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The Legacy of Bluebird North

November 1, 2012

The Songwriters Association of Canada is proud to be the founder of the Bluebird North Showcase that happens across the country – celebrating the songs and stories of great Canadian songwriters.  During these informal acoustic evenings, each songwriter performs their own songs and shares each composition’s back story and inspiration. We’re hosting one in Port Perry on November 3rd and one in Vancouver November 6th.  Originally, published in last year’s annual reference edition of Songwriters Magazine, Bluebird pioneer Shari Ulrich looks back at BBN’s success- ful 18-year legacy, the thrill of discovering an expected gem and experi- encing the alchemy of songwriters connecting on stage.
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With Bluebird North, the S.A.C. has created one of the most important benefits to Canadian songwriters possible – providing them with a stage, and helping them foster an audience. That’s the kind of tangible, hands-on advocacy that makes me proud to be associated with the S.A.C.

I was one of the participants of the very first Bluebird North, produced in Toronto for the S.A.C. by Marc Jordan and Amy Sky in 1993. Other than Folk Festival workshop stages, it was my first “song circle” – and I was hooked.

In 1995, Ron Irving launched Bluebird North at the Railway Club in Vancouver, and a year later he handed off the producing duties to me. Aside from a few shows produced by Ron and Roy Forbes, I’ve remained the producer (and, more recently, the host) of the Vancouver event since.

In those early years, our format featured eight songwriters in every show. The most daunting task was booking so many writers, while ensuring at least a few of them would draw a sizeable audience. The downside of having so many songwriters in the lineup was having to restrict each to just three songs apiece. Consequently, over time, the event morphed into a four-songwriter evening.

It took several years, of course, but we’ve finally reached that sweet spot where the draw for audiences is no long a particular songwriter but Bluebird North itself. Our audiences have learned that even if they don’t recognize all the names, they can always expect a spirited and highly entertaining evening, and will likely discover an unexpected gem.

I can never predict how a show is going to unfold but precious few of those 75 shows have fallen flat. If a show did fall flat, it was usually because the host was unable to put people at ease. The song-circle format, after all, can be unnerving for even the most seasoned of performers; it’s just the nature of the beast. A host who can charm those on and off the stage plays a critical role in the success of any show.

We’ve had many homes over the years, and I was determined to take the event out of a bar and into a theatre – more befitting the spirit of Nashville’s original Bluebird Café. It’s all about honouring the song, which is counter to a bar atmosphere. So when Margaret Watts eagerly invited us to the Roundhouse Community Centre six years ago, we knew we’d found our home in their comfy black box theatre (with its spectacular sound).

Bluebird North in Vancouver has become a coveted gig for both emerging writers and seasoned veterans, and not just those based in Vancouver! Being able to provide writers from across Canada a wonder- ful stage with great sound and an enthusiastic audience is a thrill. On the flipside, it means that hundreds of writers are now vying for a relatively small number of spots on stage, which puts me in a position of being the gatekeeper I never wanted to be. But my guiding principle is to keep the quality of the shows as high as possible so that audiences will remain faithful and continue to grow.

It’s been a tremendously rewarding 15 years. The alchemy between writers – their unique combination, the juxtaposition of their work, how they interact between songs and con- nect musically – creates an unparalleled concert experience.

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