The 21st Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival

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Review Date September 13-18, 2011

Review By Eric Thom

Location Fredericton, New Brunswick Canada

There’s not a business-savvy festival anywhere who won’t claim its hard-earned exclusivity to “uniqueness’ but precious few own the bragging rights to actually doing more than processing a large number of musical acts to as many people as possible. The key lies in its positioning. Landing in Fredericton’s tiny airport, you’re reminded that you’ve arrived somewhere quite different from the norm. The pace is slower. The people, friendly beyond belief. When you stop at sidewalk’s edge to wait for passing cars before crossing the road-drivers stop their cars, motioning you forward. Gradually, a down-home warmth envelopes you-and it feels good. Now in its 21st year, this Festival follows the same model it did in its infancy. This event is the pride of New Brunswick-it’s a once-a-year musical blow-out and its wheels are greased on the enthusiastic participation of over 1,000 volunteers who want nothing more from their labour than to make sure you are treated to the best time you ever had. It’s a secret they’re happy to let you in on, provided you can appreciate the difference. The Festival grounds are breathtaking-a total of 27 stages situated in the downtown area well within walking distance of each other-a stone toss from the banks of the St. John River. As a backdrop, the city is renowned for its Victorian-style architecture and towering elms with the charming effect of time having stood still here. This is further reinforced by beautifully restored historic properties (circa 1785) while endless lush parks, trails that skirt the river and walkways make the most of Mother Nature’s grandeur. Massive, hurricane-proof tents make up the four key stages and the ready-for-anything weather has yet to spoil this event for its hardcore music fans, who are more concerned with taking everything in than they are with anything the weather might conjure. The other ingredient that transforms this annual event into a source of fierce pride is an unfailing proposition of blending national and international talent with up-and-coming local players. The fact that a young, promising blues act can rub shoulders and chat with a Taj Mahal or a John (JJ) Grey, let alone open for them, results in an animated and adoring audience who make the immediate connection that their talent can compete with the best in the world. Another Harvest truism is the gentle awakening that world-class artists get when exposed to a hospitable people who go out of their way to make them comfortable and see to their needs, breaking down the barriers that often come with big city security and overly-managed acts. Take Warren Haynes’ headliner show-in which the artist was isolated from the people he’s playing for, banning photographers from the photo pit, no real crowd interaction, playing a rather generic set before he’s on to the next show with barely a taste of where he’s just been. What is more typical is the realisation that the artist can drop their handlers, walk amongst the crowd and meet real people who love them for what they do-without a threat-and for taking part in “the best Fest in the country.’ Volunteers driving them to and from their sound checks will act as tour guides, if not invite them back to their house for a home-cooked meal. JJ Grey and Mofro noticed this the last time through in 2009. Audience response to their soulful brand of southern blues was over the top and they were glad to return, this time more knowledgeable about how they’d be treated and how sincere and giving their audience would be. Three phenomenal sets marked a highlight of this year’s festival-as if everyone who’d gotten a taste of the band two years prior had bought all their music, committed it to memory-clearly knowing all the lyrics, and presented the band with heartfelt adoption papers. And the band responded in kind-upping their ante and having a ball while they bathed in the glory of a homegrown Harvest reception. Isolate yourself from your fans? Not on your life for the artists who can celebrate the bond that the Harvest is quick to offer. These people are not being paid to make this work-they’re here to celebrate their shot at 5 days of blissful music-and in keeping it a success as an annual event, pleased as punch that you might be able to join them. The Atlantic provinces have always been a hotbed of prodigious musical talent. Smaller, upstart acts aimed at younger audiences have their venues-acts like She Roars! and Carmen Townsend have their enthusiastic followers in this university town and the Festival gives them their shot. Programmes like Galaxie Rising Stars encourage new artists to compete for their chance to win cash prizes and a Festival showcase opening for a major artist. The International Blues Challenge provides a talent ladder to win paid expenses to compete in this annual challenge in Memphis, Tennessee to win on a major scale. Last year’s winner, Matt Anderson, cleaned up and took home the honours-the first time a Canadian act has done so amidst a sea of US-based talent. Anderson’s career has caught fire and the local hero treated the party faithful to a headline set on Saturday night, together with a late night jam with 4 other Maritime blues heroes. One highlight of the Festival this year was the winner of a specific contest organised by New Brunswick Tourism-a UK Battle of the Bands competition involving over 100 acts who competed regionally before the finals in London, the winner of which would be flown to New Brunswick, shown the sights and given key slots in the Festival show programme. This band was sensational: 24 Pesos. An odd name for a band from England perhaps, but their level of professional musicianship and their hook-laden, soulful blues was a major hit of the entire Festival line-up. New Brunswick made a big impression on them-whale watching and cycling the nature trails, together with the response from the Fredericton audiences encountered. More importantly, 24 Pesos made a huge impact on Fredericton-a band with a big future. Another massive highlight was the return of Buddy Guy and the addition of Levon Helm’s 10-piece band to the line-up while the jazz aficionados enjoyed Canada’s own, high-flying Sophie Milman, Montreal’s Florence K and Fredericton’s own Tin Banger. Guitar lovers were severely over-served after Buddy Guy’s helping of Chicago blues, alone, but were further treated to Warren Haynes and his soulful Stax band, England’s sensational Oli Brown, Jonny Lang and his band and local guitar masters, Garrett Mason and Keith Hallett plus Ross Neilsen and his Sufferin’ Bastards. The university crowd was seduced by both Karl Denson’s incredibly tight and funky Tiny Universe and a night of Medeski, Martin and Wood-although their definition of avante-garde improv and groove-heavy jazz was quick to win over many new fans. On the more mainstream blues menu, the seductive Janiva Magness scored big with her red-hot show as did the highly animated Super Chikan with his frisky set of taut blues and comedy shtick. The Taj Mahal Trio entertained in both a soft seat theatre and a massive blues tent and many who came to see the 69-year old blues legend felt he was more at home in the outdoor venue as he’s one who feeds off the interaction of the crowd as he peels through highlights from his massive catalogue of traditional blues and otherwise. Depending on your definition of the blues-and kudos to Harvest for holding this category so wide open-there was a special chance to enjoy the entrancing Rose Cousins in an acoustically-perfect church, together with gypsy jazz accents from Gypsophilia-another notable event. One of the best finds was the chance to hear the Hupman Brothers-an outstanding band from nearby Nova Scotia who are headed to the big stage in no time and to hear them is to recognise it. Suzie Vinnick and Rick Fines-Festival favourites-effortlessly making more friends. And, all week long, you can stroll the local bars for all sorts of new discoveries playing at the same time as everybody else, just to kee
p the party in high gear. There’s always a loving sprinkling of New Orleans in the Harvest mix, celebrating the flight of Acadians from this region to escape persecution. This year’s inclusion of the Rebirth Brass Band did much to keep the second line in motion and their percussion-heavy rhythm and funk was especially effective in lighting up the kids who arrived for their own day (Congo Square; a great idea to get their folks outside for an extended, relaxing musical break with a little face-painting thrown in). Another musical surprise? Ruf Records’ Girls With Guitars. What felt like it might be a tad contrived turned out to be raucous, grinding sets of blues from three powerhouse players in Samantha Fish, Dani Wilde and Cassie Taylor. The effervescent, camera-friendly Cassie Taylor was everywhere and the life of the Festival, eventually taking the stage of JJ Grey’s sensational closing set to kick up her dancing shoes for the band’s own Woman as the roof of the Mojo tent nearly burst open for all the humidity and deep Southern groove being generated inside. All in all, the Festival was outstanding and you can no more see all there is to see and do no matter how hard you try. The key shows belonged to the Brits’ 24 Pesos and Oli Brown (especially when the two acts jammed together in an “afterburner’) yet the Festival belonged to JJ Grey and Mofro. Of course, the chance to share a night with blues and rock royalty-Guy, Mahal and King Harvest himself, Levon Helm-made for unforgettable moments. Everyone leaves with their own special memories and, aptly named the Harvest Festival, it proves to be, every year, a virtual cornucopia of non-stop entertainment and some of the finest music in the world, nestled into a magical place you just can’t get back to too quickly. Ask anyone who’s been.

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