On Sunday I finally got out of bed to the Edmonton Blues Festival. Together the acts represented a significant portion of the blues music spectrum. Some worked and some fell flat. Vincent Wainwright was phenomenal, his Pinetop-Perkins-Award-Nominated piano playing and his powerful, soaring voice got the entire house moving and kept everyone elated. Tommy Castro upped the energy and the tempo significantly, adding strong elements of rock, soul, and funk music spit-polished perfect by his 20 years on the road. The 12-bar ad nauseum of Tim Williams and the Electro Fires solidly over-filled the middle like smelly no-name baloney. Rick Estrin managed to literally put me to sleep despite having far more “style” and “panache” than most of the other acts, but maybe I was just tired.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was a little off during the most dull point of three back-to-back shuffles in E . This didn’t sound like the joyous cry of humanity I knew and loved. This sounded like The Blues, shipped straight to your door. I realized that the blues has become middle-aged, middle-classed, and white, in somewhat the same was as jazz has. Everyone was fifty and didn’t have a cell phone.
I thought about this transformation, the movement of the blues from the slave fields in the American south, up to the cities in the north, over to England and back again, and ultimately to a large tent in Hawrelak Park in Edmonton, one of many festivals in our directionless multiplicity of public summer events. I think that the blues has made the transition more gracefully than jazz has. The people here, they knew what they were getting, and they loved it more when it was good. They saw through the muck when Tim Williams stretched into dreadful boringness, and they cheered Victor Wainwright so powerfully that he was forced to play an encore even after having already gone over his allotted time.
I guess everyone at the blues festival is just happy they still have this music at all, possibly because it helps them to get their own special event to go to with other people who belong to the same generations and who have the same important cultural touchstones. These are “their people.” I forget how much of pop culture is designed and marketed for the young – whatever the demographic before you have kids is. No wonder Wainwright and Castro get the most cheers – they still have vital hearts beating. They’re the ones who keep these things alive. It’s important to do and this is a good way to do it, even if traditionalism does support some entirely mediocre performers. I wonder what I’m going to do when I’m fifty.