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Tales from Vancouver Island MusicFest: The bluesy side of Canadiana



Special to Black Press

Regular attendees at the Vancouver Island Music Fest are well aware of the depth and diversity of musical talent in Canada.

This year five feature acts – all with distinctly Canadian accents – will be showing many shades of the blues.

Almost young enough to still be called a prodigy, Angelique Francis is a phenomenon who was on stage at age seven, and by 14 was opening for the likes of Beth Hart and Shemekia Copeland. More recently Angelique just won the 2023 Juno for blues album of the year and was nominated for four 2023 Canadian Blues Music Awards.

“She’s the ‘buzz’ artist of the Canadian blues world,” says VIMF artistic director Doug Cox. “I saw her when she hosted the 2022 Maple Leaf Blues Awards and she was simply incredible.”

Although inspired by legends such as Koko Taylor, Bessie Smith, and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Angelique has a ton of contemporary flair and star power to burn. Not to be missed!

Another multi-award winner is Jason Burnstick, a Plains-Cree singer-songwriter who specializes in slide guitar, performing on lap steel and vintage Weissenborns (think Dobro, but without the metal resonator). No longer a solo artist, this roots-music veteran now performs a kind of spooky folk-blues with his wife Nadia, a Francophone-Métis singer-songwriter. With a combination of evocative songs, stirring harmonies, and palpable on-stage chemistry, the Burnsticks explore traditional and contemporary indigenous realities with music that speaks to everyone.

“Jason’s a fabulous guitarist and his wife has a fine voice and writes great songs,” says Cox. “They’re not like any other duo I’m aware of.”

Family, history, and brotherhood are the themes that underpin Blackburn, a much-loved soul-funk-blues band from Toronto. Aside from the literal kinship of being a trio of brothers, they are further united by their deep family history with its ties to the Underground Railroad that rescued many Blacks from slavery. But their songs are wonderfully contemporary, with Doug Cox calling them “the closest thing to the Neville Brothers that Canada has to offer … they are a killer band.”

Although not well known out west, they’re sure to win a ton of fans when they unleash the big, soulful grooves that so impressed Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke (“Very funky Hammond organ! Very charged and at heart!”).

And speaking of brothers, the ever-popular Bros. Landreth makes their fourth appearance at this year’s festival. Formed a decade ago with brothers Joey and Dave at the band’s centre, their inspired interpretation of white soul and R&B won them their first Juno just two years later. These days, of course, they are wallowing in even greater success: their scintillating Come Morning CD earned them a 2023 Juno for Contemporary Roots Album, while their song “Made Up Mind” recently won Bonnie Raitt a Grammy for Best Americana Performance. “They are one of Canada’s finest groups, akin to The Band or Little Feat,” declares the VIMF’s Cox. “They are phenomenal songwriters. And Joey is one of the finest slide guitarists in the world, but not in a poser way,” Cox adds. “His playing is deep and tasteful.”

Our final blues act goes back to the spirit of the 1930s and ’40s, to celebrate the under-recognized female blues artists of that era.

This musical alchemy is conjured by Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Ndidi O and the versatile and talented guitarist/banjo player Trish Klein (The Be Good Tanyas, Frazey Ford, Po’ Girl), who began this project during the pandemic. The resulting CD, The Blue and Gold, features soulful reinterpretations of songs by pioneering artists such as Memphis Minnie and Victoria Spivey.

“They play with great love and vibe,” explains Cox. “It’s not an academic exercise – Ndidi and Trish capture the music and bring it back to life in a loose and joyful way.”

The 2023 Vancouver Island MusicFest runs July 14-16 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds in Courtenay.

For more information, or tickets, visit

–Robert Moyes is an arts journalist with a particular interest in music.

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