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Paul Norton . . . a name you can trust since 1951
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©2008 Paul Norton

THE BURNABY BLUES & ROOTS FESTIVAL took place this year on Sunday, August 10th in scenic Deer Lake Park. We must hand it to the City of Burnaby who stuck with it in the early years when attendance wasn’t quite so impressive. Starting in 2000 as an all-blues affair, it didn’t really take off until House of Blues (now Live Nation) took over the booking, and expanded the blues mandate by adding the ‘and Roots’ part.

I had to host a radio show, and arrived late,. Tom Taylor and Tommy Castro had already played, so I can’t comment on them. (Although I own and enjoy two of Mr. Castro’s Blind Pig releases.)

Things really took off for me with the arrival of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the Lake Stage. While nowhere near twelve players, the funky, seven-piece, horn-dominated outfit showed the chops that made us all realize why they have been the best in their field since 1977. Their mixture of New Orleans traditional brass band and modern funk is quite dazzling. Their set was too brief.

Then, we all had to leave our chairs at the Lake Stage and head over to the West Garden Stage to stand for a set by southern songstress Shelby Lynne. Starting out as a mainstream Nashville country artist, it wasn’t until she reinvented herself with 1999’s ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’ album (Island) that I really took notice of her work. Despite suffering through her apperance at the Commodore in 2001, truly one of the worst live shows I have ever seen, I have remained a fan. Her latest album, ‘Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway), a tribute to the work of Dusty Springfield, is a minor masterpiece. She turned in an sharp and sassy set, backed by a crack band of Nashville cats. She endeared herself to the crowd by taking a camera from a photographer in the audience and taking his picture.

Then, we trooped back to the Lake Stage. After another lengthy break, Ryan Shaw, the guy I was really was there to see, hit the stage. This 26-year-old singer/songwriter from Decatur, Georgia sang only gospel until just a few short years ago. He then turned his talents to work in a couple of Motown cover bands, which is where he was discovered. His 2007 album ‘This Is Ryan Shaw’ (Razor & Tie) combines a powerfully expressive voice with a dozen great songs, both classic and new. He’s more than just a great singer and performer … he’s the future of r&b and soul music. We can only hope, anyway. His band was equally talented, and bass player ‘Big Tiny’ delivered one of the best bass solos I have ever heard.

Next up was Jonny Lang, a fellow I’ve been curious about for quite a while. I have a couple of his alums, including the multi-platinum ‘Lie to Me’ (A&M) which came out when he was only 15. The chops are there, but I have always pondered what the big deal really was. Now at the ripe old age of 27, he came out on stage like a man on a mission. The backing band was tight, the songs carefully chosen, and the posing obviously thought out. But, it didn’t seem to me like there was much there deep down inside. The only moments that made me sit up and take notice were when his talented black background vocalist took over for a song or two.

The big finale was left up to home boy Colin James. Another child guitar whiz, I can remember the days when Colin Munde, as he was known then, played for spare change in front of the Commercial Drive liquor store. He has come a long way since then, evidenced by his ten albums and six Juno Awards. Comparisons to Jonny were inevitable, but in this reviewer’s opinion Colin came out on top. His set was more passionate, more genuine and more varied. He demonstrated his blues chops by rendering a credible version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Stones in my Passway’. He took more mainstream material by the likes of John Lennon and Van Morrison and made them his own bluesy statements. I guess my only complaint was that he pretty much ignored the swingy material from his three ‘Little Big Band’ albums. His killer horn section could have done quite a bit with some of those tunes.

The lineup left me wondering about the lingering taste of discrimination in the music business, when great talents like Ryan Shaw and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are relegated to short daytime sets and the longer night sets from the young white guys with guitars wind things up. On the other hand, on the basis of yardsticks like CD sales or number of folks crowding the stage up front, Live Nation made the right decision in calling the lineup.

Organizationally, things ran smoothly. I nevertheless I have a few comments, pro and con.

The web site said only short-legged festival chairs would be allowed, but in reality any height went, and it was hard for us to find a spot where we could see. Generally speaking at the festivals the tall-chair folks are supposed to stick to the sides and the back, and an announcement to that effect by the MC and a mention in the program would have helped a lot.

Ditto for smoking. It seems amazing in this day and age that we would be downwind of people puffing away right next to us. But … we were. Again, announcements and mentions about usage of the designated smoking areas would have been helpful.

We couldn’t see the necessity for two stages at a festival of this size. Much larger ones do it with just one. It was pretty inconvenient going back and forth between them.

The beer and cooler sales were smooth and organized. A bit more choice in the beer department would have been nice, but at least it was nice craft beer, and not swill like Kokanee. The wristband method which allowed patrons to take their alcoholic beverages anywhere was a very nice touch. The blues crowd tends to be a rather hard-drinking one, but I saw no incidences due to drunkenness. I suspect that not having the drinkers penned up in a designated area defused any potentially explosive situations. This is a model that other events could stand to emulate.

All in all, it was a great festival. There were many families with small children present. The children’s craft area was well-used. There was a nice array of food vendors, and although the lineups were a bit long, that’s part of the festival experience. If you’ve never been to The Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival, I recommend that you check it out next year.

- Paul Norton. Posted August 17th, 2008.

For more information, go to www.burnabybluesfestival.com

Check out some pictures from the festival ... click on them for a larger version.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Shelby Lynne

Jonny Lang

Colin James

The Lake Stage


Ryan Shaw

Kid's T-Shirt