Canada is renowned for its many prestigious blues music festivals – Edmonton’s Labatt, Mont Tremblant, Kitchener, Salmon Arm Roots and Blues – there are too many to list. I suspect that Trois-Rivieres en Blues will soon be among that enviable group thanks to the variety of A-list headliners from both sides of the border and the forward-thinking approach of its organizers.
Set along the scenic St. Lawrence River, Trois-Rivieres is located about 90 minutes northeast of Montreal and has a population of 150,000. The downtown has blocks of sidewalk cafes and great ambiance with a thriving support of cultural activities aside from the annual blues festival. Some of the festival stars, including Steve Hill and Michel “MO Blues” Ouellette, hail from the city. In conjunction with the fest, vendors set up tents along the water selling their wares of jewelry, purses, and Tupperware.
Now in just its fourth year, the August festival has grown from one stage and three participating bars and restaurants in 2009 to its current four stages and 18 participating venues with an overall attendance of 40-50,000. The Wednesday night dinner cruise up and down the river kicked off the 5-day event with a superlative show opened by Steve Strongman, a powerful vocalist, guitarist, and composer from Ontario, followed by New Orleans legend Bryan Lee, the Braille Blues Daddy, and his Blues Power Band. The boat was rocking with an enthusiastic crowd engaged in every note.
I soon discovered that brushing up on my college French skills would have come in handy as all emceeing was done in French. This is a French-speaking town and province, after all, which only added to the feeling that I had been transported far from my everyday life in Kansas. I found that my valiant yet non-fluent attempts to communicate in French were well received, as were my U.S. dollars, although I am still puzzled as to why my pizza came with fries. Sometimes it’s best just to say, “Merci beaucoup,” and keep on moving.
While the speaking was en Francais, the singing was all in English. As MO Blues explained to me, “It’s because all the singers from around here travel a lot. When you get out of the province of Quebec, you have to sing in English because people outside of Quebec don’t speak French. If you only sing in French, you have to stay around here. If you go out of the province, you’re in trouble.”
The main stage of the festival is set on Badeaux Rue, right across the street from the host hotel, the appropriately named Hotel Delta, which proved to be incredibly convenient for dropping off purchases from the merchandise booth and riverside market. There is a multi-tiered VIP seating area to one side of the street, which meant that the rest of the festival-goers still had access right up to the stage for picture taking and dancing. This seems like a most egalitarian way to do things in sharp contrast to other festivals I’ve attended where the non-VIP folks were relegated to lesser seating and limited photo ops.
Thursday’s main stage line-up was kicked off by Jamiah on Fire and the Red Machine from Chicago. Jamiah, on guitar and vocals, is 17 and the old man of the group which also includes13-year-old Jalon on drums and 11-year-old Kenyonte on bass. This youthful trio has been together for four years already and is no novelty act – Jamiah sat in with veteranSteve Strongman and Bryan Lee on the cruise and held his own admirably. Jamiah knows how to engage the fans by strolling among them playing his guitar and greeting them individually. When called back for an encore, the band did a respectable – and respectful – version of “Foxy Lady” which sent the crown into delirium.
Another young band opened Saturday’s main stage show – the Justin Saladino Band from Montreal. Like Jamiah, Justin is a 17-year-old guitarist and singer, although the latter has a much more rock-oriented sound. Much credit goes to Brian Slack, the festival’s Artistic Director, for incorporating these young people into a festival with such well-established stars.
If you have ever attended the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, the quantity and quality of Canadian participants could not have escaped your notice. Our neighbors to the north do not often garner the recognition in the U.S. that they deserve for their contributions to blues music due to the challenges of distribution deals and visa acquisition. This festival was a reminder of how much talent we may be missing.
David Gogo is a veteran artist from Canada’s West Coast – Vancouver Island. He’s a three-time Juno nominee (equivalent to the U.S. Grammy Awards) and has been named Guitarist of the Year twice at the Maple Blues Awards (something like the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards). I never get tired of seeing a guitarist down his beer and use the bottle for some very tasty slide work, and David pulled it off with style.
Garrett Mason (Nova Scotia) and Keith Hallett (New Brunswick) teamed up to present a dynamic set with the two trading off on lead vocals. I remembered Garrett from the 2008 IBC – he had the dubious fortune of being placed at the same venue as Trampled Under Foot who went on to win the band division that year. Still Garrett’s IBC performance made an impression and with good reason. By the time of his IBC appearance, he had already won a Juno for his first recording I’m Just a Man in 2005.
Mike Goudreau (Vermont native but raised in Quebec) & The Boppin’ Blues are a seven-piece band that provided a great change of pace with its set of swing and jump blues. Mike’s voice is that of a timeless crooner and would be at home leading a 1940s big band.
As much fun as it was to be introduced to these fine Canadian artists, the U.S. was represented in fine style as well. Lucky Peterson is one of the most engaging showmen and most versatile musicians I’ve seen. At home on both the keys and guitar, he is also an excellent vocalist whose facial expressions cannot be beat. For someone who had sat very quietly before his show began, he exploded with a surprising amount of energy once he hit the stage. One minute he was sitting on the front of the stage and the next he was sitting in the audience playing “Johnny B. Goode” with the audience enthusiastically shouting out the lyrics.
And here I must offer an apology to Eric Sardinas and Big Motor. I had made no effort previously to see this incredibly tight three-piece band perform, because I’d made some assumptions about what kind of music they played based on some ill-founded and preconceived notions. Let me now proclaim that I loved every minute of their set – from the raucous “Flames of Love” to Eric’s tender solo tribute to Robert Johnson. Man, you had me at “Hellhound.”
My last night at Trois-Rivieres could not have ended with a more powerful combination than the Larry McCray Band and special guest Thornetta Davis. Larry played selections from his self-titled 2007 release, including “Buck Naked” which proved to be a crowd favorite. Once Thornetta came on stage, there was no turning back. She has a voice that can take you to church one minute and somewhere naughtier the next. Her rendition of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” a blues prayer she called it, was majestic. Then she sang, with some nice harmonies by Larry, about meeting her baby with her black drawers on. Naughty or nice, Thornetta has the voice and charisma to pull you into her world.
Festival promoter Christian Gamache is to be congratulated for the array of blues artists he presented at Trois-Rivieres en Blues. For next year’s fest, he expects to have constructed along the river a permanent amphitheatre with capacity for 10,000 people. He also promises bilingual emcees, but for me, hearing each artist introduced in French was certainly part of the charm of this city and this event. Watch the website at http://www.3renblues.com or the festival’s Facebook page to see what exciting artists will be on the line-up for next year.