A bit of drizzle forecast and weekend music fest competition from the big Squamish Valley Music Festival may not have been on the side of Saturday’s Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival, but it didn’t seem to mar the event in its 16th year. This was actually my first time shooting this fest, and it was a lovely thing. Much more mellow overall, this day was more about brilliant musicians who excel at their craft and simply live and breathe music, rather than about rockstars, stage setups and drunk hipsters (perhaps the occasional drunk 40something, however)… the polite alternative to Squamish. When I walked in, around 1:30, the field leading downhill to the stage was already filled with colourful lawn chairs and blankets, folks spread out with their lunches and beers (which you could freely roam with instead of being parked in a beer garden away from the stage), enjoying Harpdog Brown, who was close to wrapping up his set. Dressed in a shiny sky-blue suit, perched on a stool near the centre of the stage, with a guitar player and stand-up bassist near his side, he delivered meaningful blues and some notes on the harmonica. No one stood stagefront, and aside from two girls who had set up their blanket right behind the barricade, there was a 12-foot grassy gap between that barricade and the be-lawnchaired audience. It is the politest festival I have ever been to.
I wandered about to get a sense of the place. Food carts ringed the top of the hill to the west, some sponsor tents and the merchandise tents towards the east. The beer line was a big oneway loop at the back past the small, open Garden stage, and there was a small cart in the middle of everything, hooked up to the city water supply for free h2o, something that came in handy for washing yourself off after a pile of ribs from the BBQ cart, or for refreshing yourself throughout the day. Somewhat hilariously, the Chevron Misting Tent was being used by a bunch of moms with tots in strollers as cover from the drizzle, after being non-misty and disused through the early part of the day.
The music schedule was very well coordinated…as Harpdog’s last harmonica strains were fading out across the crowd, you could hear music begin at the Westwood stage. First though, I trekked back to the garden stage, where Colleen Rennison was just about to get started. There were only about a dozen people there at the start, but quite quickly, people wandered over from the main stage to check out her set. Rennison’s voice is sultry, gravelly, and stronger than you’d expect when she really fires up – well-suited to blues. It was just her and a guitarist on stage. I was there for about 20 minutes, then went to see what was going on at the Westwood stage, as sets on these two stages happened simultaneously.
The Westwood Stage was a bit larger than the Garden Stage, quite a lot taller, and fully covered by a large white tent. Tall bar-style tables were scattered around, creating a loungey atmosphere, and an imaginary barrier that people seemed reluctant to cross to approach the stage. On that stage at the moment was Sibel Thrasher, an absolute firecracker of a woman, with tightly-waved brass and red hair, long glittery nails and an airbrushed and bedazzled Marilyn Monroe top. She strolled the stage, pointing directly at audience members, urging them forward and sassing the crowd up. She has a big, crackling voice and a ton of charisma, definitely at home on the stage. As I left that tent, I heard her start up with a soft version of “Only Fools Rush In.” I realized then, as I had sort of misread the set times on my schedule, that if I stood on the walkway around the back of the Main Stage ‘hill,’ I could actually hear what was going on at both the side stages simultaneously.
Regardless, soon it was time to head back to the Main Stage to see a band I was really looking forward to, the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. The band members all look like they have been plucked from different acts, but once they start up, they mesh together incredibly. All of them were smartly outfitted in black and white, the men in matching white button-downs and black pants, and the gals in black and white skirts or dresses. They perform a selection of originals and covers that blend old southern gospel and bluegrass – black and white music from the old days. The songs, as the band name would suggest, are centred around religious themes, though looking at various interviews with this band, it’s not clear if that’s merely an homage to the musical styles they tend towards, or if they fit in a Christian or religious band genre (this is the same thing I wondered about 16 Horsepower/WovenHand for years). Brilliant music, and also having a blast on stage.
Jesse Roper was the next act I went to see, back over on the Garden Stage. He was absolutely bananas. He had a huge draw pretty quickly, and was all over the stage, limbs akimbo. Within the first few minutes, he had kicked his sandals off towards the monitors, his sunglasses had fallen off his head over his face, and shortly he was tearing away on his guitar from atop some speaker stacks at stagefront. His drummer looks rather like he would be more at home in Guns N Roses or something, and again – all smiles on stage! A few songs in, another fellow popped out from sidestage and him and Roper began attempting to out-harmonica each other. The audience was dancing up a storm in the oncoming drizzle – lots of bare feet around – and finally, the entire band clustered stagefront for harmonicas, spoons, bongos, guitars, and laughs.
Then it was back to the Westwood Stage to see Terra Lightfoot. She was the absolutely opposite of Roper – composed, dressed in a sparkly white cocktail dress (that she had wisely chosen to wear bike shorts underneath, as the stage angle would have provided an interesting vantage point otherwise), and singing with power but control. She did get a bit louder at times – even claiming “this next one is what I would call a bopper,” at one point – but she took it down a few notches compared to much of what I had seen so far. She even had a song about the National Film Board of Canada – how a) utterly Canadian and b) totally composed is that?! The day outside was getting very warm and humid, like a proper bluesy southern summer, and everyone, performers and crowd, were perspiring. You know it’s a good one when you can see forearm sweat slicking just about everyone. There was a family area that offered a craft table for kids to make their own cardboard guitars. It took me seeing a few of these things to clue in that it was different kids, and there were actually dozens of the creative homemade pretend-instruments around.
Next up on the main stage was Nathan & The Zydeco Cha-Chas. Just the name of this act was enough to get one wondering, if like me, you have no idea who these guys are. Well, I have to say, what a riot! More people who are in love with music and performing. Nathan himself is a jovial fellow in a big hat and dark shades, with an accordion strapped to his shoulders. He’d wander the stage, get down on one knee, get back up, shake his legs back and forth and skip-step around the stage between singing his fun, feel-good zydeco songs. His nephew was on scrubboard, and he had the same stand-up bass player who was playing earlier with Harpdog Brown. Multiple times in the set, Nathan pointed out that he was from Lafayette, Louisiana, “Where the crawfish got soul and the alligators got the blues!” Just about every minute he’d holler, “Somebody scream! Somebody get up now!” And another favourite quote when talking about his own album, “Put it on on a Saturday morning. If you don’t shake a leg, call the undertaker, cuz you’re dead!” He urged the audience to get up and dance and not to worry about leaving their chairs and blankets. “If someone steals your chair, I’ll put it on my AmEx.” He also asked after just about every song, “That all right for you?” What a feel-good set that really charged up the crowd and primed them for the dancing that was yet to come.
Perennial local favourite Jim Byrnes was already playing on the Westwood Stage before Nathan had quite finished. He had already drawn a massive audience, though by now the rain had also picked up so I suspect some folks were just looking for cover under the tent there. Byrnes was perched on a stool as per usual, coaxing some sweet blues out of his guitar, while his brilliant backing band and total characters of a backup-singing trio, The Sojourners, supported his tunes. Byrnes performs a blend of originals and standards wonderfully, and can still be seen performing around town dozens of times per year. He has grown a great base through tons of hard work and persistence, and I mean, you wouldn’t play acres of shows a year unless you really enjoyed it, right?
Back at the Garden Stage, The Devin Cuddy Band was in full swing by the time I got over there. Cuddy is the son of Blue Rodeo member Jim Cuddy, and is an association I fear he will be dodging (or welcoming, depending on your perspective) for his entire career. I have seen him perform with his father before, but on his own, the younger Cuddy is a piano player by trade and follows a pretty unique musical path. He churns out somewhat showy and rollicking piano-based tunes with the help of guitar-bass-drums, and cited Randy Newman as a big influence before playing one of his songs. He followed this with a song he claimed he wrote in the spirit of Newman, and even sent it to him in the hopes he’d record it, or at least pay him for it, which didn’t happen.
The rest of the evening would happen only over at the Main Stage. Ruthie Foster, who has won piles of awards for her music, glittered up onto the stage with a larger-than-life grin, a super-cheery spirit, and spent the first song unladen by any instruments as she gestured to the audience, the sky, her band and sang her little heart out. She introduced her equally-ecstatic-looking band and then strapped on an acoustic guitar for a few numbers. She looked to Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams, Amy Sky and Maya Angelou as influences and covers contributors, and included instruments like spoons and mandolins in the set. Her voice is huge, she has so much soul and passion in her singing, and we were so privileged to have her here on the only Canadian date of her current tour.
Lee Fields & The Expressions came on after that. The space at stagefront was starting to get a little busier by then. Fields is an absolute legend and easily the coolest cat in the whole place. The man has 4+ decades of musical career behind him, and he knows how to be a showman. His band consisted of a group of dandy twenty-something white guys in suits on brass, vintage organs, drums, bass and guitar. They played a full five minutes before the bass player started warming up the crowd by asking if everyone was having a good time. A few hollers from the crowd prompted him to state that it sounded like we were only having a medium time. He asked us how we were again to many more cheers. The musical intro continued as Fields sauntered out from backstage with some big gestures, wearing a bright primary-coloured plaid suit and bright red shoes with a matching pocket square. He sings like his lungs are about to eject from his body and his face might simply explode. So much power. It’s kind of reminiscent of a James Brown performance (indeed, he is referred to as ‘Little JB’ for just that reason). Sweat is pouring off his brow before long and he dances and shimmies around to emphasize his music. You can see how much passion he brings to his songs, how much singing like that takes it out of him but keeps him trucking at the same time. People who live and breathe music. Later in the set he picked out random women in the crowd, told them how he doesn’t know their name but their men must be lucky/satisfied/happy. What a character. He actually performed an encore, which was preceded by another 5 minute musical intro by The Expressions. The bass player addressed the crowd again (we learned by this time his name was Benny) and made them scream for more Lee Fields. He came back out finally, dressed now in a cream coloured suit, and offered to play something cool because it’s so hot on the stage. What a guy, what a guy.
The Sheepdogs headlined the whole event, and despite their clearly bluesy-rootsy influences, seemed like the (har har) black sheep of the festival. They were the main attraction for the younger set for sure, and in fact, were probably the reason a lot of those people were there – it was worth it to buy a ticket to just show up and watch them I’m sure for a fan of the Sheepdogs. Way to rise up, small-town Canadians! They have had a heck of a few years, and it shows. Half the band looks like they stepped straight out of Woodstock, the others with a little more these-days-rock bearded look. I also just discovered why the guitarist looked so familiar, but out of context – Rusty Matyas, who has done time in piles of indie Canadiana acts, but who I know from The Waking Eyes, and in particular, a ridiculous interview we did at The Shark Club over gigantic french fries about ten years ago, has joined the band fairly recently. They cracked out “The Way It Is” midset to huge cheers. The band stayed more or less in their designated portions of the stage, but singer Ewan Currie trundled to the front to do the odd guitar solo teetering on the edge of the stage when he wasn’t booming away behind the mic, and Canadian-tuxedo-clad bassist Ryan Gullen threw his long curly hair around in a whirl. They deserve their attention – a truly great and unique blues-influenced rock act. The crowd was mad for them.
People began to trickle out of Deer Lake Park throughout this set, off into the newly-dark, though the skies had cleared to almost-sunny just before darkness fell. The Main Stage looked awesome all lit up from the top of the hill, music still bleeding out across the night. Another year under the belt of this wonderful and diverse festival. See you at the next one!