Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
The weather over the weekend wasn’t the only thing you could describe as hot and sticky, as thousands turned out to enjoy some scorching music and ribs.
Organizers with the Stratford Blues & Ribfest say they had a record turnout of nearly 12,000 over the three-day event, about 6,000 more people than last year. They attribute that success to the addition of a second music stage at the bandshell, additional vendors, alternative programming, and ramped up publicity efforts.
“I think everyone’s having a great time, at least that’s what I’m hearing,” Barry Logan said Saturday during a break in the music outside of the Allman Arena, where a small group of people braved the beating sun to sit in front of the stage while others relaxed in the shade of a nearby tent.
“This is why people are out enjoying the event,” he added, pointing up to the clear skies. “There’s no reason not to walk the river and come into the site today.”
An estimated 800 people packed into the Allman site Friday evening for veteran rocker Dick Wagner, who hammered out a set full of some of his most well known penned tunes, including Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed and Welcome to my Nightmare.
“It was some pretty classic stuff to see,” Logan said of Wagner’s set. “He can still boogie.”
The crowd for Wagner combined with people arriving for that night’s Blue Rodeo gig caused up to a 30-minute wait for food from one of this year’s three rib vendors.
“It was crazy; the show was packed,” Peter Vlahohristas of Railroad Ribs said the next day when lineups were only one or two people deep.
The Locust Hill, Ont. ribbers just recently began touring, and were making their first Stratford Blues & Ribfest appearance.
Vlahohristas was hoping the company’s underdog status would work to its advantage when it came time for judging. A panel of local “celebrities” scored the ribs in different categories from taste to presentation.
“We’re hoping to win our first silverware here to help us get (our name) out there,” he said. “People seem to like us. They’ve been coming back.”
In the end, returning favourites Kentucky Smokehouse took the top honour.
Vlahohristas said he was just happy to be part of the event.
“As long as the organizers are happy and we get some of the business, everyone leaves happy. Hopefully we can be here again next year.”
Like the food, the event’s music was also as good as advertised, attracting people from across the region.
Rhona Nicholson and her husband Ken drove through pounding rain late Saturday morning to attend from Toronto – ignoring the opening of another of their favourite music events, the Toronto Jazz Festival.
“It just so happened they overlapped,” Rhona said. “But I love blues ... and this is called a blues festival.”
“And you know what? Stratford has fabulous people, really nice people.”
The two are former Stratford residents and good friends with Steve “Yeager” Adair, who performed later that day on the Allman stage.
A cold beer in hand, Ken said the day couldn’t have turned out better, even if it was a bit warmer than some people would like.
“This is perfect for me; I’m not complaining,” he added with a smile.
A fan of blues music in particular, Madeline Bechard of London kept cool under the tent while the Walters Twins belted out a set of catchy songs.
“They’re a little more country, but that’s cool,” she said, watching the Stratford-based band.
Having attended several similar festival in her hometown, Bechard said she was impressed with the experience, which she described as being smaller but more intimate.
She purchased her lunch from Railroad Ribs and was pleased with her decision.
“The ribs are really excellent. The coleslaw was to die for too.”
In an effort to draw an even wider audience to this year’s festival, organizers included a motorcycle meet and show and shine, tractor show, roller derby game, and a mix of vendors. The documentary, Louder Than Love, about Detroit’s famous Grande Ballroom, was also shown at City Hall.
Stopping to catch his breath Saturday, Logan said a dedicated team of 75-85 volunteers were working around the clock to ensure everything ran smoothly.
“It’s going as good as it because of the donated time of many,” he added.