Joe Louis Walker is among the big-name blues artists to take to the stage in Thorold during the 10th annual Canal Bank Shuffle. The three-day event costs just $20. 'That's less than a buck a band,' says Tim Sinnett, chairman of the festival's organizing committee. (Photo courtesy Ric Lund)

The little festival that could ...
Canal Bank Shuffle celebrates 10 years of blues in Thorold

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If you want to catch blues music great Joe Louis Walker in concert these days, you’ll find him in Europe, where the multiple Grammy winner is touring France, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland until mid-November.  

But thanks to Tim Sinnett, you won’t have to wait too long, travel too far, or spend too money to hear one of the most sought-after blues artists in the world. Just make your way to Holy Rosary Hall in Thorold for 11 p.m. on Oct. 22, when Walker, named most outstanding guitar artist at the 2010 Blues Music Awards, will take to the stage during a small break in his European tour.   

All you need is $20 for a button that will also grant you admission to 21 other blues acts playing in downtown Thorold over three days, beginning Oct. 20. It’s all part of the 10th annual Canal Bank Shuffle in Thorold, one of the smallest communities on the North American blues festival circuit. But as Walker’s presence proves, small venue does not mean short on talent.  

Also appearing with Walker — who has performed and recorded with everyone from B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix to Buddy Guy — is Jack de Keyzer, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Mitch Woods, Fathead, Karen Lovely and WNSB, among others. The revamped Johnny Max Band, also coming off a European tour, will open the festival.  

How did Thorold, Ont., a city of only 19,000, manage to snag such a winning lineup? “We’re pretty lucky,” figures Sinnett, chairman of the festival’s all-volunteer organizing committee, who admits that some well-placed connections with U.S. blues organizations and a few annual scouting trips to Toronto and Memphis for new talent have also helped The Shuffle make a name for itself.  

As big-city blues festivals know, it’s also about timing. The majority of Canada’s blues festivals are held in summer, with cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal competing for top talent, along with all the U.S. blues festivals. “We’re the last major blues festival in southern Ontario, so that works in our favour,” Sinnett tells “People are looking for work.”  

Doughnuts to dollars

The festival has done wonders for tourism in Thorold since Sinnett took in a blues festival in Orillia a decade ago and thought, “This is great. We could do this!”  

The first Canal Bank Shuffle, which featured Canada’s popular Downchild Blues Band as the headline act, was born on a shoestring budget raised through the sale of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. At the time, the U.S.-based company had just opened its doors in Canada (Toronto Krispy Kreme fans had previously travelled to Buffalo for boxfuls of the warm glazed doughnuts), and had rolled out a community fundraising scheme, which involved bulk pickups and delivery.  

“We would drive to Mississauga to pick up orders early in the morning and deliver them all over,” recalls Sinnett. “We were getting orders from law offices in downtown St. Catharines. Some customers were buying multiple boxes. We raised $3,000 selling doughnuts that summer.”  

Sinnett estimates the first Canal Bank Shuffle attracted between 2,000 and 2,500 visitors. Today, with the Holy Rosary Hall as the “home” venue, along with nearby bars, the festival now boasts major sponsors (including Molsons and Kittling Ridge) and attracts some of the best blues talent from the Toronto area and the U.S. For the 10th anniversary festival, Sinnett expects up to 6,000 visitors to show up. Already, a local hotel is fully booked.  

The majority of visitors come from the Niagara Region (Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines), and as far as the Greater Toronto Area and western New York. “We even have regulars who come here from Cincinnati,” Sinnett says. “I’ve lived in Thorold all my life and when I’m standing at the doors of Holy Rosary Hall when it’s all sold out, I barely recognize anyone inside. We’re not a monster festival, but we have our niche.” 

More than $100,000 donated to charity

While it’s all about the music, it’s also about giving back to the community, with proceeds from the festival going to various groups. This year’s major beneficiary is the Niagara chapter of Autism Ontario. “Over our first nine years, we managed to give more than $100,000 to charity. And it’s all volunteers organizing this,” Sinnett says.  

As the chief organizer, Sinnett has put in many hours building the Canal Bank Shuffle into a premier festival for the city. He even purchased a 1991 Cadillac and had it “wrapped” in festival information to publicize the event. Not only is the bluesmobile a great advertising tool, it also smartly gets around Thorold’s no-sign laws. You’ll find Sinnett driving the car around on weekends to keep the blues festival top-of-mind; the Cadillac is parked in a high-traffic location the rest of the time.  

With 10 years under his belt, what does the future hold for Sinnett and the Canal Bank Shuffle? “I’ll be doing this till I get tired of it, I guess,” he laughs. “We have new people coming in on the committee and that’s good, because that will give us new ideas.”  

One thing Sinnett knows for sure is that the $20 cost of a three-day admission button — up from the $15 it’s been the first nine years — “is still the best deal in town. That’s less than a buck a band.”  

It’s first come, first in the door. So if you want to see your favourite blues artist, “get there early” is Sinnett’s advice.  

While you’re in Thorold, which is about nine kilometres south of downtown St. Catharines, check the city out. The Welland Canal runs through Thorold, so don’t forget to drop by the Lock 7 Visitor Centre (Lock 7 is the highest lock on the canal). — October 2011