As our minds shift away from weekends spent basking in the sun at cottages or beaches, the cooler air and shorter days irrefutably signal the arrival of autumn, and with it the 20th Old Town BluesFest, which each year brings the soulful sound of the blues, from great bands far and near, to enjoy along with great food, drink and shopping. It’s THE place to be, with old friends or making new ones.
Big Bill Broonzy, a prolific blues singer and songwriter, said, “Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives.” You can experience the phenomenon for yourself as you savor 20 hours of life-changing music that includes:
From the east coast comes one of the greatest harp (harmonica) players ever, Grammy-nominated Sugar Ray Norcia, performing with his Bluetones band. Big LLou Johnson, whose radio show is heard by over 2 million listeners around the world via satellite, brings in all the award-winning members of his BluesVille Revue. And Rob Blaine takes you on his journey to success from Grand Rapids roots to making it in the competitive Chicago blues scene.
From around Michigan: The southern soul and Old School R & B sounds of Maurice Davis’ trademark “party blues,” to the one-of-a-kind one man band, Sweet Willie Tea, evoking the sound of early Blues minstrels.
And from our own area, the ever-evolving and endlessly entertaining:
Jimmy G & the Capitols’ progressive blues (with great guests like Twyla Birdsong, Kathleen Mendoza Walter and John Davidson). CABS Blues Brawl winners 2013: Kevin Nichols, singer/songwriter/guitarist, with his Blue Tuesday band. Buzz ‘n Buster–Harmonica Buzz on guitar and Buster Bradley on harmonica (just enjoy their music while you figure that out). Matchette & Frog–yet more great harmonica music (notice a pattern here?) from the talented Dave Matchette, with the irrepressible Frog of the Beeftones on guitar. And fresh from the St. Louis music and theater scenes, the heartfelt vocals of Gina Garner.
BluesFest offers some great clinics, where the musician not only plays, but also answers questions and demonstrates techniques. These include Sugar Ray, blues harmonica (the grownup kind), and Harmonica for Kids with Andy Wilson. You’ll be feelin’ it at Mike Daniels’ clinic, Bang the Drum-Blues with a feeling.
Children of all ages can explore their own musicianship in the Kidz Beat area, from 1 to 7 on Saturday, with all free activities such as: Tunes & Tales by Tricia, a harmonica class (and free ones to take home, thanks to Capital Area Blues Society), and an instrument petting zoo with woodwind and brass instruments, courtesy of MSU’s Community Music School. Thanks to Marshall Music, budding rock/blues musicians can try playing electric bass and guitar under the guidance of professional musicians. Kids will also enjoy free face painting and art projects.
While exploring the festival grounds, be sure to stop in at 1210 Turner and experience the newest exhibit at MICA Gallery—“Transcendence”–featuring works by acclaimed artists Kaye Krapohl and William M. Allen. Krapohl has received the Hallmark National Gold Medal, National Endowment of the Arts Award, and 2010 National Sleeping Bear Dunes Artist-in-Residence Award. Allen’s work has been displayed in over 40 institutions in Michigan, and he has pieces hosted in collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
If they haven’t already, someone could make a great blues song out of Old Town’ story, but with a happy ending. When Lansing became Michigan’s capital in the mid-1800s, it prospered in what we now call Old Town, but by the early 1980s the intersection of Turner Street and East Grand River was surrounded by a “ghost town.” People were losing interest in local downtowns across the country, and Old Town was no exception. Local artists like Terry Terry of MessageMakers and the late Robert Busby of the Creole Gallery saw potential early on, in the neighborhood’s beautiful brick buildings and location on the shores of the Grand River. In 1984 they helped found the North Lansing Art Association, which evolved into Old Town Business & Art Development Association (OTBADA), and is now the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art (MICA) – always a non-profit and volunteer driven.
They produced the first major music festival in 1994 (the forerunner of today’s BluesFest), and a year later added Lansing JazzFest. The crowds came, they liked what they saw, and they came back—for future events, but also to shop, to open businesses, to live here. Over the last three decades, Old Town has attracted the highest concentration of creative service businesses and artists in the state, and unprecedented business investment. In 2011 our vibrant community was just one of five in the United States to win a prestigious Great American Main Street Award from the National Historic Trust. So when you are here enjoying the BluesFest, celebrate the turnaround of Old Town as well, and all who helped make it happen. Then keep coming back, for all it has to offer!
By Alison Gines & Rosy Goacher
For complete information about the festival, visit www.oldtownbluesfest.com.