Mark Monahan, the Glebe’s Blues man

By Penny Sanger

Mark Monahan

Mark Monahan seated at the family piano.
Photo credit: Soo Hum

It’s 6:30 a.m. and Mark Monahan is in his kitchen squeezing oranges, beating eggs, making smoothies and putting bowls of fruit on the table, and whatever else he knows each of his four daughters and their mother will eat for breakfast. “It’s my big thing,” he says. He learned his breakfast skills in the traditional Canadian way. Hired as a pot-scrubber at Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta one summer, he soon parlayed that job into becoming breakfast cook in the staff cafeteria. This knack for hopscotching from one job to a better one continued to shape his life – from playing piano in the old Penguin Café on Elgin Street, he jumped into part-ownership of Bravo Bravo bar and restaurant, another popular Elgin St. gathering place. He also started a dinner theatre called the Eddie May Mysteries and through that met his future wife, Reine. Chicoutimi-born, she was in Ottawa studying at the University of Ottawa.

Music is deeply embedded in Mark’s life. He plays piano, French horn and has sung in barbershop quartets. His lucky daughters have all inherited the music gene and are growing up making their own music. Grace plays trumpet, Julie the saxophone, Victoria piano and Sophie, the youngest, strums a ukulele. Occupying pride of place as you enter their First Avenue home is a Steinway parlour grand piano, a recent acquisition that has been passed down through his family for generations and has finally come to rest among the Monahans.

But it’s Bluesfest that is Mark’s, and his family’s, really “big thing.” Now in its 18th year, it’s a wildly successful celebration of blues music, drawing tens of thousands of fans to Ottawa in early summer, and bringing economic benefits to
the area. Lying back on grassy slopes on warm summer evenings, in a city space that seems rural, often makes it all seem magical. Sudden downpours and gusts of wind have drenched concert-goers, blowing their umbrellas inside-out, but most people laugh it off. As long as they and their bands keep belting it out onstage – and they always do – most people would
rather get wet than go home. Despite having to deal with the aftermath of a sudden and violent storm in July 2011 that caused one of its stages to collapse, the festival bounced back this year and its popularity is only growing.

How does all this, and now more, happen? “Two years ago we took on the famous Ottawa Folk Festival. It’s still a separate organization and just needs help in financing to get back on track,” he explains.

Cadillac

You may not have yet met Mark in person, but you have undoubtedly seen him drive by in his stretch Cadillac, the one that almost croons its own blues tune.
Photo: Soo Hum

“It all starts with choosing,” Mark says. For this, he thanks YouTube. That’s where he listens to and watches acts that he’d like to get, and finds out how to contact their managers and promoters. From some 300 Ottawa-area bands he chose 50 performers. He has just returned from Austin, Texas, where he attended the Austin City Limits music festival to see how it is managed and to listen to the performers. Then he’ll be in New York at the Billboard music conference, making contacts with people who put on the same kind of festivals and shows – how they manage them and what artists they engage.

To pull it all off he has a full-time team of eight who help organize both Bluesfest and the Folk Festival. They manage marketing, bookkeeping, sponsorship, and finding and organizing volunteers to help. “All this has to be in place to put on a successful event,” Mark stresses. “And there are thousands of volunteers as well.”

Among these volunteers this year were his two elder daughters, Grace and Julia, who worked at both Bluesfest and the Folk Festival. Somehow it all balances out, in terms of costs and revenue. “It’s funded by ticket sales, with support from all levels of government – city, provincial and federal, as well as from the Royal Bank of Canada,” he explains. “But still,” I finally asked, “isn’t it nerve-wracking waiting for the fans and all the musicians and bands to actually show up, and hoping the weather will cooperate?”

Mark smiled gently – then got up to leave. After 18 years he’s used to living with such uncertainties and possible crises. And it almost always works out – triumphantly.

Glebe resident and founding editor of the Glebe Report, Penny Sanger has long been writing about issues and people in the Glebe community.

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