RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: The local contingent takes the stage

Angelique Francis and her band are performing at this year's Bluesfest.

Now that the birds have flown and RBC Ottawa Bluesfest has begun setting up, it’s time to consider some of the music coming to this year’s festival.

Beyond the big names such as Beck, Foo Fighters or Bryan Adams, there are dozens of local acts with a spot on one of the festival’s stages.

Emma Francis is the point person for the festival in the search for local talent. She says that every year in February a small contingent of Bluesfest employees sifts through about 500 applications.

“Our mandate as an organization is to book at least 30 per cent of the festival lineup from local acts,” she said in an interview. “This year it’s about 35 per cent.

“We make selections based on how they complement the rest of the lineup. We also pick bands that we have been monitoring over the years and who are really giving it a go in their professionals careers.”

Once the acts are booked, Francis said, the festival works to maximize the opportunities for the bands on site whether by helping them network or  by promoting their show.

“There are different criteria for the events we oversee but for Bluesfest more often not we really want to see artists who are really trying to make a go of it full time as professionals.

“We also like to see people getting involved in different start-up bands, doing fundraisers and charitable initiatives especially related to music but any endeavour is OK. It’s also important that they are part of the music scene here and touring a bit around the Ottawa Valley, across Canada and even beyond.”

Like most cities, the local music community is full of people who are in several projects at the same time.

“We definitely run into instances where we will book two bands and the someone will come back and say ‘Please make sure this band and this band aren’t playing at the same time because I drum in both’.”

Bluesfest is also actively engaging key members of the local music scene and involving them in programming.

“We have also started working with longtime friends of the festival like The Split and MonkeyJunk to put on the all star Blues reviews that take place in the Barney Danson theatre inside the Canadian War Museum.

“It’s a co-pro with us. We gather the artists and they arrange the lineup. This has been really interesting to take our relationship beyond the typical: ‘Here’s your contract; here is your performing slot’. We are inviting them in to programming. That kind of community collaboration is a good project for us.

Bluesfest is always interested in exploring new programming initiatives, she said.

There is also an off-site series at the Casino Lac Leamy in Gatineau where bands such as The PepTides and LeMeow will perform along with The Julian Taylor Band from Toronto. The casino is a Bluesfest partner and they were interested in bringing bands into their building. For the lcoals it means exposure in the Quebec market.

One thing that is different this summer is the fact that there are three stages instead of four. It means, Francis says, more opportunities to actualy put like-sounding acts on the same stage on the same night, Francis said.

For example, she said, “we don’t always have harder rock and roll at the festival and this year we have Rise Against and Three Days Grace. There was then an opportunity to give a local artist a chance to match that genre. Animal Confession is a band that has applied a number of times for a festival slot. It worked for us this year, in part, because they are a good with fit Three Days Grace and Rise Against. It’s really neat to program for a genre that is not often on the bill any more. The band stuck to their guns, they applied and applied and finally they got in.”

Another thing that can get someone into the festival is if they have a CD coming out. That’s one reason you will find Carleton Place’s Brock Zeman back at the festival, playing on the Claridge Homes Stage on July 7 at 6 p.m.

It’s a bit of a mug’s game picking some acts that people should check out during this year’s festival, but Francis came up with the following list:

• Nigerian-born, Ottawa based rapper Morris Ogbowu is performing the same night as Brockhampton on July 6. The festival is positioning Ogbowu with one of the one of biggest hiphop shows this year Francis said, “so he gets exposure to that audience. We have had him at Marvest in the past. With his cosmopolitan hiphop/future-soul sound, Francis said he is someone  to watch.

• Indigenous hiphop artist Cody Coyote (July 8) is already well known in Ottawa but “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention him,” she said. “He’s really trying to make a go of it and is  telling important stories.

• From Aylmer, Okies (July 5) have “a kind of a Fleet Foxes thing going on. They are quite young and it has been interesting seeing them emerge and break into the scene. They are fresh, interesting, with a very tight sound despite being so young.”

• Afro-Canadian artist Kimberley Sunstrom (July7) “was at Marvest in a pub playing for a small crowd. Now she’ll be performing on same night as Ghostface Killah. It’s been great to see her growth as an artist.”

• The very eclectic Angelique Francis (July 12) is often seen playing the upright bass while she sings. For Emma Francis, “she first played the festival in her teens and now she is back. Her sound has matured with experience. She’s a really exciting performer.”

• Fresh-faced Andrew Cassara (July7) is performing the same day as Shawn Mendes. Cassara “is really pushing his show. He is seizing the opportunities that are presented to him.” He’s also a bit of a social media ohenom with more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, 2,700 subscribers on YouTube, and 33,000 followers on his Facebook page.

• The festival will be greeted by the horns of The Bank Street Bonbons (July 5) this year. Francis says they are an eight-piece with seven horns and drummer Mike Essoudry. They “will kick things off with a bang.”

• Finally Francis pumped the tires of Lyle Odjick and the Northern Steam (July 14). This newly formed Blues band reminds her of the kind of Chicago sound produced by Muddy Waters.

Now that the Bluesfest lineup is set, the Marvest lineup won’t be too far behind. Look for that after the dust has settled at LeBreton Flats.

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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.