The joy of the blues: Edmonton Blues Fest, 25 years and running


Edmonton, AB — Juno Award-nominated guitarist Matt Anderson is known for his blistering solos, but when he talks about making music and touring these days, it’s all about being with friends and the joy of playing together. 

“If I’m going to do a band now, I want to hang out with people I like,” says Andersen. “That’s how we do it on stage too, and getting out in the open air is the best way to see these people play.” 

So it’s fitting that he and his nine-piece ensemble, the Big Bottle of Joy, will be closing out the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Blues Fest this August at the newly opened Klondike Park with their trademark party stomps and shuffles. 

At its core, the blues has always had a joyful strain, designed to help listeners transcend momentary suffering through musical bliss. And it’s best experienced live.

The Edmonton Blues Fest is back for its 25th year, this August 2024. Pictured: fans dancing on stage at a Chubby Carrie performance.

Over the years, Edmonton’s blues scene has been fostered by a small, close-knit community, whose passion for the blues has turned the city into a hotspot for the genre. It's put Edmonton's Blues Festival on the world stage for award wins including 'Keeping The Blues Alive Award' from the Memphis, Tenessee-based Blues Foundation.

“When outsiders come here and experience what’s happening here, they’re envious quite frankly,” says Cam Hayden. Twenty five years on, that celebration of the blues in Edmonton is only getting better, says the Edmonton Blues Fest founder and producer.

“Even though music has been somewhat homogenized, there’s still the allure of handcrafted music made locally, promoted locally and performed locally.”

Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne returns for the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Blues Fest. He performed at the inaugural festival in 1999.

Hayden has been a blues builder in Edmonton for well over a quarter century, with his long-running Friday Night Blues Party on CKUA and tenure as a music journalist. 

But like many, he got his start thumbing through LPs from 70s British invasion acts like Cream, wondering who was this Robert Johnson guy in the liner credits. 

Cam Hayden, on stage introducing a musical act at the Edmonton Blues Fest.

That thrill of discovery is what still inspires him, and the Edmonton Blues Fest, today—and what he aims to bring to a new generation of music lovers.

“The last few years we’ve made a deliberate attempt to book younger acts, and hook a younger audience,” says Hayden. “It’s time to introduce some fresh ears to the music.”

Join the party! Get your weekend pass for Edmonton Blues Fest's 25th anniversary

Over the 25 years of the festival, he says, “One of the great [rewarding] things … is when somebody comes up to me at the festival and says, you know I never heard of this band but they’re my new favourite! For me, that’s the greatest compliment. 

That’s what I really like to do, is turn people on to great music.”

Lil' Ed walks through the crowd during his Edmonton Blues Fest performance back in 2004.

When he first had the idea for a festival in 1999, Hayden had already been booking blues shows around the city for a while. 

“I thought it would be the same old same old,” he laughs. “I was quickly disabused of that notion. There’s a whole lot more to it than putting on a club show. I’ve come to realize there’s no such thing as perfection… you just do the best you can and hope everybody has fun.” 

For up and coming acts, building a reputation for putting on a fun show is what getting in front of live audiences is about. That’s something Hayden prioritizes too, noting that local acts are often taken for granted at home. 

“Hamburger at home, filet on the road,” quips Hayden.

For Andersen, bringing his East Coast crew west is part of the excitement. “I’m pumped for it, I think it will be great—we’ve always had a fun time there, and I’ll be bringing the big band with me, ...and it’s just an absolute riot,” says Andersen. 

The Nova Scotian artist has played out west before, but he’s especially excited to have a little more time to explore and enjoy the Edmonton scene while he’s here—as well as checking out some of the festival’s other great acts. 

“I just did a cruise with Marcia Ball, and she’s fantastic. Booker T’s on too. It will be a full weekend of awesome music, so I hope people come down, it’ll be a rip.”

LISTEN: hit play for a preview of the 2024 Edmonton Blues Fest lineup

And that’s just a teaser. 

You can namedrop all you want, and Edmonton Blues Fest has a lot of names to drop from 25 years of past festivals—like Mavis Staples, Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, Pinetop Perkins, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Canned Heat, Dr. John, Ike Turner, Jimmie Vaughan, Los Lobos, just to name a few—but in an increasingly digital world, festivals like this are about the connection you get when you experience musicians performing live, especially in a great outdoor venue.

New venue for Edmonton Blues Fest 2024 

That venue, Klondike Park on the newly redeveloped Edmonton Exhibition grounds, promises to be an idyllic outdoor setting for a celebration of the blues. 

“It's specifically built to be a live performance space,” says Hayden. “There's a grassy area with mature trees, sculpted to be about three feet deeper with a stage on the north end, on a beautiful manicured lawn. With the stage floor above the seating level it makes for pretty much perfect sight lines all across."

"We're thrilled to welcome The Edmonton Blues Festival to our new outdoor space at Klondike Park," said Edmonton EXPO Centre General Manager Olaf Miede. "The redevelopment of Klondike Park reflects our commitment to fostering inclusive and vibrant community spaces that celebrate arts, culture, and recreation." 

Welcoming and connecting with that community is what the Blues Fest is all about, says Hayden. "That intimacy is something we’ve always had at the festival. We don’t have big barriers between the stage and the audience. On more than one occasion the audience has been invited up to the stage, and that’s always a big hit.” 

Twenty five years of breaking down the barriers and getting up close and personal with the blues is what the Edmonton Blues Fest is all about, and it’s going to be another weekend to remember this August.

When you go

Get your weekend pass now for Edmonton Blues Fest's 25th anniversary

For all the latest festival details, head to the Edmonton Blues Fest website.

New to the blues? Check out CKUA's Friday Night Blues Party, hosted by Cam Hayden.

For more things to do in Edmonton and area, check out Explore Edmonton.

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