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Saskatoon festival hotter than ever

Saskatchewan seems to be on a hot streak with music festivals and events popping up province wide. Case and point this year’s recent Juno Awards in Regina and the upcoming slew of spring and summer festivals. But festivals like the Saskatoon Winter Meltdown Blues Festival which has been around for 11 years now, shows no sign of slowing down; in fact, the dynamic music event is hotter than ever.

Although this festival has passed the experience is still worth sharing and there are several reasons for keeping it top of mind for 2014. I had the great fortune of attending my first Blues Festival cabarets in early March. And, I can honestly say that as a result I am regretting the years past where I didn’t take time to appreciate a blues music festival, especially this one.

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Steve Strongman, 2013 Juno Award Winner (Blues Album of the Year) rocked the Odeon’s Cabaret stage in Saskatoon.

During my visit I was lucky to get some quick but effective schooling on the Blues from Blues Society spokesperson, Jeffrey Montgomery, who also explained that the over two week-long festival is much more than a weekend of music.

The festival includes outreach programming extended to schools senior living facilities. In fact, the notable ‘Blues in the Schools’ program uses festival musicians to impart their knowledge on the history, movement and relevance of the Blues. Workshops, swap meets, concert series and cabarets make up the rest of the full-bodied Winter Meltdown Saskatoon Blues Festival.

The weekend cabarets were packed with a diverse audience of music enthusiasts and Blues aficionados. The acts did not disappoint. It was clear to me, even as someone new to the scene, that the Blues Society did an amazing job with the festival lineup for the cabarets.

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Shakura S’Aida has a sound all her own. No stranger to the festival scene, her diverse voice easily lends itself to rock, blues and jazz; S’Aida also played the Regina Folk Festival in 2011.

Local talent, acts from across Canada and several high-profile international Blues musicians including Maple Blues Awards winners and 2013 Juno Award winner Steve Strongman and Juno Award nominee Shakura S’Aida, took the stage over four days. The level of talent simply blew me away. Performances by Marcia Ball, Steve James, B.C. Read’s Big Band and ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton, to name a few, made for an incredible and wide-ranging listening experience.

Part of this event’s success has to do with how well it is set up. The two main venues used for performances were within walking distance of one another making it easy music goers to go back and forth to take in the smooth sounds of each space.

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The Hilton audience sat in absolute quiet absorbing the brilliance that Steve James brought to the stage.

The Hilton Garden Inn was the scene for the acoustic blues sets and offered lounge style couches and an intimate atmosphere. This was quite an achievement considering that the space is normally a hotel conference room.

The alternate space at the Odeon hosted an electric blues cabaret and had a giant dance floor that begged its audience to get up and move. It was a suitable fit for the bigger bands and the larger sound that came along with them.

Over the weekend the crowds got larger, the dance floor overflowed and everyone was feeling mighty sublime, including me. I realized that even though this was all so new to me, it was so easy. I just got it. I honestly think most anyone would. Blues music can be for anyone and everyone. Smooth sounds, heartfelt, emotional singing, stories that related and a feeling of connectivity to the artists make the experience so enjoyable.

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Performers like ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton paused often during songs to share stories to an audience that was eager to listen. Storytelling for this genre is a common performance element that relate back to its roots.

Put this festival on your list and don’t miss out next year.

*This trip and experience was made possible by the extended generosity of Tourism Saskatoon. Thank you!

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