Mt Tremblant International Blues Festival: Magic on the Mountain

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James Cotton at Mt Tremblant International Blues Festival (Photo: Charlie Frazier)
James Cotton at Mt Tremblant International Blues Festival (Photo: Charlie Frazier)

From July 5th-14th, 2013, one of North America’s under-appreciated gems took place; The Mount Tremblant International Blues Festival. That may soon change, as in the year they celebrated their 20th anniversary, they also received the Memphis, Tennessee-based Blues Foundation’s “Keeping The Blues Alive Award” for best International Blues Festival, presented on opening night by president Jay Sielman. From the opening night’s first notes by French harmonica ace Nico Wayne Toussaint and Big Sam’s Funky Nation hauling 30 women onstage to shake for all they were worth, to the closing evening’s jam 10 days later, everyone felt like a giant blues family attending a FREE private party. Stellar performances abounded, and it’s no wonder more and more people are blocking out the full 10 days to convene with other blues fanatics from around the world.

It’s become the “ski area” version of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, with artists hanging out around the village, or playing with their peers on one of the four stages and multiple after-hour clubs till the wee hours. No airs about anyone here, it’s all about musicians and fans enjoying each other and their mutual love of the blues. Lee Oskar had never met Ronnie Earl, but you’d never have known it from the sweet music they made. Steve Marriner was his usual everywhere, as the Monkeyjunk mainstay joined several acts over the few days he was there, showing why he has won the Maple Award in Canada for harmonica player 4 times. Nico Wayne Toussaint joined The Ben racine Band at Le Shack, 2013 International Blues Challenge winner Selwyn Birchwood jammed there on the final night with Anthony Gomes, James Cotton held court on the porch at Casey’s,  where he could smoke and play along with the band inside,  Larry McCray’s band jammed with the house band at Kandahar; these were but a few of the many after hours jams.

Even the artists weren’t exempted from dealing with extenuating circumstances to get there and perform. Trampled Under Foot had all their luggage lost by the airline they flew on, The Powder Blues Band got faulty advice from their GPS (hate those things), and Larry McCray drove 14 hours from Michigan after a gig, straight into an interview and performance. And after a blistering 1 1/2 hour set, he STILL went out to the clubs to jam, soaking in the experience that is Tremblant.

Another part of the festival’s allure is its departure from booking the ordinary. While traditional and contemporary blues are well represented, many acts were from “outside the box”. Discovering these performers is the icing on the cake for fans. Brian Slack, Gary Quadros and Guy Primeau from G2 Productions, along with production manager Veronique Martino are to be commended for the many styles they blend together for this festival. Cecile Doo Kingue, brought the blues from Cameroon, and commented how her country is best known for sugar, cigar wraps and big-butted women, not the blues.  King King from Great Britain showed why they’re on the fast track internationally. Australia’s Joe Robinson, now based in Nashville wowed the crowds he drew with his finger dexterity and speed, amazing for how young he is, and the fact he taught himself by watching You-Tube videos! Montreal based guitarist Paul Deslauriers teamed up Anwar Khurshid, a Pakistani sitarist ,to play songs from their new cd “Enter The Gate”. Hey Moonshaker from Sweden combined hypnotic blues with a beatbox.

Running between stages up and down the mountain certainly kept everyone in shape! Ronnie Earl ventured north for his first Quebec show  ever. His former band Roomful of Blues, celebrating their 45th anniversary, was joined by another alumnus in town with his own band The Bluetones, Sugar Ray Norcia. Anthony Gomes played the first show anyone could remember where the seats were forgotten and everyone stood for the whole show. Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s purple suited, Jonathan Boogie Long, a 2013 International Blues Challenge semi-finalist, showed why he’s moving up on everyone’s blues radar. Matt Schofield demonstrated why he’s perennially on the list of England’s best guitarists. Texas guitars were well represented with Jimmy Vaughn and Chris Duarte.Victor Wainwright, fresh off winning a Blues Music Award for piano player of the year, made sure his first visit to Canada won’t soon be forgotten. And what a harp lover’s paradise: Guy Belanger, Nico Wayne Toussaint Carl Tremblay, Jim Zeller, Roly Platt, Al Wood, Guy Belanger and the Mount Rushmore of harmonica: Lee Oskar made sure the air was filled with plenty of “Mississippi Saxophone”! Oskar, celebrating the 30th anniversary of his own line of harmonicas, also designed a special harp for the festival’s 20th anniversary, which he signed gladly for anyone that purchased it, not with the traditional Sharpie, but by engraving them! And James Cotton, though he can’t sing anymore, showed why multiple players named him as one of their main influences.

Another great feature of the festival is exposure to Canadian artists, who may only be a few miles away, but are virtually unknown in the States. Dawn Tyler Watson, festival spokesperson Norman Brathwaite, Suzie Vinnick, Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whitely, Jimmy James, James Green, Dennis Viel, The Griffintown Jug Addicts and Carolyn Fe were but a few acts not already mentioned that put on great shows.

The fest has something for everyone: the massive Mount Tremblant National Park,8 miles away with a beautiful brand new bike path for cyclists to explore the many lakes, waterfalls and hiking trails; climbing walls, a luge and bungy trampoline for the kids, and even a casino at the top of the mountain to see music, have a drink or two and wager some money. Add in canoeing/rafting on the many rivers, a 200 mile bike path on the old railroad bed that offers easy access to beautiful country from Montreal to the hinterlands, and you have a vacation the whole family can enjoy between shots of blues. Recycling bins were everywhere, and festival-goers were asked to recyle/reuse their programs. An army of workers kept all trash and litter picked up, but there wasn’t much anyway, as people didn’ want to spoil the beauty of this wonderful location.

With the Lac Megansic tragedy on everyone’s mind, over $5000 was collected by passing the hat.

In closing; great music, beautiful countryside, wonderful food(beware of the chocolate store!), an international gathering of blues hounds: did we die and go to heaven? This is surely what it must look like! Plan to be an hour and a half north of Montreal July 4-13, 1014 for the 21st Mount Tremblant International Blues Festival. See you there!

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