King Edward Hotel was in the right place at the right time to enjoy very important and influential blues music in this city, and also reaching far beyond the limits of the city,” he says.

The most important time at the hotel, according to Rutherford, was from 1985-1995. He says that’s when famous musicians like Buddy Guy and other notable blues musicians were coming to Calgary to play.

Rutherford says he had mixed feelings when the King Edward closed.

“Its day had run its course for that particular operation,” he says.… “The blues artists weren’t as plentiful. It closed up at a time that seemed like a shock to many, but I think the writing was on the wall.”

Rutherford says it’s a shame Calgary doesn’t have very many live blues music venues in town, but it’s also part of the blues music cycle.

“It seems to come in and out of popularity on a cyclic basis. There are so many variables that make a blues venue work,” Rutherford explains. “There is always talk of blues venues popping up here in Calgary, and it would be nice to see more places to play.”

One of the variables that affects live blues music today, he says, is the cost of running venues and the availability of space downtown. That seems to be changing with the downshift in the economy and the opening up of spaces.

“Maybe there’ll be a bit of a turn around,” says Rutherford. “There is great confusion, I think, in the blues community of how music gets distributed now and how audiences are informed about events and tours.

“These things are all changing and people are adapting quickly…there’s an adjustment period going on.”  

For him, he says he’s adapting, learning and experimenting.

Rutherford will be performing for the third time at the Calgary International Blues Festival. He’s performed with two other groups in previous years, and this year he will be doing it solo since he released his own solo record, Echo Broadcast, in January.

In terms of the Calgary International Blues Festival’s progress, Rutherford says he thinks the festival is growing.

“It has made great leaps in the last six years,” he says, adding the festival continues to attract artists of a high caliber from near and far.

Because the Blues Fest pairs local blues talent with some of the bigger national or international blues musicians, Cindy McLeod says it helps the audience recognize how local talent can be just as good as the best in the world.

“Blues is a much broader art form than people realize. There are many facets of the blues,” she says, adding that some of them include funk, soul and gospel, electric and acoustic.

The festival opens with workshops on August 2-3, followed by a noon hour performance on August 4 at Olympic Plaza Park, and then main stage shows take place August 5-8 at Shaw Millenium Park.

The music doesn’t stop after the main stage shows, though. The Twilight Blues dance parties continue into the night at the Red Fox Pub at the Ramada Hotel downtown and Quincy’s on Seventh.

“It very often grows into a jam situation.  There’s a lot of improvised [music] going on,” McLeod says.

The King Edward Returns

Camie Leard, manager of marketing and communications at the Cantos Music Foundation, says Cantos will be building a National Music Centre on the site of the King Edward Hotel, aiming for 2012-13 for completion.
She explains the King Edward Hotel will be restored to a seven-days-a-week live music venue for all genres of music.

Plans for the National Music Centre include:

  • Collections like instruments
  • Exhibitions that tell Canada’s national music story
  • Living and working space for artists
  • Two recording studios which will use vintage gear
  • Research and collaboration with community organizations both in Calgary and across the country
  • Educational programs

Leard adds the iconic façade of the King Edward Hotel should still be recognizable when renovations are complete.

Calgary blues musician Bill Dowey, a veteran Blues Fest artist, will be one of the performers at the Twilight Blues dance parties.

He says he encourages everyone who loves the blues to support the live music.

Dowey echoes what Rutherford says about the dwindling popularity of the blues, but adds that some young musicians are just getting turned onto the blues.

“Blues has kicks and valleys in popularity,” he adds.

In regards to the cancellation of the Calgary Jazz Festival, Cindy McLeod says she doesn’t see it having a huge effect on Blues Fest.

“We have a lot of crossover in our audiences. Many jazz fans love the blues as well because they are born from the same mama, so to speak. The roots are the same.”

When it comes down to it, she says, music fans are music fans and will always attend festivals.