TORONTO Bluesfest featuring Howe Gelb with David Lindley & Wally Ingram , John Mooney , Royal City and Fiftymen on the Roots Stage (Exhibition Place), Saturday (July 26), 12:30 pm. $55 wristband, $20 day pass. And Robert cray with John Hiatt , Blind Boys of Alabama , Big Bill Morganfield , Jack de Keyzer and the Tommy Castro Band on the Main Stage (Exhibition Place), Sunday (July 27), 1 pm. $20 day pass. www.torontobluesfest.com, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Since the Toronto Bluesfest has been boasting a lineup that includes Sheryl Crow, Bela Fleck, John Hiatt, the Five Blind Boys, AfroCelts and George Clinton with the P-Funk All Stars, many people have been left wondering what happened to the blues? True enough, respected blues guitar slingers Joe Louis Walker, Big Bill Morganfield and Sue Foley will be representin' this weekend, but they seem to be in the minority at the four-day event.
It's much more like an all-inclusive roots music gathering, although the presence of Toronto alterna-stars Graph Nobel and Royal City makes even that seem like a stretch.
Twenty years ago, Robert Cray would've been another argument in favour of the blues, but the last decade has seen him drawing more on the influence of Bobby Womack and O.V. Wright to move in a Southern soul direction. He's been moving further still.
Cray's new Time Will Tell (Sanctuary) disc is the least bluesy recording he's ever made. In fact, the sombre ballad Up In The Sky - sensitively backed by the Turtle Island String Quartet - is straight-up adult contemporary pop.
Yet for many attending the Toronto Bluesfest, it's Cray who's expected to deliver on the festival's blues promise.
"Really? That's interesting," chuckles Cray, unaware of how the Bluesfest lineup has been stacked. "Usually when we play blues festivals, we're the act that's furthest out.
"With the artists you mentioned being involved, it might've been better to just call it the Toronto Good Music Festival instead."
Should Cray decide to reach back into his blues bag for an early classic like Phone Booth, it'll likely get a better response from the local house music fans in the crowd than from the blues purists. That Phone Booth track - from 83's Bad Influence (HighTone) album - was recently given a radical makeover by the mysterious Street Corner crew, who dropped Cray's soulful vocals and stinging guitar line over charging 4/4 beats to turn it into a stomping club anthem.
"A house version of Phone Booth? That's news to me, because, of course, I don't frequent dance clubs. But you know, we still play Phone Booth, so maybe I'll have Kevin (drummer Kevin Hayes) drop in a 4/4 beat in Toronto just to see what happens."
Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb, making a solo appearance on the Roots stage Saturday afternoon at 3:45 pm, has an even more tenuous connection to the blues than Cray. Yet the don of desert dementia is willing to play along.
"Well, my hair is turning grey and my best friend used to play a National steel guitar," says Gelb, mulling over his blues credentials at his home in Aarhus, Denmark. "But I really have no idea why I've been invited to play the Toronto Blues fest.
"Your first inclination is to call the organizers liars but then you think, 'Wait a minute. My music isn't oversaturated by any one style. I'm kind of a wobbler, frequently criss-crossing the lines that divide the genres like a drunk driver.
"Sometimes I'm heading into on-coming traffic, momentarily dodging rock, then, whaaaah, right into the blues realm. I make a quick turn to avoid a folk pothole, then I'm swerving into jazzville before crunching my way into distortion city. I'm all over the map. '"
True enough, Gelb plans to follow his new jazzy piano set, Oogle (Thrill Jockey), with the fourth album in 20 years from his ongoing country side project, the Band of Blacky Ranchette, tentatively titled Still Lookin' Good To Me.
"I just collect these things I record over the years with various people in different places. Eventually, I'll realize I've got enough for an album and I'll just assemble it.
"This one has Joey Burns and John Convertino (of Calexico and Giant Sand) on a couple of tunes. I've got Neko Case singing on it, and, oh yeah, Dallas Good and those Grandaddy guys are there, too. Lambchop's Kurt Wagner did something in front of an airport, and Chan Marshall sang only one line - but it's a good one."