Bluesfest – When All Choices Are Bad (or Good)

Blue Rodeo are Canadian comfort food, part of the fabric of our national existence. That may be overstating things just a bit, but they are one of Canada’s most beloved musical acts, and can be considered a national treasure.

Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo

Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo

If you are not Canadian you may never have heard of Blue Rodeo despite the band having been around for 25 years or so. In the US, for example, they have had some success and can fill a reasonable sized theatre, a couple of thousand people. In Canada they routinely sell out stadiums, packed with 20,000 fans or more. There is something about their musical sound, a blend of rock, folk and country that is part of the Canadian soul.

When the lineup for the 2015 RBC Ottawa Bluesfest was announced, with Blue Rodeo on the list, I knew it was a show I could not miss. I have seen then in concert three or four times before, and it is always an uplifting experience. The crowd becomes a family and the “concert” becomes more of a group singalong, a choir 20,000 voices strong.

With that said, I missed Blue Rodeo’s Bluesfest show this year. Whichever genius responsible for scheduling the musical acts put them on stage at the same time as Richard Thompson. I had to make a choice between one of my favourite bands and an artist I’d never seen live. It should have been an easy choice, but it wasn’t.

Richard Thompson’s name may not be familiar to you either. He man has been performing for almost 50 years and is a folk music legend in the UK, having been part of Fairport Convention in the 1960s, a duo with then wife Linda in the 1970s and early 1980s and a solo artist ever since.

I remember that I interviewed Richard Thompson once, by telephone, about 1981 I think it was, perhaps a little later. I don’t remember anything about the conversation (not surprising when you consider the number of interviews I have done in my life and I was just filling in because no-one else at the radio station could do the interview that day); what I remember is being told beforehand not to ask any questions about Linda Thompson and the state of their relationship.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

I might never have another chance to see Richard Thompson. Blue Rodeo are Canadian, there should be other opportunities to see them in concert. I agonized over it, but I opted for two Blue Rodeo tunes, then to a different stage to catch all of Richard Thompson’s set.

If I had stuck with Blue Rodeo I would not have regretted it – they were in fine form as always. However I am glad I took the chance to see Richard Thompson. Not that it was much of a chance: I knew his reputation. It was a nice quiet performance, feeling almost as if he was visiting your living room and had just decided to pull out his guitar. There were some old songs I recognized, some newer ones that I didn’t that were just as good, and then there was “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” the late Sandy Denny’s signature piece that she recorded with Richard when they were both members of Fairport Convention in 1969. I’m partial to the version Sandy recorded when she was with The Strawbs (before Fairport) but it is the Fairport Convention version that was chosen by BBC Radio listeners as the greatest folk song of all time. I will admit, I got chills up my spine when I heard the opening notes; that one song alone was worth the price of festival admission for the evening.

Only about 1,000 people gathered on the side of the hill to listen to Richard Thompson’s set. There should have been more – but most of the people who would ordinarily have heard him were enjoying Blue Rodeo. Whoever is in charge of scheduling ties for the acts at RBC Bluesfest needs to learn a little about musical styles and when artists should be scheduled. A smart programmer would have put Richard on stage when there was a hip-hop act on the main stage. That way the adults could have had some good music to listen to and I wouldn’t have had to make a hard choice.

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