Have a look at the bar-side wall of the Fat Cat Blues bar in downtown St. John's and you have a pretty good sense of the mix that makes the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival work. There's an image of American blues legend Robert Johnson, jacket on and pressed, guitar in hand. Next to that, an image of a grinning Ron Hynes. It is the mix of local and not, classic and... well... Newfoundland and Labrador.
The 2010 Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival ended Sunday, with a closing performance by Toronto-based funk band Planet Earth at Dusk Ultralounge.
In 2009, the Wreckhouse featured 150 artists and 40 concerts. For 2010, the downtown was jumping with 200 artists running 50 concerts. That is in addition to the festival workshops and mid-day performances at the Murray Premises, harbourside and in Bowring park.
As an annual event, the festival was birthed in 2003, when Kirk Newhook formed Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues under the name Atlantic Jazz Initiative, with the aim at creating a yearly gathering of jazz, blues and world artists (with a few outside-of-festival events throughout the year). Today, it is still developing its audience and still working to find the best mix of talent for its lineup.
However, this year's festival had a good mix of jazz, blues and world music. Set-to-set, the shows offered were highly entertaining, with headliners like Terry Clarke, Alex Cuba, Matt Anderson, Kellylee Evans and Dominic Mancuso. Clarke and Mancuso were both Juno Award winners in 2010 and showed exactly what earned them their titles during their sets. Both Cuba and Matt Anderson had sold out nights at the Majestic Theatre, with audiences of more than 400 people. Evans, meanwhile, played the Martini Bar drawing a good number into the smaller venue.
The sidemen - on strings, keys, bass, drums, woodwinds - were a draw in-and-of themselves. Names like John Johnson, Don Thompson, Tony Zorzi, Phil Dwyer, Rich Brown, Larnell Lewis and dozens of others.
Yet the locals were kings. The Idlers gave their only scheduled show in St. John's this summer as part of the festival. Acts like Chris Kirby and the Marquee and the Darrell Cooper Acoustic Trio packed their venues with audience members.
A full festival pass for 2010 would run you $135 or $150, depending on when you bought it (the $135 was an earlybird special), but nightly wristbands were really the way to go. The nightly passes were $30 or $20, depending on the day, with a $5 added cover for entry to Chris Andrews and Duane Andrews; Cuba or Anderson. With a night pass, you could keep moving, take in a couple of songs here and a couple of songs there. Even without the additional cover shows, there were more than 10 acts available to you each day.
While 2010 was a strong year for the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival, there remains room for improvement.
The "international" was debatable for example. The word was added to the festival's title in 2008, an assist in promotion, reaching farther for artists and audiences. While many of the acts this year had international inspirations, such as the Greek stylings of the Forgotten Bouzouki, or had performed on international stages, like Alex Cuba, it was difficult to find truly come-from-away international artists. Bringing in musicians from countries outside of North America remains an area for the festival to grow.
Another area for growth is in audience numbers for shows outside those by well-known locals and headliners.
For 2010, performances by The Creaking Tree String Quartet at the Yellowbelly Brewery and Public House Thursday and Jeanne Rochette at the Masonic Temple Friday were among the best of the fest ... but were played to half-filled houses.
Even so, the Wreckhouse benefits from having a strong local scene, multiple venues within walking distance of each other and (hopefully continuing) strong public and corporate support. Next year, maybe it will add even more venues, performers and larger audiences.