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Cognac Blues Passions - Once more, with Passion…

Cognac Blues Passions - Once more, with Passion…

This year Cognac Blues Passions celebrates its 20th Anniversary, so Roger Moss spoke to the flagship event’s Director and Programmer, Michel Rolland...

live-music-cognac-bluesWhile many people work hard promoting live music of all styles around the region, when it comes to firing the imagination of music fans both here and internationally, one annual event on the calendar stands head and shoulders above all others. Cognac Blues Passions was the brainchild of lifelong blues (and judo) fan Michel Rolland, who left his Bordelais roots and spent three years directing cultural affairs in Brive-la-Gaillard (Corrèze) before bringing his creative flair to the unsuspecting town of Cognac. His first project was West Rock, a non-profit making association launched in 1992, which transformed the town’s former abattoirs into a fully fledged music complex offering live concerts, rehearsal spaces and instruction classes for anyone who wants to make music. Two years later, with an eye on something which would add a new dimension to the town’s international image, Michel launched Blues Passions, which in its first outing attracted 1,700 visitors. Twenty years later, the numbers comfortably exceed 25,000, yet his commitment and, yes, passion remain as strong as ever.

It’s just as well, since he and his team of five full-time staff (plus two or three volunteers and short-term stagiaires) have a lot on their hands: “Of the total budget we have to work with, just 15% comes from the Mairie and Conseil Général de la Charente combined; add to this contributions from commercial partners and you’ll see that the vast majority comes from ticket sales, so we have to get our line-up absolutely right.” It also takes extraordinary patience: “When you see a headline artist announced it’s probably taken us four to five years of negotiations. Like everyone else, I have a clear idea of who I’d like to book, but it’s a long process – sometimes agents don’t get back to us, artists aren’t always available for the dates we have in mind... nothing is simple.” Even if things move faster, it isn’t all plain sailing, as Michel knows only too well: “Artists and their musicians all have their own requirements, written into a rider attached to the contract. Sometimes it can be demanding, taking us months of work to fulfil, but anything is possible, and in the end we keep them happy – when acts leave us they take happy memories of their time in Cognac and become like ambassadors for us.”

Over the years some real giants of the blues world have played at Cognac, including Ray Charles, BB King, Dr John and Robert Cray, so I was keen to hear what lay behind the programming decisions of recent years. Major headline artists seem, outwardly, to have shifted subtly from the pure blues focus of earlier editions: “It’s a simple fact that today many of the blues artists capable of attracting really big audiences are sadly no longer with us. But if you ask any of the headline artists we book ‘who were your most important musical influences?’ you’ll find, as we do, that they’ll all mention the blues.” So, the flame still burns.

Ultimately, of course, the headline grabbing main stage evening concerts are only part of a much larger programme of live music events, as Michel is keen to confirm: “Like everyone else, we follow social media, and every year we see people talking about our tête d’affiche (top billing) names, but every day there are countless festival events going on around the town, including free concerts by talented new performers. Fifteen years ago Ben Harper (who is among those headlining this year) was making a name for himself, playing to audiences of forty or so people. The same is true of everyone who’s really big now. So I’d encourage you all to come and see what’s going on – you might just spot the next Ray Charles...”