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The Biggest Bluesfest Yet?


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The biggest Bluesfest yet

The festival could double in size, and pay less, at its new site. You listening, city hall?

Lynn Saxberg, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bluesfest is going back to the Flats, and it may soon be much bigger than any Bluesfest you've seen before.

For five years Ottawa's biggest music festival has been bursting the seams of its site on the grounds of city hall. Organizers say last summer's event attracted a record 250,000 people over 10 days, and that was about all that could fit at city hall. Next summer, on the spacious new site on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum, the numbers could double.

The new mainstage plaza is an eight-acre lawn that holds 40,000 people. There's room for 4,000 at the westernmost side stage, another 3,500 at the Black Sheep stage next to the Ottawa River and about 250 in the Barney Danson theatre inside the museum. Add it up and full capacity is close to 50,000 people a day. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, by the time we get through Bluesfest, we could be half a million strong.

Think of the possibilities. If Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale are touring next summer to promote their recent disc, Road to Escondido, Bluesfest could make an offer. If Van Halen reunites with David Lee Roth? If the Rolling Stones, the Who, U2 or Elton John extend their tours? If Led Zeppelin or the Beatles ...

Whoa. Back down on Earth, the festival's head honcho isn't promising a superstar every night. Executive director Mark Monahan says there are no plans to add a million dollars to the $1.7 million programming budget, although the total could hit $2 million.

Taking a cue from the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Bluesfest will feature two main stages, one at each end of the lawn. When a Bluesfest team went to Austin in September, they saw John Mayer on one stage, followed by Van Morrison on another, with little changeover time in between. The dual setup also takes the pressure off having to program one huge act every night.

Still, the festival will undoubtedly be able to move up the rock and roll food chain.

"I think we will bring in some significant headliners that will be perceived as being bigger than in the past," Monahan says. "The problem is, it's a tough prediction to make because I haven't got any yet."

The 44-year-old father of four has worked hard to make Bluesfest thrive. In its 14-year history, it has been forced to move four times, from Major's Hill Park to Confederation Park to Lebreton Flats to city hall, where it grew in size despite space constraints.

As anyone who's jostled for space in front of the main stage knows, city hall's Festival Plaza was cramped at any concert that attracted more than 15,000 people, even with the closure of Laurier Avenue. Closing the street on evenings and weekends required council approval and cost the festival some $30,000. Flagpoles and trees blocked the sightlines, and there were stairs and fountains in inconvenient locations.

To its credit, Bluesfest made the most of the awkward layout, and the city hall days will probably be remembered for the popularity of the side stages. Who could forget shows by Michael Franti, Xavier Rudd, Alejandro Escovedo, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Daniel Lanois, to name a few of the outstanding artists who performed on the Black Sheep Stage. Not that the side stages were free of space issues: some people are still steamed at not getting into the Neville Brothers' show a couple of years back.

So far, the buzz on moving back to Lebreton Flats is overwhelmingly positive. It's easy to get to by bus, bicycle or O-Train and not too far from the downtown core. A field adjacent to Booth Street will be used for parking. Many people have fond memories of the whole town turning out to see Sting, James Brown and Al Green, to name a few of the acts that played Bluefest at Lebreton from 1999 to 2001. It was pushed out to make way for the redevelopment of the Flats, a project that included the removal of contaminated soil and construction of the war museum.

The National Capital Commission's plan for a festival site on the Flats has been in the works for several years, but Monahan says Bluesfest has only been seriously considering it since August. One of the best features is the cost. As a non-profit organization with a national profile, Bluesfest meets the NCC criteria and is able to use the site for free. The city hall site cost $20,000 to rent in addition to the $30,000 associated with street closures.

"I think the city should learn from this," says Monahan. "The city struggles with how to evaluate this and what to charge people and who should pay, and it's really a nightmare. The NCC says, 'If you meet these criteria, you shouldn't be paying.' It makes sense."

The NCC designed the new site from the underground up for large-scale outdoor events, and it sure sounds impressive. There are buried hydro lines, a drainage system so rain won't turn it into a mudbath and a hardy variety of grass that can withstand the stress of thousands of pairs of feet a day.

Monahan had limited input into the consultation. His advice? "Don't plant any trees." Keep the sightlines clear.

Festival organizers will also be able to use the museum building for their on-site administration offices during the event, and festivalgoers will have access to the air-conditioned theatre and lobby.

It's not entirely clear if soundbleed from one stage to another will be a problem, or if increased attendance will translate into longer lineups. But with 13 years of experience, organizers should be able to troubleshoot and solve any problems that arise.

"There's going to be a lot of work needed on site logistics -- where everything goes, how people get in and out -- and on the programming side, that's going to be another challenge," says Monahan. "But it's going to be an exciting year."

The 2007 Bluesfest runs from July 6-15.

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