It isn't often you get to reinvent yourself after 31 years, but that is what Blueberry Bluegrass needed and was able to achieve during their 2017 event, August 4-6.
Held in Stony Plain, Alberta, the Society celebrated their 32nd edition by pulling out all the stops to even hold the event. The current organizing committee didn't take the reins of the fest until late February, and with no advance work having been done for 2017, many feared for the future of the festival. But thanks to the efforts of area bluegrass stalwarts it happened. And thank goodness it did.
Blueberry has long been one of Canada's premier bluegrass events, having been referred to (accurately or not) as the largest and oldest bluegrass festival in the country, going through periods of growth (and stints of fallow) over the course of its three decades. Respect to all those who previously volunteered their talents to establish, grow, and maintain Blueberry.
Blueberry Bluegrass dived into their next era this year, and the effect was immediately apparent. So many positive adjustments were apparent, some of them very significant.
Most notable, the use of the available facilities was taken to positive advantage. Blueberry has long been fortunate to have a gravelled stage site, access to flushables, and a covered pavilion for venders and additional conveniences. A new building had been built on the site, and the new board grabbed it to allow a second stage, this one indoor. As we all know, any fest is at the mercy of the weather, and by taking advantage of the new building, the organizers advanced the festival to its next level.
Not only does the second stage provide an indoor respite for those looking for such, it also allowed the festival programmers the advantage of broadening their artistic vision. Providing listeners choice, the festival allowed guests their preference: inside/outside, Band A/Band B, wet/dry. The festival invested in excellent equipment and sound talent, going as far as bringing in Miles Wilkinson to head up the interior sound team. A third stage was available for the workshops and jams as well as additional performances.
The organizing committee went extra lengths to provide opportunities for attendees to participate in a variety of activities, some related to bluegrass, some not. While the music is what matters to me, I am glad that the committee recognizes that 'value added' elements will help grow the festival. Among the many activities organized for younger guests were a petting zoo, an arcade, and colouring contest, as well as bluegrass-related films, instrumental and singing workshops throughout the days, and facilitated jamming tents.
Building relationships is part of all good festival experiences, and the Blueberry board recognized this. They were able to draw on personal connections with professional musicians through years of involvement within the bluegrass community. Also obvious was the liaising that had been done between Blueberry and other area music presenters, the folk clubs and other western roots music fests, many of which had information tables. Gary Glewinski provided ukulele workshops.
None of this would matter if the quality of the stage presentations was lacking. Despite challenges, this year's Blueberry line-up was more than satisfying, with each performance matching or topping the one before it. Of the seven full sets I witnessed, not a single one disappointed and the diversity was appreciated. Blue Highway, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and David Peterson & 1946 (two sets) displayed different shades of 'grass, and showed that this music has room for the traditional and original, for the progressive and that which emulates a previous time. (However, I still don't need yodelling in my bluegrass.) While I didn't catch their sets, reports were that the Spinney Brothers and Feller and HIll were also well received.
Old Man Luedecke provided a bridge to the folk world, while Foghorn Stringband brought in the country/old-time element. Both received extended ovations. Local and area bluegrass talent was also given additional prominence this year, something that had been less respected in recent years. The Bix Mix Boys, whose energetic set I did catch, and Kayla and Matt Hotte were appreciated by their audiences.
While some criticized the lack of BIG NAMES (whomever that is supposed to be- you don't get bigger than Blue Highway) this year's festival has to be considered an artistic and entertainment success. Notable was the inclusion of eastern Canadian acts this year-The Spinney Brothers, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, and Old Man Luedecke-when it was previously asserted that it "wasn't worth the money" to bring talent west. A Canadian festival must support developing and established Canadian bluegrass.
Adding to the enjoyment and in another essential progression, a rotating cast of personable MCs worked the stages, keeping the focus where it belongs-on the festival and the talent.
Of all the developments apparent at the 2017 edition of Blueberry, none seemed to be better received than the 'late night' old-time country dances. Featuring ever-popular local legends Calvin Vollrath & Alfie Myhres and The Caleb Klauder Country Band, reportedly the audience filled the hall and dance floor for high-spirited, communal celebration. These dances were a risk for the Blueberry folks, and it appears to have paid off in full.
The festival would be nothing without its volunteers, and those who were working the festival were unfailingly polite and helpful.
During the course of the weekend-and as a result of meticulous planning and effort-Blueberry Bluegrass was completely revitalized!
The Board of Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival must grow their event, attracting additional paying guests and sponsorship. I believe keeping the focus on bluegrass will be a must, but incorporating the folk, old-time, traditional (but high-quality) country, Americana and broader acoustic roots worlds will be an important part of the festival's long-term health and vitality. Also important will be ensuring the festival offers its attendees more than just the music-opportunities for families to experience the music together being paramount.
Way to go, Blueberry organizers: here's to the next 32 years! See you August 3-5, 2018.