In a remarkable display of composure, Dalannah Gail Bowen doesn’t choke up until near the end of an interview where she reminisces about her 32 years at the helm of the Vancouver institution known as Blues for Christmas. But when the tears come, they are genuine. The 72-year-old gets understandably emotional when asked what it’s like to finally be closing a chapter that started the year Live Aid raised millions for Ethiopian famine victims, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev took the first steps to ending the Cold War, and the late Drew Burns was at the helm of Vancouver’s legendary Commodore Ballroom.
When the lights come up at the end of the final Blues for Christmas this December, Bowen acknowledges it’s going to be a challenge to keep it together.
“It’s kind of been bittersweet,” she says, on the line from her Vancouver home. “You know I’ve held this…” she says, breaking into tears and then recomposing herself, “for a long time. Um, yeah.”
That she almost immediately follows that with a big laugh speaks volumes about her love for Blues for Christmas, which started in 1985. While the final edition of the long-running fundraiser will be hard, that’s only because she’s stockpiled countless golden memories over the decades.
Bowen remembers the first installment of Blues for Christmas taking place in the wake of Jingle Bell Rock, which had those on the rock ’n’ roll side of the ledger in the Vancouver music community raising funds for charity. Bowen coproduced the event, which made her a natural to go to when the local blues community was looking to do something good for the holiday season.
“Jingle Bell Rock had ended and musicians starting coming to me and asking if I’d be interested in producing an event for blues musicians that was a fundraiser,” she recalls. “So I took it to Drew, we discussed it, and that’s how Blues for Christmas was born.”
Among the headliners that first edition was a young bluesman named Jim Byrnes.
“I still have the poster from that first one buried somewhere in my storage room,” she relates. “Unless you want to wait a half-hour, I can’t remember everyone who was on it. I know Jim was, and I think he was the main feature. Truthfully, we only had 320 people attend the first one, but we kept going.”
Over the years Blues for Christmas would grow to become not only one of the holiday season’s most-loved traditions, but also an important fundraiser. When Burns was running the Commodore—which he did until the late ’90s—the venue would take the bar revenue and Blues for Christmas would get the door. Patrons were also asked to bring a donation for the Vancouver Food Bank.
“In the early days, they’d have to bring a big truck to pick up all the food that was donated,” Bowen says. “We really made our mark there for years.”
As it grew, Blues for Christmas also became a must-attend social event for the city’s blues aficionados.
“You know what? There are people coming this year that were at the very first one,” Bowen marvels. “I’m very community-based, and we created a community around this event. There were reconnections that happened each year, people going ‘I haven’t seen you in forever.’ People used it as their Christmas party—there was a lot of celebration.”
And what she remembers over the years is that no one ever turned her down when she’d ask them to play the fundraiser.
“Our biggest benefactors are the musicians and the Vancouver community, because without them you don’t have anything—you might as well not even bother,” she says. “I’m so grateful that, if they were in town, all the musicians would always say yes when I asked them. We’ve got a pretty special blues community here in Vancouver.”
Bowen cites both a couple of health scares and her age as her reason for finally putting Blues for Christmas to bed.
“Personally, I’m 72 and it’s just time for me to step down,” she says. “I just can’t do the job as well as I used to. Not that I’m complaining. We’ve had an amazing run, and I’d never complain about any of it.”
Predictably, she couldn’t be more excited about this year’s lineup. That’s partly because it’s loaded with talent that has deep roots in both Blues for Christmas and Vancouver, and partly because the event will once again give back to the community, with proceeds going to the Drew Burns Commodore Musicians’ Fund.
“In my humble opinion, this is the last community link to Drew [Burns] and who he was and what he did for the music community of Vancouver,” Bowen says. “I wanted to honour that and close it out in a good way. Jim Byrnes and I are hosting. Jim Byrnes and the Sojourners are opening the show. We have Gary Comeau and the Voodoo All Stars—he reunited that band for this. We have Joani Bye and so many other musicians—literally, like, a hundred. There will be Doc Fingers, Pete Sweetzer, four or five keyboard players, eight horn players, four or five bass players and drummers. I’m so pleased that we’ve worked it out this way, because everyone who’s been part of this for the last 32 years deserves a spot on that stage.”
Blues for Christmas takes place at the Commodore Ballroom on Monday (December 11).