The summertime blues, troubling to Eddie Cochran, are something music fans really start to anticipate at this time of year, courtesy of next weekend’s Kitchener Blues Festival.
Now in its 11th year, the festival is an August mainstay, helping to cement the city’s place on the international blues map. Kitchener already had a reputation for the blues, thanks to the early efforts of Glen Smith, who booked blues shows in town and later opened the Hoodoo Lounge and Pop the Gator and brought Mel Brown to town. The legendary bluesman, who passed away in 2009, made the city his home for 20 years.
Brown was one of the performers at the first festival in 2001, attended by some 3,000 people. Today, the event runs over four days, with 40 bands and 60 shows. From a small affair in front of city hall, the festival now boasts seven stages, and more than a dozen bars playing host to blues music.
Rob Deyman, one of the co-founders who still serves as president of the volunteer board of directors, has seen continued growth year over year. In 2010, the organization spilled over into Victoria Park, adding a huge tent-covered venue to accommodate crowds that now exceed 100,000. This year’s addition of two small workshop stages is likely to be the footprint for the next couple of years, he said.
The idea is to split up the crowds, spreading them out across the downtown area by scheduling artists at different stages. That helps avoid congestion in any one place, Deyman explained, noting the new tent in the park proved very useful last year.
“We have the capacity for the audiences at that location,” he said of the ability to handle growing crowds.
“We want the crowds, and we prepare for it,” added artistic director Claude Cloutier.
With the lineup for next weekend’s festival, organizers are preparing for large crowds indeed, especially if the weather stays hot and dry.
On tap at headliners this time out are Gregg Allman, John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan and both Jonny and Edgar Winter.
As is normally the case, organizers try to put together a good mix of legends, up-and-coming artist and local performers, though the number of legends continues to dwindle over time. This year, for instance, Pinetop Perkins was booked to play, but he passed away in March at the age of 97.
However, we will get to see longtime collaborator Willie (Big Eyes) Smith, who performed with the legendary Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. He’ll be joined in a tribute to Pinetop Perkins by Huber Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist.
“Along with the great international artists, we want to have great representation as far as local, regional and national performers,” said Cloutier.
Given the area’s reputation for the blues and the growing size of the festival – it draws fans from the U.S. and Europe – organizers have an easier time these days booking performers.
“All of the bands know about our festival – they really want to play here,” Cloutier noted.
“We’re absolutely on the international blues radar,” added Deyman.
Still, there are many variables to juggle, including programming a variety of blues sounds. When it comes to booking performers, there’s a matter of who’s available at the time, who’s touring, travel plans and tour schedules for those acts who are on the road … and a host of other considerations.
“The second the playing ends, the planning begins for the next one,” said Deyman of the process, noting more than 4,000 volunteer hours are needed to make the festival happen.
“The number of volunteers continues to grow. There are many hours donated to the festival – the amount of work is significant.”
All that hard work pays off, as the crowds grow along with the number of performances and activities.
“Last year was a banner year for us – it was our best year ever in terms of attendance, and revenues were up,” said Cloutier. “We’re still 100 per cent volunteer-driven.”
The fruits of all their labours can be seen and heard for free Aug. 4-7 in downtown Kitchener. For more information, including a complete schedule of performances, checkout www.kitchenerbluesfestival.com.