Every year in the heart of British Columbia, in the height of August’s heat, in the midst of many a visiting artists’ summer tour, Salmon Arm hosts the annual Roots & Blues Festival. On August 17-19 this year, the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary. Bringing in dozens of artists from all across the musical spectrum, the event is one of the less-known gems of the blues festival world.
Sunday proved to be a special day this year, as artists Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks as well as Bettye LaVette gave back-to-back performances on the Blues Stage. James ‘Super Chikan’ Johnson focused on energetic, crowd-riling performances with his team. The interesting thing about this long-time guitarist from Mississippi is that, while he started playing music as a young child, since he bought his first guitar at 13 years old, he’s built his own instruments out of found materials ever since.
Those instruments are by no means second-rate, however. The construction seems solid and the sounds are certainly sublime. But Johnson’s luthiery prowess seems to be more than matched with the quality of his fretwork. The heavy groove riffs he hammered out carried far over the heads of the crowd as many concertgoers let loose and danced on the lawn in front of the stage.
Eventually, though, it was time for the Fighting Cocks to wind down, and as the blistering harmonica solo encore faded out, Bettye LaVette and her band prepared to make their entrance. Once she appeared, the crowd was instantly transfixed as this grammy-nominated interpreter (not a singer, as she is sure to point out) let her vocals peal out into the afternoon. The festival itself described her as having “a voice like smoke wrapped in velvet and silk,” and the description is not far off. This is a woman with incredible range in both technique and emotion.
LaVette transitioned effortlessly from smooth, silky slow jams to upbeat, heart-pumping cavalcades of commotion. At one point, when describing the difference between her and the writers of the songs on her album Interpretations, she quipped “this is a song written by a young white guy who is high, now being sung by a 60-year-old black woman who is drunk.” Yes, the fuel of her fortune does indeed seem to be rooted in contradiction, for every successive song was something new.
For those than would like that kind of variety, Roots & Blues indeed seems to be the kind of festival that can deliver. Even if you missed out on some of the great performances this year, next year is sure to follow up with something you weren’t expecting. From more local British Columbian and other Canadian bands to music from the far reaches of the American Midwest and deep South, the festival seems determined to offer true variety in every sense of the word.
– Tyler Quiring