Blues music was originally created in the south American states to help Black Americans deal with the cruelty of oppression and poverty. It was intended to be emotional, raw and honest. People have tried to play it around the world, but it is hard to be honest and come across as authentic if you don't have the roots. In many ways, it doesn't make sense when an area of the Province of Ontario (Canada) falls in love with the blues like it has.
Southwestern Ontario suffered a natural migration of musical talent in the same way as many areas outside the major metropolitan cities in many other countries around the world. Talented musicians migrated from the countryside and small towns to cities like Kitchener, Waterloo, London, Stratford, Hamilton, Guelph and Toronto. Later, if the global entertainment media centres saw their talent they could continue and advance their music career. Some historical examples of globally recognized musicians from southwestern Ontario are Rick Danko (from the countryside), Garth Hudson (London), and Richard Manuel (Stratford), from the world famous rock group, The Band. The modern world and its technology changed things somewhat as performers like Justin Bieber jumped the queue and went directly from Stratford to the bright lights of America and the world.
Just like Chicago became known for the Blues with the arrival of migrants from Mississippi, the music played in southwestern Ontario has also changed because of influences from outside. The big city radio stations in Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo made sure that the area was blanketed with the sounds that were popular at that time. Musical influences in southwestern Ontario also came from the albums purchased by residents and the live performers that they were able to see. To see world famous performers, it usually meant that people from this area would have to travel to the bigger cities nearby. In the end, this particular genre was enjoyed and became popular in the area. This changed significantly with the arrival of Mel Brown.
The bluesman has come
In 1989, club owner and big-time blues fan Glenn Smith planned to open a blues club in Kitchener to be called ‘Pop the Gator’. In preparation for its opening, Glen Smith made a trip to Austin, Texas to scout for talent for his new club. It was on that trip that he was introduced to a guitar player/keyboard player who was not well known to the average music fan but legendary among blues musicians and world-class Blues circles. It was there that he offered him the opportunity to lead the house band at his new club. While not expecting too much, he was shocked and surprised when he accepted. While the club eventually closed, Mel Brown decided to make Kitchener his home.
The arrival of a world-class blues musician in Kitchener profoundly changed the music in the area. While these young guitarists had no idea who Mel Brown was, they quickly recognized his talent. They uncovered that Mel Brown had played and recorded with many of their guitar heroes.
Mel Brown had come to Kitchener because he craved a quieter life after having experienced a career of traveling and working with the best in the business. A small amount of research would show that Mel Brown frequently shared the stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan and Buddy Guy and took part to recording sessions and performances with B B King, John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker. There was also his career as a touring guitarist for world-class performers like Etta James, Johnny Otis and Bobby Blue Bland. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the time in the 1960s when Jimi Hendrix came to watch him play. The more the young musicians of Kitchener learned about Mel Brown, the more they would be amazed by his credentials.
From the beginning, Mel Brown interacted with the young musicians of the area. Interested musicians who wanted to learn to play the blues took every opportunity to play with him at the open stage nights that he hosted locally. While these young performers could never experience what created the blues in the first place, they had a mentor that gave them a first hand link to those times. The finest young musicians in the area were now getting an advanced education in the blues and this resulted in the best music being played in the area leaning heavily toward the blues. The fan base for this genre in the area also began to grow.
From those mid-week jams, a number of young musicians emerged with a much stronger appreciation of the blues and where it came from. A few were so motivated by the experience and the mentorship that they achieved a measure of significant success themselves.
Steve Strongman - Strongman has won the Juno Award (Canadian Grammy) for the 2013 Blues Recording of the Year. He is also a multiple Maple Blues Award (Canadian Blues Awards) winner. Strongman has played major Blues and Jazz festivals around the world including Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Memphis and Montreal.
Julian Fauth - Fauth is the Juno Award winner for the 2009 Blues Recording of the Year. He is a singer and a keyboard player, who has played across Canada, in the USA, Western Europe, Russia and Cuba.
Shawn Kellerman - Shawn Kellerman has acted as the touring guitar player for Bobby and later collaborated with Bobby Rush to win the Blues Music Award - Acoustic CD of the year in 2007. He is currently the guitar player in Luck Peterson’s touring band which means he spends a great deal of time on tour, across the world. He also continues to perform as a solo act.
The Kitchener Blues Festival
About ten years after Mel Brown had come to live in Kitchener, the city started a blues festival (in 2001). Attendance was enthusiastic enough to encourage the city to continue to grow. Today the festival has expanded into a four-day event that draws audiences that reach beyond 100,000 and is recognized as one of the largest blues festivals in Canada. Over the years it has featured some of the world’s greatest names including Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan, Bobby Rush, Johnny Winter and Robert Cray. Up until his death, Mel Brown was also a regular at this festival. The Kitchener Blues Festival also continues to showcase local performers and new young talent. It takes place the second weekend in August.
The Grand River Blues Society
With the expansion of the blues scene in Kitchener, a group of local enthusiasts began to talk about the need to coordinate and organize promotion of the blues activities in the area. The Grand River Blues Society was created to cover an area that included Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph and Brantford. While it was generally agreed it was essential, the first few years were spent getting established and trying to add value to the area’s growing blues scene. Today, the Grand River Blues Society appears to have found its way to communicate with fans about activities in the area. More importantly, it is hosting events that help develop and showcase local young talent. That role has become more critical with the passing of Mel Brown in 2009.
Developing the New Generation
The Kitchener Blues Festival and the Grand River Blues Society have collaboratively taken on the challenge of introducing young musicians to the blues. They hold a competition where the winners are awarded the opening time slot on the main stage of the Kitchener Blues Festival. The focus on the development of young local talent has led the Festival to become a significant contributor to the early careers of some promising musicians. While some have moved to other genres, young performers who got a boost from their participation in the Grand River Blues Society/Kitchener Blues Festival activities include: Alysha Brilla (Alysha Brillinger Band), Brendan J. Stephens, Matt Weidinger, Alex Price (Alex Tintinalli), Johanna Pavia, Samantha Testa, Conor Gains, Colin White and Fraser Melvin.
The Kitchener Blues Festival: www.kitchenerbluesfestival.com
The Grand River Blues Society: www.grandriverblues.org
Steve Strongman: www.stevestrongman.com;
Shawn Kellerman: www.shawnkellerman.com;
Alysha Brilla (Brillinger): www.alyshabrilla.com
Samatha Testa: www.samanthatesta.com
Fraser Melvin: www.frasermelvin.com/the-fraser-melvin-band.html
The Vaudevillian (Brendan J. Stephens): www.facebook.com/thevaudevillianmusic
Johanna Pavia: www.johannapavia.com
Conor Gains Band: www.conorgainsmusic.com
Colin White: www.colinwhiteband.tumblr.com