Review: 11th Annual Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival

The blues were born in the Deep South, and so it seemed somehow fitting that this year’s Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival was held on a day hot enough to keep the devil himself looking for a place in the shade.

Taj Mahal headlined the 2010 edition of the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival. (Jason Lang photo)

“It’s pretty brutal out, but I wouldn’t forgive myself for missing out on seeing Taj Mahal in an outdoor setting,” said musician Ryan Townsend, who owns a resaurant on Commercial Drive that regularly plays live music. “This is always one of the high points of the summer for me.”

People were already lining up for Chevron’s “misting station” – a running joke at last year’s water-logged event but a bonafide lifesaver this time around – by the time Zaak Pick, the winning pick of ShoreFM‘s Sounds of Summer song search contest, first hit the Garden Stage for a short set to warm up the crowd in the early afternoon.

Pick was followed by local indie rockers Yukon Blonde, whose harmonies and heavy, high-energy set was well-received by a small crowd who nonetheless weren’t ready quite yet to expend their precious energy by dancing.

“I really like these guys,” said Squamish resident Shauna Phillips, “but there is no way I’m going to move anymore than I have to right now. Maybe a walk or three to the beer tent, but that’s it.”

The shaggy quartet was also enjoyed by audiences a bit farther away in front of the larger Lake Stage, were festival-goers who came early could stake out primo mainstage real estate but still enjoy the performances on the smaller stage thanks to video footage beamed up on two hi-def big screens. Having two stages also allowed things to flow smoothly throughout the day, with crowds moving from one to the other without having to endure sound checks or watch sweaty roadies load equipment between performances.

Lukas Nelson, one of living country legend Willie Nelson’s seven children, was up next on the big stage with his band Promise of the Real, and left little doubt he had more than a little of the Red Headed Stranger’s blood coursing through his veins. The voice was similar, but the countrified blues rock decidedly heavier than anything in his daddy’s catalog – more half Nelson than full Nelson.

Willie Nelson’s boy Lukas. (Jason Lang photo)

Things then moved back again to the smaller stage to give a sparse but rollicking set by Little Miss Higgins and her partner in rhyme Foy Taylor. The two Prairie products put on a plucky, dual-guitar performance, with Higgins’ “Bargain Shop Panties” being a particular crowd-pleaser.

Serena Ryder was up next just as the sun mercifully dipped below the horizon and was the first to bring crowds to their feet. The pint-sized, big-voiced singer-songwriter, seemingly channelling a clean and sober Janis Joplin, was clearly psyched to be on stage, punctuating her banter between songs with hearty giggles and random whoops of joy. Even if the recent Juno-winner confused the last time she played here as being at the Special Olympics instead of the Paralympics, the crowd certainly wasn’t going to hold it against her, happily belting out the chorus from the single “Little Piece of Red” upon request and generally eating out of her hand.

Serena Ryder (Jason Lang photo)

Ryder was followed by local boy Colin Linden. The Blackie & the Rodeo Kings member, who isn’t big on returning phone calls from the media, certainly can’t be accused of phoning in his performance, putting on a tight final show on the Garden Stage before the day’s final two headliners.

Generally speaking, bands that are named after an individual member tend to be named for the singer, and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is one of the exceptions that prove the rule. No doubt more than a few audience members were wondering at first why the group was named for the goateed pretty boy with the microphone when the guitarist was clearly the star. Any confusion was soon laid to rest, with the fast-fingered Shepherd laying down a blistering set featuring a number of their hits over the year, and even giving Hendrix himself a run for his money with a cover of “Voodoo Child.”

Last and far from least came Taj Mahal. The 68-year-old virtuoso’s first words were to insist the crowd get up and dance. By then the sun was down, the vibe was good, and most of the crowd had no problem doing just that.

(This story was first published Aug. 18, 2010. © Copyright (c) Burnaby Now)

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