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'Old and cornball'? Burnaby Roots and Blues Festival to survive another year

One city councillor suggested the younger generations consider the Blues and Roots Festival 'old and cornball.'
Photo Jennifer Gauthier/Burnaby Now/File Photo.

This story has been updated to include comments from the city’s director of culture, Emmaline Hill

The Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival will live to party another year, as city council voted to study expanding the concert into a weekend festival rather than sunsetting the brand.

Staff had recommended ending the annual outdoor festival and replacing it this year with a new concert with a “full range of genres” that could attract a younger audience to Deer Lake. The new event was in development, according to a staff report to council Feb. 26.

But councillors thought differently.

Coun. Daniel Tetrault of the Burnaby Citizens Association said he wasn’t convinced to change the Burnaby Blues and Roots brand as it has name recognition after 23 years. He added he’s seen the festival offer “a diverse set of music” over the years.

Tetrault motioned for staff to study if the city can change the concert format from a one-day event to a weekend festival using all the Deer Lake grounds, instead of ending the brand.

The motion passed unanimously.

Tetrault said Deer Lake Park offers “so much potential,” which is lost with a one-day-only concert.

He said there could be multiple stages and an expansion to the Burnaby Village Museum grounds for kids’ stages and different types of music.

“Once you’re setting up all these stages, it just makes sense to have it as a weekend festival, and I think that’d be more cost effective,” he said, suggesting staff consider the idea for 2025.

Independent Mayor Mike Hurley agreed.

“I do think it’s important that we don’t lose the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival identity,” Hurley said, though added he was “disappointed in the turnout last year” despite the event being free to attend.

Green Party Coun. Joe Keithley, who is also the lead guitarist and vocalist of legendary punk band D.O.A., supported the two-day festival idea but said it was also time to widen its appeal.

“I really think we need to open it up to different audiences,” Keithley said. “Because the Blues and Roots Festival – yeah, that’s my generation, you know, I like it. But you know what? I’ve got a few tickets, I (brought) them to my kids – they don’t want to go. They think it’s, like, old and cornball, you know? I’m not saying that; I’m just quoting them.”

He suggested one day of the festival could be blues and roots genre and the next day could feature a different type of music. (He said he has previously suggested rock music, hip hop and electronica.)

OneBurnaby Coun. Richard Lee proposed adding a multicultural component to reflect Burnaby’s diversity.

Tetrault also asked staff to study a cost-sharing partnership with Tourism Burnaby for larger music festivals and concerts.

Chris Peters, executive director of Tourism Burnaby, told the NOW by email: “We haven’t spoken with the city about this opportunity yet but are eager to see what is planned to reinvigorate their programming for the summer.”

Staff will study the proposal and report back to council in the fall.

Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival 2024

Emmaline Hill, Burnaby’s director of culture, told the NOW the 2024 festival won’t be too different from years past.

This year’s festival will still be a single day with the Burnaby Blues and Roots brand with a single stage, she said.

She said the main change will be doing away with the gate and perimeter fencing, which will allow more capacity and access to the Deer Lake site.

She noted last year’s event, the first without an admission fee, was one of the highest attendance years ever, even with a last-minute switch as Buffy Sainte-Marie dropped out and Fleet Foxes filled in.

“People are coming for the experience,” Hill said, rather than for a specific headliner.

“And I think I would suggest that number is going to grow incrementally as people understand that brand and the free admission and the concert experience that they’re going to get there over and over again.”

She said the staff recommendation to change the Blues and Roots Festival name was due to a sense that there could be people thinking a blues and roots festival isn’t for them.

The new motion will set staff up for “a lot of clarity and momentum” in 2024 and beyond, Hill said.

When the NOW asked if she thought the festival was “old and cornball,” Hill laughed.

“When you look at those headliners, it certainly would not be the word that I would use to describe it,” she said, referring to the recent acts of Fleet Foxes, Feist and Nathanial Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

“And I think we need to do a better job at the city of supporting people to understand just how dynamic that genre is,” she added, noting the city will engage more with younger people to better understand what they want.

She added roots can span genres from Indigenous hip hop to international contemporary music.

“Roots music is so much about authenticity and that expression of where we come from,” she said. “Now we need to do the job of making sure that our community knows that this festival is for everybody.”