Ottawa blues guitarist Sue Foley headlines online edition of Winterfolk festival

Although it boasts a stellar lineup ranging from Ottawa blues guitarist Sue Foley and Chicago-born folk singer Lucy Kaplansky to local axeman Jack de Keyzer and singer-songwriter Julian Taylor, the 2023 staging of the 20th anniversary of Winterfolk won’t be quite the way founder Brian Gladstone envisioned it.

Instead of intimately offering live music around a smattering of Danforth Avenue live venues, which he has done for the majority of festivals pre-pandemic, Gladstone and his small band of organizers are taking it online for the second year in a row.

“When we started out, we actually planned for a live festival because when we started doing this, venues were at 50 per cent,” says Gladstone. “When they shut it back down, I had to make a decision.”

After wiping the board clean in December, Gladstone has settled on a three-day lineup that begins Friday Feb. 18 and continues over the weekend from 7-10 p.m. in half-hour streamed performances, with two types of registration available: free and a suggested donation ranging from $5-$25 that would cover all nine hours of the festival.

“I did want to make it the biggest and the best Winterfolk so far,” Gladstone said.

Looking back at Winterfolk’s humble beginnings in 2002 — when local Juno Award-winning blues guitarist Jack de Keyzer; Grammy-nominated New York bluesman Josh White Jr.; Whiskey Howl singer and harmonica player Michael Pickett; roots musician Bill Garrett, folk singer Laura Smith, who died in 2020, singer-songwriter-guitarist Noah Zacharin and legendary folk singer Tom Rush — Gladstone said the impetus to form Winterfolk came on the heels of rejection.

“I was very late going into music — I didn’t go into music until I was in my late ’40s — and I was really keen to self-promote,” says Gladstone, who has recorded and released several folk albums. “I got rejected from almost 200 festivals. Then we got invited to go the Mariposa auditions 21 years ago. They auditioned nine people and selected six and I was not in the top six. So I figured I’d just start my own festival and hire myself.”

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Gladstone said he picked February to stage Winterfolk because it was outside the normal spring and summer corridor for folk and blues festivals.

“There were no festivals that served roots music anywhere in the city. So, I wanted to try to make that work.”

Gladstone said for the first two years, Winterfolk was anchored around the Spadina and College neighbourhood that boasted the Silver Dollar, The Free Times Cafe, The Comfort Zone and the El Mocambo, but later switched to the Danforth.

After making a few misjudgments — a Convocation Hall show featuring Tom Rush only drew 60 people — he transitioned Winterfolk into a non-profit festival and now “runs it like a business.”

Some of the careers he’s helped kick-start include “a 17-year-old Serena Ryder, who took the bus in from Peterborough,” Arianna Gillis and local sensations Moscow Apartment.

When it’s physically staged, Winterfolk takes up three floors of The Black Swan and occupies other small venues of 100-170 capacity on average, helping drum up big business for those who host his shows.

And Gladstone, who says Winterfolk usually averages 6,000 in attendance over the three days, said he’s been proud of providing paying gigs for musicians during the winter and for “uniting the roots community and rebuilding a following for folk music.”

He’s also uninterested in exponentially growing Winterfolk.

“A lot of people tell me to make it bigger and get more venues involved, but I’m reluctant to do that,” Gladstone says. “I think we have a winning formula and as far as I’m concerned, the Danforth is our home forever.”

Some of the other artists featured this weekend will include local singer-songwriters Josh Ritchie, Julian Taylor, charter performer Jack De Keyzer, poet Robert Priest, American banjo player Mean Mary, Vancouver-based violinist Shari Ulrich, as well as Ottawa-born Sue Foley, who will close the Festival with a solo country-blues set on Sunday night.

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Based in Austin, Texas, Foley’s usual set is a bit more electrifying, due to the presence of her pink paisley Telecaster that she dedicates her latest album, “Pinky’s Blues,” too.

But unfortunately her trio, who will be accompanying her to the Paradise Theatre on April 13 and the 25th Anniversary edition of the Maple Blues Awards on June 20 at Koerner Hall, couldn’t be corralled in time for Winterfolk.

“We’re kind of spread out,” she admitted over the phone from Austin last week. “The bass player lives in Madison (Wisconsin.)”

However, she will be performing a few songs acoustically from two of the most recent of her 16 albums — “Pinky’s Blues” and 2018’s “The Ice Queen,” an album whose impressive guests include Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons, The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughan and long-time Arc Angels frontman, and Bob Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton.

In fact, Foley lets it slip that there are three “Pinkys”: the original, and two other versions that were gifted her separately by Gibbons and Vaughan, with whom she shares membership in The Jungle Show.

“We have a group together called The Jungle Show and we do a few shows a year, mainly around Christmas time,” Foley explains. “They’re just amazing — it’s a real thrill to work with them.”

Foley, 53, freshly nominated for three Memphis-based Blues Awards for Album of the Year and Traditional Blues Album (for “Pinky’s Blues,”) as well as the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues Female Artist — a category that she won in 2020 — said she was bitten by the bug as a teen after attending a hometown Ottawa concert featuring blues harmonica legend James Cotton.

“That was my very first blues show,” Foley recalls. “To see blues live — that really did light my fire for doing this for a living. I really had an epiphany at that concert and I felt so uplifted with this music. And that’s always stuck with me, because I think a lot of people have this preconception of blues as being sort of boring or depressing.”

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After hearing the Texas blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie — who was in the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the time — Foley knew where she had to go.

“When that stuff started coming out of Austin, I really felt the drive to go down there because I felt like there was something happening that was new and different and exciting. They were inventing a new kind of blues sound.

“I felt as a Canadian, I wanted to be closer to the roots of blues music down in the South, where it came from and to learn how to play it. If I went down there, I’d could get closer to it.”

Foley, who has won 18 Maple Blues Awards for her work, has shared stages with other famous musicians ranging from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Tom Petty and Joe Cocker. As her road reputation grows, in typical blues fashion, she wants to take on the tradition of earning a nickname comparable to Albert “The Iceman” King and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown for her guitar licks.

Her choice? “The Ice Queen.”

“It’s tongue-in-cheek, but people do call me ‘The Ice Queen’ and I kind of like it because it reminds me of Canada,” she admits. “First of all, it’s kind of tough, but also, it just reminds me of home.”

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email: octopus@rogers.com


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