The weather turned cold and heavy clouds threatened rain. But that didn’t deter blues music lovers, many of whom had been waiting in line since early in the morning, for prime seating. By the time the opening act belted out its first song that evening on Aug. 24, Hawrelak Park’s outdoor Heritage Amphitheatre was filled with a hearty, warmly-dressed crowd, photographers at the foot of the stage snapping shots of the musicians and people moving to the beat on the dance floor.
Edmonton’s Blues Festival is hugely popular in this city. More than 2,000 weekend passes for the August event sell out within days of going on sale in May and some of the 3,300 attendees at each of the three days come from across Canada to get their annual fix of live blues music. From CEOs to aging hippies ranging in age from 30 to over 80, fans are attracted by the relaxed, intimate atmosphere, people watching, visiting old friends or simply laying back fully immersed in the soul-reviving energy of the music.
This is as good as it gets for Carrol Deen.
“I love the language of the blues, says the festival co-founder/producer. “I love the slang. I love the double entendre. I love the accents and the poor English.”
To say Deen is a fan is an understatement. She goes so far as to say she didn’t have a life before she discovered the blues.
“I was an unhappy child, so I had the blues. And then I found a name for it,” says Deen, who left home when she was 15. “I used to write poetry about my feelings when I was an adolescent. It was then what the blues is to me today. It’s all about how you feel, what you think, what your views are.”
As a young teen listening to records with friends, Deen was always attracted to bluesy-sounding songs, but only discovered the genre later when she tuned in to Holger Petersen’s show on CKUA radio. Then she couldn’t get enough, going to the library to do research on blues artists, listening to records and ordering any magazines she could. She started going to blues clubs and concerts, meeting musicians and eventually going on tours with them.
“I could see what it took to be out there on the road, “says Deen. “When you go to a gig, everyone is happy and excited and enjoying the music. But it is a grueling existence. I mean, the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, was traveling in a van with six other smelly guys, eating in Denny's restaurants, staying at the King Eddie Hotel where she was working with a bare light bulb hanging in her room. It’s not like rock stars, that’s for sure. It’s real people, playing real music for other real people and having to live like real people, like having to do their laundry on the road. It’s just very human.”
Real life wasn’t always a bed of roses for Deen either in those years. She had a lot of friends and determination but no high school diploma, so her options for employment were limited. She was 30 years old and twice divorced when she met Cam Hayden.
“He was a volunteer bartender at the Media Club and I was stood up by a drummer, who shall remain nameless”, Deen laughs. “I was at the bar, moaning and groaning about this jerk and Cam took it on as a challenge because he wasn’t going to let someone like me tell him all guys were jerks.”
A few days later, he took her for a motorcycle ride and it developed from there. Together, they pretty much ran the Media Club. They were on the board, took money at the door, cleaned the toilets, filled the bar, hired the bands and decorated the room.
“He was more of a roots guy. He liked the blues, but he liked me and I pushed him over the edge,” smiles Deen.
They started spending most of their nights at Blues on Whyte club, and wanted to give blues fans tired of sitting in smoky bars some options. So they formed a company called Wing Tip Productions and promoted concerts in the penthouse of the Howard Johnson Hotel, what Deen calls “date nights” for blues fans. They also travelled.
“I felt very fortunate to go to a lot of these gigs and to experience the blues first-hand and I always wanted to share it with my friends”, says Deen. “So I started thinking about having my own blue jet with my name on the bottom, loaded with all my friends, and we'd be going off to some festival somewhere. It got to be a kind of joke because every time a plane would fly over my house, someone would bring it up. But I knew I could never afford a jet. I could never afford a second ticket to take someone with me. So when the opportunity to start a festival came up, it was the answer.”
Along with a third partner and Molson Brewery as the title sponsor, they formed another company, Blues International, and spent one and a half years planning. At the first festival in 1999, they sold 800 tickets. A week later, they were in a car accident.
“It was a turning point because we were laid up for six months, so we just had to sit there after this big success,” says Deen. “But the settlement from the accident relieved us of our mortgage commitment, which was very helpful because then we weren’t using our credit cards to run the festival, we weren’t putting our house up for collateral and we didn’t have to keep working our other jobs.”
Deen’s motto is details, details, details. And that’s what she takes care of for Edmonton’s Blues Festival. She handles everything from the visual aspects like the t-shirts, advertising and nametags, to making sure that everyone has what they need to do a good job, right from the 250 volunteers needed to run the festival to the performers and the hotels. Deen and Hayden spend about seven months of the year driving around North America to find the best acts. About half are newcomers to the festival, but there are also blues veterans, legends and award-winners. Musicians love to come here for how well they’re treated, and although Edmonton’s festival is small compared to some of the big events in the U.S., musicians sell more CDs here than anywhere else.
In 2008, Deen and Hayden were honoured with the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Memphis.
“There were so many musicians in the room and they were cheering for us, and they were talking amongst themselves about how great it was,” Deen gulps. “After that, everyone seemed to know who we were.”
This year, Deen was honoured as a judge at the Blues Music Awards finals at the International Blues Challenge.
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com