It may have its roots in the Mississippi Delta, but the first place most people think of when they hear the word “blues” is Chicago. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and so many others travelled the blues highway — Highway 61 — from the deep south up to the Windy City. But now, Canada may be challenging Chicago for the title “home of the blues.”
Take the International Blues Challenge, for example, being held this weekend in Memphis, Tenn. Bands and solo acts from all over the world are converging on Elvis Presley’s hometown to face off against each other, to determine the best of the crop. Among those competitors is a handful of promising Canadian acts, and their chances are better than good.
While at Blues Summit 6 last week, hosted by the Toronto Blues Society, I asked folks from the blues industry their thoughts on the position Canada currently holds in the blues world.
Mark Stenzler is a DJ living in Switzerland, who has been hosting Blues Zeppelin, a blues radio show, for almost 30 years on Radio Bern. The ex-pat American has seen a lot of bands coming and going through Europe over the years. In his eyes, and ears, Canadian artists have been quickly rising to the top.
“Canada has usurped the city of Chicago as being a better producer of blues in the last number of years,” Stenzler told me while in Toronto. “I have had a number of Canadian artists on my radio show, folks like Shakura S’Aida and Donna Grantis, Jimmy Bowskill and others. The reason I am here is because Shakura told me I had to come check out the blues in Toronto and in Canada.”
Brian Slack, producer of the Tremblant International Blues Festival, reasoned that “the Canadian acts don’t get a lot of chances to play at the American festivals. We are sending our best [to the IBC], and they are slowly discovering them one by one.”
If Stenzler sees Canada taking over from Chicago as “the” centre of blues, is there such a thing as a Canadian blues? I asked Slack.
“There definitely is, in fact there is quite a few of them,” he answered. “In Quebec we have a reputation of blues-rock. We like our blues with a heavier edge. In Ontario it’s a little more conservative, a little more traditional. There are a lot of West Coast-style acts in the west. In every province you got a little different thing going on.”
But it’s not the sound of Canadian acts that are turning heads so frequently. It’s the quality of the artists. Slack noted that in the International Blues Challenge over the past few years, “MonkeyJunk finished third, Shakura finished second, Matt Andersen finished first. We are making noise. It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, look at us.’”
And why not look at us? We are the new Chicago, aren’t we?
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