There was a desperate loneliness in the prisoners’ eyes as Rita Chiarelli talked to them.
They recounted the tale of how they ended up in a maximum security prison and they shared their hopes for the future.
“It was really emotional – the sadness, the desperation, in some of their eyes, the desperation in terms of loneliness,” said Chiarelli. “You hear their stories and get some insight into who these guys are. It’s not only bad people who do bad things.”
It took 10 years for Chiarelli to get permission to enter the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, with a film crew.
It started a decade before when she decided to take a trip to see “all the legendary and mythic place of the blues” said Chiarelli.
Over the years the prison has housed some of the old blues legends as they served time for various crimes; some even recorded their music from the cell blocks.
Chiarelli, a multi-award winning roots and blues artist, is often referred to as the Goddess of Blues. She was allowed into the prison for filming, but on the condition she would perform with the prisoners – not for them. There were several different musical groups within the prison practicing various music genres. The resulting footage created Chiarelli’s documentary, Music From The Big House. The focus of the film is the prisoners’ love of music, their hopes for the future and quest for forgiveness.
“The movie has become incredibly compelling and life changing,” said Chiarelli. “It makes people think about forgiveness and compassion. It’s an incredible film for that reason.”
Music From The Big House shows at the Port Theatre as part of the Nanaimo Summertime Blues Festival Saturday (Aug. 24), 9 p.m. The screening includes a Q&A session with Chiarelli. She performs on the mainstage at Maffeo Sutton Park Sunday (Aug. 25) at 6 p.m. The festival runs Friday to Sunday at various locations throughout downtown.
Summertime Blues features local and national performers, including Nanaimo’s David Gogo and young up-and-coming blues performers The Distributors and Ian Perry.
Chiarelli said it makes her feel good to see the younger generation getting involved and carrying on the blues tradition.
Chiarelli said festivals are a chance to bring musicians together the community might not otherwise see.
Gogo will perform songs from his newest album, Come On Down. His latest work, like Chiarelli, was also inspired by a pilgrimage to historic blues country. He performs on the main stage with his band in Maffeo Sutton Park on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and then an intimate solo acoustic show at the Lighthouse Pub Saturday at 9 p.m.
Gogo relishes the chance to perform for his music fans.
“I love playing live,” he said. “I love getting out there and performing for people.”
The blues performer has been reaching out to fans more and more. He set up a dedicated Facebook page to talk with fans and has his own free app so fans can keep up with him on the road.
For more information or an entertainment schedule please go to www.nanaimobluesfestival.com. Three-day passes are $129/$199 for seniors and youth. Day passes can also be purchased.
Tickets for Music From The Big House are $20. All festival tickets and passes are available by calling 250-754-8550, at the Port Theatre box office located at 125 Front St., or www.porttheatre.com.