Clarence Clemons took the stage in 1994 and helped kick off what would become Canada's fastest growing celebration of Blues and Roots music. Five thousand people descended on Majors Hill Park that first year, probably not realizing the tradition they were helping to create. In the years since, more than a million people have tuned in their ears and opened their hearts to some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Since those early days, the Ottawa Bluesfest has grown from a one-stage, three-day event to a multi-staged, 11-day music showcase featuring some of the best talent available on the planet. Bluesfest continues to increase its diversity and programming scope and offers an assortment of stages that incorporate a variety of genres. In 2007, a new festival site, located at LeBreton Flats Park adjacent to the Canadian War Museum, offered five stages, including twin main stages allowing audiences to transfer between headlining acts. Bluesfest featured additional stages by utilizing all of the green space surrounding the park. These stages featured various eclectic themes—with audience development in mind.
More than 300,000 fans attended the 2007 edition of the Ottawa Bluesfest, shattering all previous records. Of the 188 acts that performed in '07, 108 (57.4%) were Canadian and 44 out of 108 (40.7%) were from Ottawa. The new site, diverse line-up, and forecast-defying weather delivered what thousands of music fans had been anticipating—a music festival that offers something for everyone!
As has been seen from previous programming, Bluesfest consistently presents one of the most diverse line-ups of any festival across Canada. Globe and Mail music writer Brad Wheeler had this to say about the 2007 line-up: "A festival schedule of main acts that includes Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Blue Rodeo, the White Stripes, Leo Kottke, Buddy Guy, Metric and Robert Cray should at least raise an eyebrow or two, if not blow some minds. But not for me, because there's nothing that Ottawa Bluesfest could present on stage anymore—short of Elvis Presley and Harry Houdini—that could surprise me. They've raised the bar this year, and they'll do it again next year. Bet on it.”
The organization became a registered charity in 2000 after re-casting its vision and initiating an educational outreach program called ‘Blues in the Schools’. In 2002, the festival had its largest attendance (up to that time) by attracting 200,000 people. Canadian headliners included The Tragically Hip, Jann Arden, Blue Rodeo, and Colin James, to mention a few.
In 2003, Bluesfest celebrated its tenth edition by offering fans even more diverse choices of music. Bluesfest continued the expansion of its 'Blues in the Schools' program with assistance from The Trillium Foundation and a fund-raising concert series.
In 2004, George Thorogood kicked off festivities on the Main Stage. The following nine days saw a festival site full of rockin' souls who showed up for a series of highly anticipated acts on all four stages, including Main Stage sets by The Tragically Hip, Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Lyle Lovett, and a flashback to the Motown music of the Funk Brothers!
Predictions of rain in 2005 could not put a damper on the overwhelming enthusiasm of Bluesfest fans. The festival lived up to expectations, delivering a stellar line-up that included K-OS, Simple Plan, ZZ Top, and others. This provided fans with the multi-genre explosion of sound that Bluesfest has become known for.
Bluesfest attracted over a quarter-million fans in 2006, and the talk of the town was the artistic excellence of the program. From the fist-pumping energy of Canada’s own Great Big Sea to the elegant class of Etta James; from the hypnotic rhythm of Konono No. 1 to the driving rock of Canadian indie band, Metric, Bluesfest attracted an eclectic crowd of music fans night after night.
Bluesfest was also recognized in 2006—and again in 2007—by the Recycling Council of Ontario with a ‘Gold Award’ for Waste Minimization thanks to the successful implementation of a ‘greening’ initiative that involved supervised bike parking, compostable beer cups made from corn, and using bio-diesel to power generators.
Currently, the Ottawa Bluesfest is the largest music festival in the Ottawa area. It is the biggest blues festival in Canada and one of the most popular music festivals in North America. In 2007, the line-up had some serious star power. From the opening salvo—courtesy of Van Morrison, followed by Bob Dylan, the White Stripes, Manu Chao, Kanye West and others—to the closing volley of the Solid Gold Dance Party, Bluesfest lived up to its promise and delivered a killer onslaught of talent. Festival organizers are equally proud of the discoveries of new and emerging acts offered to festival patrons.
The musical flavours at the 2008 Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest included funk, and so much more! From a rocking opening night with Canada’s own The Tragically Hip to the final set by Disco Queen Donna Summer, music fans were treated to 11 straight days of great music, with too many stand-out acts to list.
Once again, Bluesfest has endeared itself to a wide range of music fans as a hugely popular music event in Ottawa. It also has established itself as one of the largest international music events in the world, with over 220 musical acts, more than 70 sponsors, 4,400 community volunteers, and crowds of fans that spill out to the city streets.