The story behind Bluesfest and beyond

Ottawa Bluesfest, one of the top ten outdoor music festivals in North America, is now in its 21st year, but has grown to become something much more than a phenomenally successful music festival. It’s an enterprise that has not only brought some of the biggest world talents to our city, but has also focused a great deal on our own local artists, community music programs, and has incorporated the involvement of many of our local businesses, artisans, and venues. I had a chance to talk to Executive Director, Mark Monahan about the birth of ideas that formulated in the early days at The Penguin Club in Ottawa. It would be there that Monahan would quickly learn the ropes and make valuable contacts.

“There were a lot of fortunate circumstances that helped. The Rainbow Bistro had started in the late 1980s, and one of the original partners, Ron Knowles, was a key player in introducing me to a lot of agents in the early 90’s. Also, Gord Rhodes of the original Barrymore’s, which closed right around that time in ’91/’92, came over and worked with me at The Penguin. Really, it was these guys that mentored me back then and gave me a lot of the contacts that I started out with.”

The original plan began with the idea to put on an outdoor popular music festival that stood out from what was happening in the early 90’s. At that time, iconic festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, were a big eye-opener and inspired Monahan to create a similar-styled event.

“We started the event when there were already many large music, and especially jazz festivals happening. We decided to hang our hat on blues, which I felt had more popularity during that time than say traditional jazz. It quickly evolved into more of a roots/rock/popular music festival, with bands like Little Feat, Los Lobos, and Robert Cray that were all somewhat related to the blues. There’s still a major focus of blues artists, but I think I recognized from the start, that wouldn’t really draw the numbers that we’d hoped for to support a large scale festival.”

The appearance of Ray Charles in 1998 marked the first big turn into incorporating larger scaled acts, and Bluesfest began to grow to immense proportions in the years to come. In terms of booking acts, Monahan and his dedicated team of full-time staff have continued to pay close attention to what is musically relevant to the people in what they’re expecting to see and hear.

“I try to look at what’s happening in the musical landscape and what is timely, but also recognizing that there’s an audience in Ottawa that comes to the festival that just wants to have fun, get together, and hang out. Festivals are an opportunity for communities to get together, and however big Bluesfest has become, that is really the essence of the festival…it will always be a community gathering.”

Given now the size of Bluesfest, it allows a large opportunity to also showcase our city’s phenomenal local talent. This year, one-quarter of the acts will highlight local artists. The Bluesfest team have also recognized the importance of the availability of more musical community initiatives. “Blues In The Schools” was the first of these programs, developed in 1999, along with others that followed, such as, “Be In The Band”, that have now found a home inside their Bluesfest School of Music & Arts, which also houses their offices. They also work closely with the Dovercourt Community Centre, on the development of these programs.

In 2011, the reins of the Ottawa Folkfest were turned over to the Bluesfest team, who have since brought the event to new heights, and has enabled them to extend their festival season. Monahan feels the move this year from Hog’s Back into the downtown core at the newly developed Lansdowne area is a huge opportunity for the festival, which is now under its new name, CityFolk. It will be set up on the city-owned portion of the property, which includes the Aberdeen Pavillion, the Horticultural Building, and a grand area of space called, The Great Lawn.

Crowd shot during Joss Stone's performance at Folkfest 2014.

Crowd shot during Joss Stone’s performance at Folkfest 2014.

Outside of Bluesfest, CityFolk, and now their newest endeavour, the Festival of Small Halls, Monahan shared with me other projects down the road.

“We’re also part of something called the Ottawa Music Group that is now forming an office in the city, in an effort to create more opportunities for local musicians. We’re hoping in the next year to encourage artists and businesses to be supportive of this initiative to promote how great Ottawa music is. We’ve built a successful event, and now have a way to show some leadership, to give back, and get involved in the community in general.”

Ottawa Bluesfest began in 1994 as a 1-stage, 3-day event. This year, Bluesfest runs from July 8-19, 2015 and features approximately 200 acts on 5 stages, with a range of musical genres that are guaranteed to offer something for everyone. For complete line-up, tickets and other inquiries, please visit their website.