Review: Ginger St. James Shines at Stratford’s Otherwise Dull “BBQ, Blues, and Brews.” (9/22/12)

By: Andrew Burns

Last weekend was the fifth annual Savour Stratford culinary festival in Stratford, Ontario. Amidst the food and culture centred activities was saturday night’s main event, “BBQ, Blues, and Brews.” Though the event itself was a well-attended flop, Ginger St. James and her band of rockabilly-rock-n-rollers outshone even the dismal weather. In a chilly drizzle, St. James and her band played a tight 90-minute set of rockabilly standards and foot-stomping originals.

With a sharp chill and biting rain rolling in as the event got underway, the primary demographic seemed to be late 40s and early 50s empty-nesters who bought pre-sale tickets. My partner and I, early 20s, felt comically out of place as we braved the wet to get the food our tickets bought us. For a culinary festival, the food was a travesty: inedible mac ‘n cheese, anemic fried chicken, two tough short ribs, and cold corn bread.

As the attendees dug into the “barbeque,” Ginger St. James provided the “blues.” Playing in the largest tent, St. James crooned and wailed to an empty dance floor and about twenty long tables of diners. Those few interested concert-goers were given the painful choice between “blues” and “brews,” as a separate tent housed five Ontario breweries pouring samples of their offerings.

The “brews” tent was filled to bursting with party-goers who no doubt expected beer and band to share the same roof. Our 50-dollar tickets bought us six shockingly small samples of Ontario’s best craft brewers. This only contributed to the overall tight-pursed feel of the entire event. A typical beer festival ticket of $50 would usually buy unlimited samples and a commemorative glass. Instead, guests were given sample-tickets and dixie cups.

While the brewers present were enthusiastic about their offerings, the taps on hand were filled with “premium lagers,” pilsners, and wheat beers, with a noticeable lack of anything resembling hops. As the beer fans complained about the beer, food fans complained about the food, and everyone complained about the weather, people eventually shuffled back to the main tent, finally filling the dance floor for Ginger St. James’ final half-hour.

Powering through the bad vibes, Ginger St. James proved herself the consummate show-woman. In a poodle skirt and pink sweater, St. James looked like she stepped straight out of 1955. With a flower in her hair and horn-rimmed glasses, she looked quite at home next to guitarist Snow-Heel Slim’s hollow-body Gretsch, a staple of rockabilly sound and style.

As the set went on, drummer Andre Tellier counted off fast-two-step after fast-two-step, bouncing crazily, and pushing the band along. With hardly any dead air, the band mixed Johnny Cash and Elvis classics with Originals like “Country Bumpkin” and “Beer Bottle Pockets.” It seems the only thing authentic about “BBQ, Blues, and Brews” was Ginger St. James’ rockabilly sound, though it hardly qualified as “blues.” Through songs old and new, Tyrone Ramsey’s upright bass and Slim’s energetic strummings provided the perfect backbone for St. James’ country twang. Pianist Greg Brisco provided honky tonk piano, the occasional organ, and Little Richard-inspired solos. Perhaps the best, and bluesiest, song of the night was “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” the Willie Dixon blues standard. Channeling Led Zeppelin, St. James screeched and Slim shredded over one of the only slow tunes of the night.

Though “BBQ, Blues, and Brews” was misleading and an overall disappointment, Ginger St James made the best of it, and put on an entertaining, authentic, and endearing performance. While occasionally promoting her new EP Tease, she didn’t oversell or plead, and by the end, had won the crowd to her side.

One is just left to wonder why the event wasn’t called “Lunchlady Food, Boring Lagers, and Surprisingly Good Rockabilly.” Maybe an event that couldn’t afford free samples couldn’t afford a sign quite so long.

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