‘Tis the season for yuletide benefit concerts: now in its 30th year, Blues for Christmas is Vancouver’s longest-running charitable holiday show.
In December 1993, the Straight spoke with organizer Dalannah Gail Bowen (formerly Gail Bowen) about how the benefit concert would help children and families in the Vancouver area, and what audience members could expect at the show.
Here’s an excerpt from the story, Blues bands line up for Food Bank:
“Other than the fact that this Yuletide tradition benefits thousands of Vancouverites—especially children—in need of nutritious food during the holiday season, you’ll get the chance to boogie to the blues and R&B talents of more than a dozen Vancouver bands, most of them stalwarts of the local club scene. Gail Bowen, who produced the event from day one and is a former food bank coordinator, says this years blues-athon… won’t be spread out over two nights as it was the past three years.”
Organizers may have had to shorten the concert back in 1993, but thanks to the support of local musicians, volunteers, and former Commodore manager Drew Burns, Blues For Christmas is still going strong.
“If we look at the timeline, it really tells a story about blues music in Vancouver over the years,” Bowen told me in a telephone interview.
In '93, musical acts included Jim Byrnes, Incognito, Powder Blues, and Wailin’ Al Walker. Even in its early years, Bowen called it a “reunion” of sorts.
“Many of the musicians look at this as their Christmas party, because the rest of the year we’re all busy trying to do what we need to do,” said Burns. “When your heart is in the music, your priority is always, ‘how do I get to share it?’”
At 70 years old, Bowen is still the event’s organizer. She’s also played in the show every year since it began in 1985, and this year, she’ll sing as half of the blues duo, Dalannah and Owen.
The 30th annual Blues for Christmas takes place this Sunday (December 20) at its one-and-only home on Granville Street. Acts will include Jim Byrnes, David Gogo, Incognito, Steve Kozak and the West Coast All-Stars, and more. In past years, all funds raised supported the food bank, but this year, musicians will be singing the blues for an additional cause.
The aforementioned Burns, who died suddenly in September 2014, was known among local musicians for his generosity. Bowen says the event never would have become what it is today if it hadn’t been for his dedication and support.
“I really honour Drew because he was willing to take the risk with me and put a stamp on something that we could be proud of; that the blues community of Vancouver got behind 100 percent,” Bowen explained.
“When he died last year, we wanted to do something that acknowledged him, because he was so passionate about giving musicians in Vancouver the recognition that he thought they deserved.”
At every opportunity, Burns would make sure that local musicians were opening for big-name headliners. “It’s a unique situation when you have a club owner who wants to provide that support, but to do it with so much respect,” she said. “That’s why we love Drew Burns.”
The Drew Burns Commodore Musicians Foundation was created, and this year all proceeds from ticket sales and cash donations will help support music programs for urban youth, funding for private music operations, and an emergency crisis fund.
“It’s really about nurturing and taking care of young musicians, and giving them opportunities,” said Bowen.
But, she hasn’t forgotten her roots: guests are still asked to bring a non-perishable food item for the food bank.
Bowen, who began producing concerts in the ‘80s as a way of creating opportunity for local musicians, says she never imagined that Blues for Christmas would still be running three decades later. She says this is the last holiday show she’ll organize.
“This year we have a committee, and if it carries on in the future, it will probably be more committee-based,” she said. “I’ve put in thirty years, and it’s time for me to sit back and enjoy it.”
Find advanced tickets for Blues for Christmas here.