Special to The Record
“We’ve always been known for presenting roots and blues and what is broadly called Americana, and I think that we are emphasizing that aspect of our programming even more than usual this year,” says Doug Cox, artistic director and executive producer of the Vancouver Island MusicFest. “Just look at our Saturday night show-closer, Buddy Guy – he’s as much of a blues legend as anyone alive.”
In fact there are more than 20 blues, bluegrass, boogie, and roots bands on the MusicFest lineup for 2015, which will more than satisfy anyone who thrills to the primal rush of electrified Chicago blues or swoons at the close harmonies and dazzling picking of a blue-ribbon bluegrass ensemble.
Speaking of Buddy Guy, he has brought along a most astonishing blues guitar prodigy and protégé, Quinn Sullivan, who is still only 16 but has amassed performance and recording credits that would make many well-known guitar slingers envious.
Hey, the guy made his debut at the unbelievable age of six on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, so don’t miss hearing what he and his band can do now that he’s almost grown up!
If you like your blues Southern fried, check out The Bros. Landreth, a quartet of very talented players and singers from Manitoba.
“They’re like the Canadian version of the Allman Brothers . . . these guys are going to be huge,” declares Cox.
And if a full-throttle blast of guitar-driven rockabilly appeals to your inner redneck, then make a date with Vancouver’s Cousin Harley. Led by massively talented six-stringer Paul Pigat, this party-hearty trio never seems to make it over to the Island so here’s your chance to hear their irresistible mix of hot rod hits and twangy western swing.
Coming at the blues from a different direction – and a distant land – are Britain’s much-loved Maggie Bell and Dave Kelly. Legends from the early days of the R&B and blues scene there – the Scottish-born Bell is a high-octane vocalist who used to perform with Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry, while Dave Kelly is a blues purist who honed his killer slide-guitar chops playing and recording with the likes of John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf – these two old friends will put on a historic show.
And hailing from the even more distant country of Mali is Bassekou Kouyate & his band Ngoni Ba. Mali is thought by some musicologists to be the original source of the blues and Kouyate is an amazing exemplar of that deep tradition. He plays a stringed instrument called the ngoni, and his four-piece band creates a mesmerizing, groove-based music that comes from the very heart of Africa. According to Cox, Kouyate is one of the most important of the contemporary African musicians.
“It’s not just your standard ‘Afro-pop’ but has more depth and authenticity,” Cox says.
One of the great masters of acoustic blues guitar, Mary Flower, is making her debut at MusicFest. Equally adept at the demanding Piedmont style of picking as well as delivering slide-guitar licks in the Mississippi tradition, the vibrant Flower has been performing for decades and has 10 CDs to her credit.
Another acclaimed master of slide guitar is David Essig, who’s been making brilliant music for nearly a half-century. He sings in a warm and wise voice, and his songs can be like a spooky history lesson or a moody short story. As both songwriter and musician, Essig is one of Canada’s most important roots artists.
And then there’s Amos Garrett, the versatile guitar master who has been to MusicFest so often that he deserves his own backstage dressing room. This god of the Telecaster has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Stevie Wonder, and for this gig he joins forces with the incomparably funky Geoff Muldaur, the jug-band maestro and interpreter of traditional Americana whose quirky musicality has found him collaborating with the likes of Paul Butterfield, Jerry Garcia, and Bonnie Raitt. Garrett and Muldaur overlapped throughout their careers, and were even a duo for a few years. “They are influenced a lot by the music of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, when songwriting tended to be more sophisticated,” adds Cox. “They run the gamut of roots music and their songs can be elegant and beautiful.”
Aside from blues, the great parallel musical stream flowing out of the Americana tradition is bluegrass, where guitars, fiddles, mandolins and dobros combine with aching vocals to create that unmistakable “high lonesome sound.” And this year MusicFest is blessed with not one but two legends of bluegrass. Hot Rize formed in 1978 and were soon hailed for their deep traditional roots combined with a flair for modern possibilities.
An equally formidable quartet is also heading here: the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (a.k.a. J2B2). Guitarist-mandolinist Jorgenson combines forces with banjo legend Herb Pedersen, guitarist Patrick Sauber, and bassist Mark Fain. These are all superb pickers and singers whose musical passion keeps the world of bluegrass alive and meaningful.
“Hot Rize reunited fairly recently, and they are the finest contemporary bluegrass band,” notes Cox. “And Jorgenson is a superlative multi-instrumentalist, while Herb has played with everyone – he’s been the go-to guy on banjo since the ’70s. They’re an exciting band.”
And that is just a glance at most but certainly not all of the great blues and bluegrass artists coming to MusicFest next weekend. Don’t miss the party!
–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music