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A retrospective look at the city’s hottest festival

Photo: Marta Kierkus

When the temperature rises in July, so will the city’s energy for its hottest summer music festival.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest will bring headliners from a wide range of genres to LeBreton Flats for the 21st year of the festival, running July 8–19.

Despite its rocky start with the festival’s leaked list of artists and then hacked website on March 24, the Bluesfest organization went ahead and released the line-up earlier than previous years.

Festival attendees can expect to see headlining acts that include Kanye West, Iggy Azalea, The Tragically Hip, Keith Urban, and Deep Purple.

On March 30, after Bluesfest announced West’s confirmation of attendance, Facebook groups petitioned for the rapper to be removed from the festival. Other hip-hop acts such as Nas and Run the Jewels, however, are expected to perform without resistance.

For many years now Bluesfest’s musical acts have  rarely been blues artists. The festival has aimed to bring a bigger audience out year after year, hoping to please everyone’s preferences. In an attempt to diversify since 2002, different genres such as rock, hip-hop, country, and EDM have been brought to the festival.

And it’s paid off. Billboard Magazine ranked the festival as one of the top 10 successful music festivals in North America in 2013.

The festival has grown over the past 20 years since its first show in 1994 at Major’s Hill Park. Since then, more than a million people have attended in total. From its early days of one stage, to its move to Confederation Park with eight stages, and then to LeBreton Flats with five large stages, the festival has put itself on the map.

Peter Simpson, arts editor-at-large for the Ottawa Citizen and founder of Portraits of Bluesfest, recalls his early experiences with Bluesfest.

“The first show I saw at Bluesfest was John Hiatt solo on guitar, on a very cold and windy July night in 1999,” he says. “Since then it’s been a pleasure to watch the festival grow and expand, and there are personal highlights that I’ll never forget—Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 on the Black Sheep Stage, or the White Stripes on the main stage.”

Simpson says diversity of music at the festival is tremendous. With each year’s attendance growing and bigger headliners coming, Bluesfest remains one of Canada’s largest summer music festivals. You never know what to expect each time you go.

“There was the night I was backstage and suddenly found myself standing alone with Elvis Costello and Daniel Lanois,” says Simpson, “but that’s another story.”

Students who are 21 and under can benefit from the youth package which includes general admission for all festival dates for $189, versus regular admission for $253.


  • Spring 2022: Desiree Nikfardjam Fall 2021: Zofka Svec 2020-2021: Aisling Murphy 2019-2020: Ryan Pepper 2018-2019: Iain Sellers 2017-2018: Ryan Pepper