Photos provided by Bluesfest media relations
Summer is finally around the corner, and with it comes a whole range of music festival options to consider. Whether you attend one or several, Ottawa’s Bluesfest is definitely one to think seriously about. Besides having a diverse lineup of artists over a ten-day span (including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, City and Colour, Death From Above 1979, The Cult, The Lumineers, AWOLNATION…the list goes on and on), the festival is held in a prime downtown location on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum, right on the Ottawa River. And with their affordable and customizable ticket packages, Bluesfest is letting you decide how extensive an experience you’d like it to be.
I recently chatted with media spokesperson Joe Reilly who’s been with the festival since its early days in the ‘90s to get some tips for first-time attendees…and to find out more about the event that Billboard Magazine once named one of the top ten music festivals in North America.
Tell me a bit about the venue. Is public transit available to and from the festival?
It’s in what’s called Lebreton Flats – a beautiful location right along the Ottawa River and in the grounds of the Canadian War Museum. There’s easy access through public transit – the major transitway for express buses from each direction of the city run right up to the grounds. The O-Train runs pretty close to the festival – it’s probably a 5-10 minute walk from the stop. We’re right on the major bike path that runs along the Ottawa River and we’re on one of the bridges over to Gatineau if you happen to be staying there.
Parking is difficult if you want to drive your vehicle all the way down to the site, as it is with so many events like this. So we really do try to encourage people to walk if they’re staying within walking distance at a downtown hotel, take a bike – we have bike lockups that are staffed throughout the festival – or take advantage of the great public transit access.
Will there be any local promotions going on, in terms of hotel rates specifically?
We have hotels that we are working with closely to support out-of-town guests. The easiest thing to do is check out our partner hotels on our website – we have a section specifically for people travelling and the different hotels that we’re working with. Albert at Bay Suites, The Arc, Best Western downtown…they’re all listed there. There are average room pictures, links to the hotel sites so people can explore them more and the rates during the festival. That’s all under our FAQ – Travel section; we want to make it as easy as possible for people coming to Ottawa and to the festival for the first time.
What types of food options will be available onsite?
At this point I don’t know exactly what vendors will be there but there will be the standard fare, including a couple of spots for if you just want to eat some fries or really tasty burgers.
But we always have a wide array of really great food stands on the site. We’ve had places that sell lobster and lobster rolls, places that sell food from all different parts of the world…it’s a really wide variety of food vendors set up in different parts of the park. You don’t have to worry about having your dinner first if you want to come down and catch the early shows – there’s lots of great food to eat.
Let’s talk prices. Bluesfest offers a great variety of ticket options. Can you tell me about the different packages available and if there’s one you’d recommend over another in terms of value?
If you’re making a long hike up, a 3-day pass for the weekend might make sense. We’re now allowing people to construct their own festival pass experience. Which artists are you most interested in? How many days do you want to come down and check things out for? The Pick-3 pass is great for a full weekend, and there’s also the Pick-5 pass for a really long weekend. These also work really well for local people who maybe want to see three shows spread out through the week. Or if you’re going to come up to Ottawa and check out two nights of programming before going to Algonquin Park, which isn’t too far away. Or head up to Gatineau and spend some downtime closer to nature. And then roll back through Ottawa on your way home to Toronto and catch one more day. Those multi-day passes are what give you the flexibility to decide how you want to experience the festival and for how many days.
We didn’t have those before – you were either buying a day pass for a single show or you were buying the whole thing. We eventually moved to weekends and then thought “OK, let’s let people build their own thing”. Being able to build your own package online makes it really easy.
As far as I could tell, the Pick-3 pass is the same price, regardless of who the headliner is…is that correct?
Yes, it doesn’t matter which three days you pick. We do have varying day pass rates, but for any three dates from July 7-17, it’s $119.
Are any of the dates currently close to selling out?
Not that I’m aware of, at this point. Last year Kanye West got pretty close…but I don’t know if we even stopped selling tickets to that show, which was our single most successful day. This year there’s obviously a lot of interest in the Red Hot Chili Peppers…and people are very, very ardent fans of the country acts that we have coming – they just really pack the place and are super energetic. But I haven’t heard any inklings that we’re moving towards stopping sales of any specific dates.
The thing about the main stage is that once the artist’s set begins, we frequently have two other stages running at the same time. If you find that that show is just a little too much audience-wise, you can drift to one of the other stages. One of the fantastic things about this festival is that discovery element where you find artists you might never have heard of but end up loving the experience of seeing them live. That’s why I go to festivals.
As in previous years, the lineup is very diverse and the event is one that would seem to draw a wide range of people. Would you say that makes Bluesfest stand out from other festivals? What can people attending for the first time expect from the experience?
When we started off in ’94, we were pretty much a straight up Blues/R&B/Soul kind of festival. We’re rooted in that. But the event has evolved and morphed over the years into essentially Ottawa’s biggest party of the year. It’s really helped put Ottawa on the map; there’s always this perception of the city as a sleepy government town. It certainly isn’t that during Bluesfest! We really are a festival city and have them running almost every week throughout the entire summer. But Bluesfest is the giant party that helps officially kick off the season right after Canada Day every year.
The diversity is designed in part because we are an urban festival – and I don’t mean urban musically. We’re in the middle of a city. We’re not a weekend camping festival and we’re not just here for three days where you can come and totally invest yourself in us for the entire time. Lots of people buy the full passes and come all the days and invest that way. Or buy a full pass and come most of the days. But we also recognize that being in the city, people who live in our community are going to come for maybe the three days or the five days, at various times. And so we know that we want to have a diversity of sound, a diversity of music happening to really draw in everybody locally first of all.
But it’s also something that’s going to appeal to everybody out there. That’s why Billboard, several years ago, put us on the list as one of the best North American festivals, period. Not just a Blues festival, not just a great Canadian festival…but one of the best festivals in North America. We work really hard to make sure that artists have a great time and want to come back and to make sure that audiences have a great time. That’s what we’re here for – to bring people together with artists and hopefully make some magical moments.
Is there any other advice you would give to first-time attendees or resources you would recommend they check out?
We’d like people to go to our website. I’ve been working on festivals since 1987 and it’s absolutely stunning to me now what you, as a person who might want to go check out an event, can do online. You can listen to the music, you can create your own personal schedule and either print or download it onto your phone using our app…you can even figure out if your friends are going if you link up to them through Facebook. It’s incredible how easy it is to figure out what you want to do at the festival. So certainly the website has all the information that anybody would need.
In terms of tips? Always try to come down early to see the artist that you want to see. For two reasons – one is to check out what’s on the other stages. There will be some awesome music all over the park. And the other thing is that you don’t want to be stuck at the turnstile. We’re working harder and harder every year to get people scanning in quicker. There’s no more ticket-tearing but you do have to get scanned in and go through a security line. So give yourself time for that and don’t roll in 15 minutes before the Chili Peppers hit the stage if that’s who you really want to see.
I think another message to people from the Toronto area would be that Ottawa is an absolutely gorgeous place to be in the summer. There are all the museums, the Parliament buildings and so much history to explore…and then you can party with us at night. Also, 15 minutes from town is Gatineau Park with all these amazing hiking trails to vistas that look out over the whole region. You can bike all over the city on our recreational bike pathway and if you like water sports, there’s white water kayaking and canoeing on some of the riverways around here. You can also take tours up the canal. It really is a beautiful place to be. And with the music that we present from all over the map – from blues to electronica to classic rock to country to hip hop – it’s all part of the mix. If you just want to come and have a great experience, it’s all here.