RBC Bluesfest 2017: The festival may look like a global event but it’s always thinking local

Pony Girl is one of the local bands to watch at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest this year. Photo: Pascal Huot

This year’s RBC Bluesfest will present Pink and Tom Petty, but it will also showcase Pony Girl and Rebecca Noelle. if you are paying attention to the Ottawa region’s burgeoning music scene you probably know the latter two names. But if you haven’t know that they are just of about 70 local acts making an appearance this July.

It is a point of pride for the festival to present artists with roots in this region of the country. For Kelly Symes, who is the local program co-ordinator for Bluesfest, CityFolk, it’s a job and a labour of love. (She also programs the Festival of Small Halls). If you know that last name, it’s probably because you’ve met Kelly, who is everywhere in the region or you know her father Paul, the man behind The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, QC.

ARTSFILE called Kelly up to get an understanding of how the local lineup gets put together and to get a sense of who to check out this July.

“I basically follow conversations. I do a ton of research online and I try to see as many shows as I can,” she said.

After doing the job for six years, she’s seen some real growth in the local scene which Bluesfest considers as running from Pembroke in the west to Alexandria and VanKleek Hill in the east, south to Gananoque and north to Wakefield.

“When I started we had around 300 submissions come in and that seemed high. Now there are more than 400. We do get submissions from bands with one member who has lived at one point in the Ottawa area. So that skews it a bit. We try our best to weed those out, but, in general, we have seen an increase in local submissions.”

The festival does want to encourage emerging bands and new ensembles, she says, but they also bring back more experienced acts every couple of years such as Souljazz Orchestra.

The festival has a submission-based process for local bands. It selects three categories of artists: new bands, emerging bands and established bands. The artists are judged on their new material, community involvement, their live performance and their general relevance, Symes says. About half the acts presented each year are new.

Kelly Symes says Rebecca Noelle is someone to watch.

One thing she does notice is the constant evolution of bands with musicians changing groups regularly. That could be leading to another trend she has spotted with younger groups who blend musical styles more.

“You rarely see a young artist say they are just a folksinger because they don’t want to pigeon-hole themselves. … They are trying to fit into as many different areas as possible. They are trying to find as many audiences as they can. But the creativity spawned from that is enormous.”

She says the band BLAKDENIM is a perfect example that.

“They do hip-hop, soul, funk and a bit of rock. They are all across the board and can appeal to a diverse audience. To me that’s brilliant. ”

The local industry is also taking steps to build the kind of infrastructure music production needs, she says, mention things like the Arboretum Festival and the House of PainT urban music festival. She also noted Ottawa Beat magazine which is a year-old print publication that includes articles and listings.

“It is exposing tons of new markets to local music.”

An effort by local producer Dean Watson is also helping bands present themselves to the world.

Watson runs the Gallery Recording Studio and he has been making live performance videos in a series called Shot In The Dark for local artists who, in turn, use the videos as part of their PR package for festivals like Bluesfest, Symes says.

She says these videos help festival officials see how band performs live.

When you are wading through more than 400 submissions every little bit helps, she says. The submissions come in between Nov. 15 and Jan. 30 each year. The choices are made over the next three months wrapping up in April.

“It’s really challenging. There is all kinds of stuff. You are looking at where these bands will fit.” They get help from different quarters including local media.

“Every year it blows my mind how much talent we have in Ottawa and the surrounding region. This year I think we have some excellent bands really giving it a shot, touring nationally and internationally. I think we have confirmed artists who really deserve to be on a bigger stage who will hopefully draw new audiences and people might get on board and pay to see them throughout the year.

“We want people to see local bands and then support them for the rest of the year.”

Kelly Sloan has a new album called Big Deal.

Bluesfest doesn’t have to do this, but it has shown a commitment to the local community over the years, whether it is Blues in the Schools, She’s The One or Festival House itself.

“Ultimately it comes down to having a healthy musical community here,” Symes says. “People keep talking about this idea of a musical ecosystem and in order for that ecosystem to be healthy we need to give as many opportunities to as many local artists as possible. We need these artists to stay here and live here and perform here.”

It’s also an investment in audience building for the festival as well, she says.

“If people are exposed to more good music they might make the decision to come to Bluesfest for that second, third and fourth night.”

While Symes is juggling the local entertainment at Bluesfest and CityFolk’s Marvest, she is also managing the Festival of Small Halls. This concert series that goes into smaller places, some as small as 300 people and puts on shows. It gets going in the fall, from Sept. 14 to Oct. 1.

“We are in 30 communities; it’s grown from three to 30 communities in three years,” she says.

So, if you have to pick Kelly Symes, who are the local bands to see at this year’s Bluesfest?

“This is my favourite part.”

Pony Girl: They are pop-fusion. They are very artistic with many layers to their music. They are performing opening night in the Barney Danson Theatre. They have a new album out called Foreign Life. When we discussed them, everyone just felt they are ‘export ready.’ They are the real deal. A band to watch.

Rebecca Noelle: In my opinion she is one of the most important artists in the city right now. She is a member of The Peptides. And she was runner-up in La Voix (The Voice) in Quebec. That was an enormous accomplishment. Her music is soul, fused with jazz and pop. She has such confidence and energy and charisma on stage. She is playing the same night as Pink on the main stage.

Kelly Sloan: The Queen of Almonte. She has played Bluesfest a couple of years ago. This year she toured in Europe in support of her new record Big Deal. She is another artist whom a lot of people believe will be next locally based artist to give it a good long push. I think she will have career in music for sure.


BLAKDENIM: Their music is more of a soul-funk-rock-hip-hop hybrid. So high energy, so much fun, they are like The Roots. They are meant to play on an outdoor stage.

Riishi Von Rex and Michel Delage.

Riishi Von Rex: They are a duo gypsy rock band that likes to as they say on their website ‘tell tall tales bring rain storms and break all the curses’. Once you see them you get the context of what they are talking about. They are a favourite.


Malak: She is a 21 year old Egyptian Canadian pop performer who just graduated from the singer-songwriter program at Carleton University. She performed at the Megaphone conference and made quite an impression. The sky is the limit for her. She is just going to keep pushing.

Made Wade

Made Wade: He is a battle rapper. He is exceptional. He’s playing the Hillside Festival as well and that’s not an easy thing to do. We are watching him closely. He’s professional. He had a stellar live video and that made an easy decision for us.

Lynne Hanson

Lynne Hanson and the Good Intentions: She is amazing. She has made a career in music. She plays Ottawa quite a bit and has a strong following here. Her music is incredible and we are glad to have her back.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.