‘It didn’t miss a beat’: Music fans flock to Bluesfest after pandemic hiatus

When Rage Against the Machine took the stage at Bluesfest Friday night, it was the symbolic culmination of two years of anxiety and anticipation — for both fans and festival organizers.

It was in that moment executive director Mark Monahan said he felt the excitement of a crowd that hadn’t seen live music on this scale at LeBreton Flats since 2019.

“It was just such a pent up demand for them,” he said. “You just felt the excitement as you were coming in the gates that this was going to be something really special.”

With groups like The National and The Beaches set to close out Bluesfest’s 10-day schedule on Sunday, Monahan summed up his feelings about seeing the festival play out with one word: relief.

“We’ve planned many things in the past couple of years, many of which we’ve been unable to do,” he said. “So actually planning our regular event and being able to pull it off has just been a huge relief.”

The festival was canceled in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and then was revived in a much smaller, all-Canadian format at Lansdowne Park in 2021.

That hiatus led to a few bumps early on, Monahan said, including long lineups and a need to get new volunteers up to speed.

“The only advantage is we planned this event for 2020, so we did have three years to plan it,” he said with a laugh.

By the time the ticket sales are tallied, Monahan estimated the festival will have brought in between 250,000 and 300,000 fans, comparable to years past.

Roughly 30,000 of those tickets went to Rage Against the Machine fans, according to festival organizers, including some who held onto tickets they’d bought back in the spring of 2020.

Attendees waiting to enter the grounds Saturday night said they were thrilled the festival, food and screaming fans were back.

‘A calculated risk’

Rob Bennett was among those lining up, though he’s more used to being on stage with his band The Bushpilots.

A regular Bluesfest, Bennett said he’s been coming out for more than 20 years and rarely misses a day.

“It’s amazing, it’s like it didn’t miss a beat,” he said of the 2022 edition.

“It was just really great to hang around with my friends… enjoying beers, enjoying the late afternoon sun, just basking in the warm glow of the festival.”

Despite the fact COVID-19 is still prevalent in the community, Bennett — who said he’s had four vaccine doses — didn’t hesitate to come out.

“We’ve been cooped up for a really long time and it’s kind of picking up where we left off,” he said. “It’s a calculated risk to enjoy life.”

A man wearing sunglasses, a cap and a brightly-coloured shirt covered in a flower design smiles at the camera.
Rob Bennett says he’s been going to Bluesfest for more than 20 years, both with his band The Bushpilots and as an audience member. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Masks ‘strongly recommended’

The festival is being held as several COVID-19 indicators are on the rise in Ottawa, including hospitalizations, outbreaks and the coronavirus levels in the city’s wastewater.

The region is in the seventh wave of the pandemic, and health officials said last week, as Bluesfest began, that it was “strongly recommended” people wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings such as the festival.

Monahan said he and other Bluesfest organizers have kept a close eye on public health and provincial guidelines.

They set out to organize an event where people can feel safe listening to music from wherever they chose, he said, and have asked concert-goers to mitigate their level of risk.

As Bluesfest 2022 winds down, Monahan said his thoughts are already turning to next year and what it will look like.

“The fact that we’ve been able to pull this off and we’re back is just a huge sense of accomplishment,” he said. “And it sort of leads to…trying to get back to normal hopefully, in the next couple of years.”

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