Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
OTTAWA — Nearly 24 hours before the nightmarish destruction of the main stage at his festival last year, Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan sat outside a trailer that was away from the crowd and talked about the dream that had come true. It started nearly two decades ago on a hunch and has turned into a multimillion-dollar, non-profit celebration of music. The stage collapse that injured several people on the final night of the 2011 festival has led to an overhaul of the stage design and also of emergency response protocol in Ottawa. What the storm and near 100-kilometre winds that forced Cheap Trick away from the stage last year hasn’t altered is the devotion organizers have in putting together what has become one of the most acclaimed music celebrations in the world. The 2012 Ottawa Bluesfest begins on Wednesday with 12 days of music that showcases some of the premier talent based inside and out of Canada. John Mellencamp, Norah Jones, and AWOLnation are among the top draws from outside the borders while Canadian headliners include City and Colour, and Bluesfest favourite Blue Rodeo.
The event started when Monahan was running The Penguin, a music club in the nation’s capital that booked a range of artists, including jazz acts who collectively would garner large numbers at festivals in Montreal and Vancouver but individually — without a massive marketing effort — didn’t bring in crowds.
“I booked some very, very good jazz acts but they just didn’t draw in a club. But when you see the success that jazz festivals were having, I really felt that if you did the same thing with a form of music that was a bit more popular you could grow it exponentially bigger,” Monahan said of the Bluesfest, which is about to kick off its 19th edition.
The Bluesfest began in 1994 with Clarence Clemons headlining a three-day event on Major’s Hill Park. By its second year, it already had a star-studded lineup of blues greats that featured Buddy Guy and John Hiatt as the top draws, and Koko Taylor and John Mayall on the second tier of performers. But it was the late Luther Allison who wowed a lot of us who saw him for the first time as he set the stage for Guy on the final night that year. In 1998, Monahan said the fest reached a point where he thought it could grow far beyond what he first envisioned.
“We booked Ray Charles and that was significant for us. He wasn’t a blues act. He was American soul or rhythm and blues and we sold out right away, all six thousand tickets.” At the same time, Monahan, who remains the festival’s executive and artistic director, said he was learning from the New Orleans Jazz Fest, which had become a huge event after it opened its roster to all kinds of popular music.
In 1999, Monahan booked Sting and artists’ fees topped $1 million for the first time, he said. At last year’s festival, the artists’ fees reached a staggering $5.5 million as more than 225 performances were staged. Monahan said being a non-profit organization allows the event to continue to grow and innovate.
“My mindset from the beginning was to always pour whatever we made back into the artists’ fees and so far it’s worked. We’ve always sold more tickets,” he said, adding that the one musician he would love to see on stage at the Bluesfest is Eric Clapton. “I think having Clapton would be a big thing. For the festival, it would be great.”
“They don’t draw in the States, but they consistently sell out for us and they do it as headliners. We’ve had Blue Rodeo here 10 times now and every year they draw huge numbers, so we’re going to keep doing it.”
The enduring success of the festival, which drew more than 350,000 in 2011, has allowed Monahan to fulfill a dream of working on it full-time, which he said he’s been doing for the past 10 years. He said he booked the same amount of acts for the nearly two-week, six-stage festival at LeBreton Flats as he did during an entire year as a club promoter and operator. While the festival has a whopping 4,000 volunteers, it also has 10 staff members who work on organizing and marketing the event year-round. It also runs a Blues in Schools program that encourages school children to learn music and last year the festival featured 60 bands from the Ottawa area after Monahan and his team vetted 275 applications. For an area of 1 million people, that’s a lot of people playing music.
Monahan, who said he tried to be a musician but figured out as a teenager he was better on the business side of things, cited as proof of the event’s legacy the statistics from his organization that show more than 50 per cent of Ottawa-area residents have attended at least one Bluesfest performance in the past five years. It’s also a major tourist draw, bringing in $40 million in economic revenue for the city, he said.
Those are dramatic numbers that underscore the impact the festival has had on the capital region. A few years ago Billboard named it one of the top 10 best music festivals in the world. For an event that was the brainchild of a club owner who thought he could fill a little park in the city with a few thousand blues fanatics, that’s quite a success story.
BANDS TO WATCH
- Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (July 4, 9 pm)
- City and Colour (July 6, 9:30 pm)
- Sleigh Bells (July 6, 9:30 pm)
- Bright Light Social Hour (July 7 & 8, 7 pm both nights)
- Royal Southern Brotherhood (July 8, 7:30 pm)
- Norah Jones (July 8, 9:30 pm)
- Cowboy Junkies (July 12, 7 pm)
- John Mellencamp (July 12, 9:30 pm)
- Blue Rodeo (July 13, 9:30 pm)
Location: The festival takes place at Lebreton Flats just outside the Canadian War Musem (1 Vimy Place, Ottawa)
Tickets: Day passes range from $40-$64; full festival entry is $375
New for 2012: Sturdier stages, a more exact weather monitoring system, and the Just for Laughs comedy performances.