The Blues Summit is a unique gathering of blues artists, DJs and presenters from across Canada and beyond. This year there must have been nearly 250 delegates (and a few party crashers) and for an artist who's looking for gig opportunities, all he has to do is hang around the hotel for 3 days and sooner or later he's bound to find himself facing the artistic director of the festival he wants to play across a table or in an elevator (time to try out your "elevator pitch." This year there was even a choreographed pitch session where you could sign up for 3 minutes one-on-one with any (or all) of the participating presenters. The artists I spoke to afterwards thought it was pretty stressful and one festival director was totally exhausted by the process. One artists told me she felt a little "dirty" after going through this dance.
speed-schmoozing at the Summit
I always thought it was pretty pointless to showcase until there were people (presenters) who already wanted to see you. If you don't have a "buzz" or some manager/agent pitching you, you probably won't be selected and if you are, it's not likely you'll get a prime showcase slot. As showcases go, the Blues Summit gives you a better shot because there's never more than 2 or 3 performances going on at the same time. But it's a sad state of affairs when I see those kids driving up from some southern state just to play for 40 minutes at Canadian Music Week or North by Northeast - usually to a mostly empty room. The music business has become a pay-to-play thang. Sometimes just the parking and gas makes the difference between a profit or a loss.
My Summit experience was bookended by a couple of piano players - the first music I heard on Friday night was Julian Fauth and he is a delight to hear (and I'm taking notes on some of those tunes in anticipation of the day when we play together again). We were looking for an opportunity to jam but alas it did not materialize. On opening day there was a "Songs and Stories" workshop and I grabbed a clip of Michael Jerome Browne, a master of the folk-blues (and any other kind of blues).
Next day I heard an amazing keyboard player from out west called David Vest and my new favourite guitar player Bill Johnson (who was operating on 2 hours sleep). Vest was a bit of a "buzz act." Who would have thought you could be a buzz act when you're almost 70 years old? I'm encouraged. He has a PHD from Vanderbilt and did some time as a speechwriter/spindoctor in the dark corridors of the military industrial complex but I guess music has redeemed him and "he's Back!" Then I saw Bill Durst play for the first time. In fact I don't think I'd even heard his music, but he was making a buzz in the Kitchener/Waterloo area and now I see why. He was part of a rock band called Thundermug but that was before my time in Toronto.
Speaking of PHD's, young Jesse Whiteley was intensely working on his laptop between sets with the J-W Jones band and when I asked what he was working on he said it was his Master's thesis for York University…and the topic is the Hammond Organ, worthy of a thesis if I do say so myself. And it was a beautiful thing seeing a Hammond B3 being rolled in to the Delta for the Sugar Devils showcase. They had brought in a couple of ringers from the States for some gigs and recording and the organist was Ike Stubblefield, who I had the chance to hang out with a bit. He is a monster on the B3, and I've heard all the greats and played with a few of them.
Steve Hill did a command performance from the coffee table in the Ottawa & Quebec Blues Societies hospitality suite
Steve got a last-minute "official" showcase when fellow Montrealer Ben Racine couldn't make it through the storm and I wonder if anyone was paying attention to his song about his first experience trying to break into the Toronto music scene (not unlike my own).
But now that I'm settled in Toronto, I like to be a bit of a welcoming committee to visiting musicians and my Friday night campfire jam at the Summit was a great occasion for visiting musicians to get to know each other as they pass the guitar back and forth. There wasn't much of an audience, but it was great seeing a veteran like Terry Gillespie sharing licks and stories with a couple of new kids on the block (aka the Axe Murderer and the Harpoonist). And in true campfire style, I even managed to lasso a couple of folks into playing although they never intended to. One turns out to be a festival director from Oregon (and a mighty fine picker) and the other was frequent contributor to the MapleBlues, Richard Barry (I think he's done some time as a speech-writer, too).
Besides seeing a lot of old friends, I had some pleasant surprises such as seeing my face in a book called "A Portrait of Blues in Canada" that was launched at the Summit. It's a "coffee-table" book with hundreds of beautiful black & white photos of Canadian blues pioneers and journeymen musicians shot by Randy MacNeil. Then there was the gentleman who spotted my badge and said he plays my CD on his radio show in Berne, Switzerland. The best was when some guy next to me in the urinal starts singing "Saab Story."
But as the week-end wound down on Sunday night with a spontaneous jam around the grand piano on the mezzanine it was another piano player who left a not-so-pleasant taste in my mouth after he totally dominated the jam, even as other players tried to subtely suggest that he was playing so loud that you couldn't hear the guitars. At one point the (in)famous Quebec harp player Jim Zeller appeared and jumped right into the jam making up songs on the fly. The room was filled with amazing players, yet no-one was going to start playing while this kid was pounding that piano. When he stepped away for a moment, the mild-mannered Joe Murphy slipped on to the piano bench but even that did not deter this youngster. He insinuated himself back onto the bench and pushed Joe aside.
I propose at the next Summit there should be a workshop on "Jam Etiquette" (subtitled "or you'll never work in this town again). At 4am, we were shut down by a rather unpleasant security guard and I think most of us were glad to end it because that piano player was not going to quit. This after being evicted from the initial jam location by an another overly-officious security guard makes me think it does not bode well for any late night jamming at Winterfolk or the Folk Alliance Conference which are both coming up soon in the same hotel. Wait till those security guards have to deal with ten times as many musicians.
I wasn't the only one vlogging from the Blues Summit. Here Chris Martin of cbcmusic.ca is getting a harmonica lesson from Jerome Godboo - using TWO iphones
The icing on the cake was the Maple Blues Awards on Monday night and that was one classy event - I think I repeated the phrase "rose to the occasion" a few times as I discussed the performances and the hosting by Raoul Bhaneja. All the performances were stellar. And despite some grumbling about mixing politics and blues, I don't think it hurts that a city councillor and the Prime Minister's wife are presenting awards. There are blues lovers of all stripes. What a great night!
Steve Strongman performs at Maple Blues Awards gala at Koerner Hall January 21, 2013 after accepting awards for Songwriter of the Year, Guitar Player of the Year and Recording of the Year for his recent release "A Natural Fact"