Since 1994, programming a wide variety of world-class music has been essential to the success of the RBC Bluesfest.
The following are just a few of the truly eclectic and highly talented acts that have graced the festival’s stages over the past 25 years.
Clarence Clemons, Randy Bachman, and Buckwheat Zydeco (pictured here) took the stage for the inaugural edition of the Ottawa Bluesfest in 1994 and helped kick off what would become Canada’s fastest growing outdoor music festival. Five thousand people descended on Major’s Hill Park that first year, probably not realizing the tradition they were helping to create.
With a strong line-up in 1995—which included Buddy Guy—and low prices, a formula for success was emerging for Bluesfest. In its sophomore year, the festival’s attendance doubled and awareness was gaining momentum.
The festival flourished in 1996 with 25,000 fans coming out to see the likes of Robert Cray, Los Lobos, and the late, great Gatemouth Brown (pictured below). It was starting to look like Ottawa Bluesfest organizers were onto something here.
Bluesfest moved to Confederation Park in 1997 so ample space would be available for fans to see roots music greats Dr. John (pictured below) and Little Feat, among others. The overall line-up met with unequivocal approval.
The audience swelled to 80,000 in 1998 when the festival coincided with Canada Day and Ray Charles graced the stage. It was also the first year with multiple stages, with the addition of a Gospel Tent.
In 1999, Bluesfest featured the inimitable Smokey Robinson, the irascible Little Richard, and the ever-popular Gladys Knight—who was forced to bow out at the 11th hour due to a death in the family. Ottawa’s own Tony D (pictured here w/ sax man Zeke Gross) filled in for Ms. Knight and wowed the crowd with a world class performance that fans are still talking about today!
Bluesfest 2000 was a resounding success as superstar Sting (pictured below-right) headlined. Other performers to thrill an overall audience of 95,000 over the course of the five-day event included Al Green (pictured below-left) and Buddy Guy.
The new Louisiana Stage was introduced in 2001 and became a hit with performances by several Southern gems. The Main Stage featured James Brown (below-right), Wilson Pickett (below-left), and a who’s who of other industry icons.
With a move to Festival Plaza in ’02, the festival proudly showcased the talents of Blue Rodeo—among many others—and smashed the previous year’s record-breaking attendance of 140,000 by attracting 200,000 music fans.
In 2003, Bluesfest was proud to present its 10th edition. In honour of this special occasion, the festival expanded to 10 stages, offering fans even more diverse choices of music—including an unscripted reunion between Gregg Allman and Pinetop Perkins.
Canadian talent was front and centre in 2004, with the likes of Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Blue Rodeo, and The Tragically Hip (pictured below). The line-up was a source of pride for all Canadians, especially the growing number of ‘fest fans in Ottawa.
Music fans were “Trippin’ down to Bluesfest” in droves in 2005, and they weren’t disappointed. Stand-out performances were offered by ZZ Top, Kid Rock, The Black Eyed Peas (w/ Fergie pictured below) and a slew of others . . .
It was high-octane entertainment for all in 2006, with a line-up that included Etta James, Great Big Sea (w/ Alan Doyle pictured below) and Bonnie Raitt—although Bonnie arrived in her bio-diesel powered bus. A good fit considering Bluesfest won its first of three awards for ‘greening’ the festival that year.
In 2007, the line-up had some serious star power to go along with the new site at LeBreton Flats Park. From the opening salvo—courtesy of Van Morrison (pictured below), followed by Bob Dylan the next day, to the White Stripes, Kanye West—and many more throughout—Bluesfest lived up to its promise and delivered a killer onslaught of talent.
The musical flavours at the ‘08 fest included funk and so much more! From a rocking opening night with Canada’s own The Tragically Hip, to Feist (pictured below) performing on the following day, to the final set of the fest by Disco Queen Donna Summer, music fans were treated to 11 straight days of great music, with too many stand-out acts to list.
Once again Bluesfest endeared itself to a wide range of music fans in 2009, as a hugely popular outdoor event in Ottawa. Staying true to form the ’09 edition of the festival included an eclectic mix of acts rarely seen in Ottawa, including Jeff Beck on opening night—and a memorable set by KISS (pictured below)—in celebration of the fest’s 15th anniversary.
In 2010, thousands of ‘fest fans took in some outstanding music and comedy programming. As always the festival offered something for everyone. From indie punkers Alexisonfire to Tuvan throat singers YAT-KA—along with the likes of Rush, Arcade Fire, Santana (pictured below), and 250 other acts thrown in for good measure—the festival received rave reviews.
Programming excellence continued in 2011 with hundreds of performances showcasing a wide variety of world-class musicians, including Ben Harper, John Fogerty, The Flaming Lips, The Steve Miller Band, Dana Fuchs of Across the Universe fame (pictured below) and a plethora of other outstanding acts.
In 2012, festival organizers were able to offset soaring temperatures and a prolonged dry spell with yet another spectacular line-up. Massive crowds attended the 12-day event—taking in the likes of Iron Maiden (pictured below), Alice Cooper, Snoop Dogg, and hundreds of others—while soaking up the summer sun.
What seems to have resonated most with many fans in 2013 was not simply the variety of music but the iconic representation of each genre: for rap we’re talking Wu-Tang Clan; for country there was the Grammy-award winning Dixie Chicks. If you were looking for one of Canada’s best power rock trios, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers RUSH were on hand. And of course, for the blues, there was the late, great B.B. King (pictured below).
What a long, cool trip it’s been! A teenager no more, the RBC Bluesfest turned twenty in 2014, marking the occasion with the exceptional programming it’s become known for, including Snoop Dogg (pictured below). And if, as they say, “the past is an indication of things to come,” fans of the ‘fest would have a lot to look forward to in the years ahead!
In 2015, more than 300,000 music fans welcomed Kanye West (pictured below), Iggy Azalea, Skrillex, Jason Aldean, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many other world-class acts to Canada’s capital for what has become one of North America’s most popular music events.
In the world of mega-festivals, the 2016 RBC Bluesfest maintained its stature as an incredibly popular music event by sticking to its diverse roots, with world-class representation of every style of modern music. Also in 2016, the RBC Bluesfest had its first sell-out in close to two decades, thanks to the far-reaching popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (w/ Flea, pictured below).
In 2017 the festival had another stellar year with headliners such as P!nk, Muse, Tom Petty, (pictured below) and many more gracing RBC Bluesfest stages. Throughout a mix of rain and sunshine, loyal fans came out in droves.
Mother Nature came through in a big way for music fans from Ottawa and beyond during RBC Bluesfest’s 10-day run in 2018. Throughout the event, a program that “kept on giving” had attendees singing the praises of acts they specifically came to see and those they discovered along the way. The Foo Fighters (pictured below) drew a capacity crowd of 30,000 avid fans. Comparable numbers were on hand for Bryan Adams, Shawn Mendes, and the Dave Matthews Band.
The 25th anniversary line-up for the 2019 RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa kept music fans coming back for more, throughout the 10-day event. On the final night, the Backstreet Boys drew a close-to-capacity crowd of 30,000+ avid fans. Comparable numbers were on hand for Eric Church, The Killers (pictured below), and a double header featuring The Offspring and Alexisonfire, not to mention the wealth of talent that graced the side stages. Overall, the estimated total attendance was in the neighbourhood of 300,000.