All-Canadian Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest ready to educate, entertain the blahs away

Best way to beat what’s left of the winter?

Well, one is to start thinking about the summer.

Cindy McLeod has been doing that for some time now, as the producer of the Calgary International Blues Festival has been putting the finishing touches on this year’s signature summer event.

“Oh, I’m almost done,” the tireless local blues booster says. “I’ve pretty much got everything booked. I start in the fall, but I’m really putting the push on this year now because I want to be able to announce it.”

Which brings us to another amazing way to beat back the remaining winter blahs and that’s with the Midwinter Bluesfest, where McLeod is hoping to unveil most of the artists playing the big boy, which runs July 30 to Aug. 5.

Its cold-month cousin kicks off Monday, Feb. 26 and runs until March 3, with a number of events at various venues around the city.

There is, though, one common theme running throughout the fest — it’s all Canadian blues.

“I thought it was time to celebrate Canadian blues. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m all for it,” says McLeod, who also spearheads the Road to Memphis Blues Challenge, which sends Alberta representatives to Tennessee to compete in the prestigious International Blues Challenge.

“I’m really very proud of the talent in Calgary and in Canada.”

The main headliner for the event, or the artist in residence, is certainly someone this nation should be proud of, Juno and Maple Blues Award-winning Toronto artist Harrison Kennedy. He’ll pull triple duty for the fest, performing an acoustic show Thursday, March 1 at the Ramada Hotel downtown, as well as a pair of free events on Wednesday — the Blues at Noon concert at The Historic Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (604 1st St. S.E.), and the A Walk Through Blues History event at the King Eddy.

“I’m really trying to tell that story of how the blues made its way to Canada and how it influences what we hear today,” she says of the latter, which has become an annual fave.

McLeod also notes that the discussion will tie in perfectly with Black History Month and how emancipated slaves came north bringing the music with them. “Harrison Kennedy — not only does he have a really fascinating tale of music to tell but his family also came here as slaves, came to Canada, so there is a real connect for Black History Month.”

Other regular Midwinter Bluesfest events over the course of the week include: the Singing the Blues Vocal Camp Workshop Monday, Feb. 26 and the workshop performances the following night, both at the Ramada; and the Saturday, March 3 Dance Party at the Kerby Centre (1133 7th Ave. S.W.), which is a Mardi Gras theme, complete with a Big Easy-inspired menu, costumes and music provided by Steve Pineo and his band.

There are a couple of new events this year, with one, a Friday, March 2 show featuring Maple Blues Award-winning boogie pianist and blues shouter David Vest, meant to showcase a new partnership that McLeod has forged with Heritage Park.

“I really wanted to have something that had a historical bent to it,” she says of the concert that will take place at the park’s Gasoline Alley.

“David has a real fascinating history, and his dialogue through his performances is absolutely informative about the history of the blues … David really weaves that through his storytelling and his music in his performance. So I thought it was a good choice for that.”

The other event marks another partnership, and that’s the Blues In the Schools initiative. On Tuesday, Feb. 27, local duo Tim Williams and Kevin Belzner will perform and speak to over 300 students from various schools at the Bert Church High School in Airdrie.

“I’m going to be doing that more regularly,” McLeod says. “Blues in the Schools is actually an established program — it’s mostly in the States because it’s supported by the Blues Foundation financially.

“I feel it’s really important here in Calgary to expose the youth to the music.”

She continues. “Our mandate is about preserving, fostering and presenting blues music and musicians. So when I do a program, I’m trying to focus on each one of these aspects.”

Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest runs Monday, Feb. 26 to Saturday, March 3 at various venues around the city. For tickets and the complete schedule of events, please click here