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

When Rage Against the Machine took the stage at Bluesfest on Friday night, it was the symbolic culmination of two years of fear and anticipation – for fans and festival organizers alike.

At that moment, Executive Director Mark Monahan said he felt the excitement of an audience who hadn’t seen live music of this magnitude at LeBreton Flats since 2019.

“It was just such pent-up demand for her,” he said. “You just felt the excitement as you got in the gates that this was going to be something very special.”

With groups like The National and The Beaches set to wrap up the 10-day Bluesfest schedule on Sunday, Monahan summed up his feelings at the sight of the festival in one word: relief.

“We have planned many things in recent years, many of which we have not been able to implement,” he said. “So it was just such a relief to be able to plan our regular event and be able to pull it off.”

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

That hiatus created some bumps early on, Monahan said, including long lineups and the need to catch up on new volunteers.

“The only benefit is that we planned this event for 2020, so we had three years to plan it,” he said, laughing.

By the time ticket sales are counted, Monahan estimates the festival will have attracted between 250,000 and 300,000 fans, comparable to previous years.

According to festival organizers, around 30,000 of those tickets went to Rage Against the Machine fans, including some who kept their tickets bought back in spring 2020.

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

“A Calculated Risk”

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

A Bluesfest regular, 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 great hanging out with my friends… enjoying beers, enjoying the late afternoon sun, just basking in the warm glow of the festival.”

Despite the fact that COVID-19 is still rampant in the community, Bennett – who said he received four doses of the vaccine – didn’t hesitate to come out.

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

Rob Bennett says he has been going to Bluesfest for more than 20 years, both with his band The Bushpilots and as a spectator. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Masks “strongly recommended”

The festival comes as several COVID-19 indicators are rising in Ottawa, including hospital admissions, outbreaks and the level of coronavirus in the city’s sewage.

The region is in the seventh wave of the pandemic, and health officials said last week, as Bluesfest got underway, that people were “strongly advised” to wear a mask in crowded outdoor areas like the festival.

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

They wanted to organize an event where people can feel safe listening to music wherever they want, he said, and have asked concert-goers to mitigate their risk.

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

“The fact that we’ve done it and we’re back is just a huge sense of accomplishment,” he said. “And it leads to … hopefully getting back to normal in the next few years.”

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