It was only a few years ago that I spent a phenomenal two weeks volunteering for Ottawa Bluesfest. I was excited about the lineup, I was excited about the scene, and I was excited to be able to contribute to a festival that consistently delivered. The year was 2011. Now it is 2015, only four years later, and I cannot comprehend how far this festival has fallen.
I have steadily become less and less interested in Bluesfest primarily due to the fact that their lineup has not been grabbing my attention. The fact that I don’t care as much for the current Bluesfest lineups is not what this article is about. To their credit, I think that Bluesfest has managed to put together diverse lineups that seems to group genres by day. Just about anyone could find at least one day of Bluesfest that would interest them, and that is something the organizers have been very successful at managing. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be disappointed that a festival that featured great artists like My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, Furthur etc. had chosen to focus their efforts on whoever will generate the most cash.
Unfortunately, it is the mechanics of the festival that have really turned me off this year. Let’s start with purchasing tickets. I decided to do a pick-3 pass, advertised at $129. Anyone who is used to buying event tickets is familiar with absurd fees for nothing, which bumped the price up another $20, but the real irritating factor was that the only option I had was to buy a will-call ticket, due to the fact that I was purchasing at the last minute. I figured that with no print-at-home tickets, they must have a number of will-call windows to help move people through. There was only one will-call entrance, and it was Kanye West day. I waited for 30 minutes to get through the line while faintly hearing Chance the Rapper do his thing from across the fence. In the end, they were so back-logged with people trying to get through will-call that they just waived me through. I didn’t pick up my tickets, and my tickets were never checked.
Next up: security. Security needs to present, they need to stop illegal activity and they need to make sure that no one poses any danger to other festival-goers. However, the need for me to empty my pockets and lift my shirt upon entering the festival seems excessive. The need for security to go randomly checking IDs when we already have bracelets to show that we are of legal drinking age seems excessive. Walking around extinguishing perfectly legal cigarettes so that they can easily spot people smoking weed is completely absurd (and I do not smoke and rather dislike it when people smoke around me). It should be noted that Ottawa crowds are notoriously tame.
Last night the real failure of the festival occurred. Festival sets are short. They are outdoors. Bands want to get out there and play as much as they can in a small window, and there is a possibility that the elements may not be favourable. Last night it rained. This was not a storm. There was no lightning. Every outdoor show that I have been to has been prepared for such circumstances, but Ottawa Bluesfest did not cover their stages adequately. During an excellent set from Future Islands, the rain picked up and began soaking the band and the fans. Crew members were scrambling to cover all of the equipment with tarps and towels. Worst of all, the band was forced off the stage early. The next set of bands were not able to begin until 25 minutes after their intended start times. This was the part that was unacceptable. The job of an outdoor festival is to let people hear some music regardless of weather.
I remember four years ago when a major storm hit the Bluesfest before the Black Keys were supposed to play. We volunteers were standing on chairs and holding on to the accessibility tent to stop it from blowing away. On that night it was unsafe for bands to be onstage due to lightning directly overhead. And yet as soon as the lightning passed, despite the heavy downpour, The Black Keys still played. That same year featured the infamous stage collapse during Cheap Trick’s set. Last night’s conditions were not extreme, and there is no excuse for not preparing the stages for a bit of rain. To me, that stage collapse marked the last time that Ottawa Bluesfest was truly a great festival.