Summertime Blues To Play Festivals Across America

Gatherings including Sting, Robert Cray offer opportunities to enjoy soulful sounds outdoors.

From the Eastern shores to the San Francisco Bay, blues lovers across the United States have a hot summer in store.

A wide range of blues artists — from octogenarian David "Honeyboy" Edwards to 14-year-old Shannon Curfman — will be hitting the festival circuit in locales ranging from such cities as Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., to Helena, Ark., and Winthrop, Wash.

(Click herefor dates, locations and rosters of selected summer festivals.)

East Coast blues lovers can help kick off the season with James Brown, Ruth Brown, Robert Cray, Otis Rush, Roomful of Blues, Bernard Allison, John Hammond and Debbie Davies at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, May 20–21 in Annapolis, Md.

Simultaneously, on the West Coast, the Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point, Calif., will feature Koko Taylor, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones.

The festival season moves south, and into high gear, with the W.C. Handy Awards and Festival from May 25–27 in Memphis, Tenn.

There used to be a saying that you could dial any Memphis phone number and find a blues musician at the other end of the line. That may be an exaggeration, but it's a lengthy list of luminaries that'll be on hand for the Handy event, which has become known as the blues version of the Grammys. Rufus Thomas and Tracy Nelson will host a star-studded award presentation featuring music by Odetta, Henry Butler and Gov't Mule with special guests Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets featuring Sam Myers.

There also will be a one-of-a-kind awards-night jam by the Handy All-Star Band, which comprises the winners in each individual instrumentalist category. The awards show will be held in the Orpheum Theatre, but nearby Beale Street clubs will be hopping with the sound of all kinds of blues, soul and R&B through the weekend. Smokin' Joe Kubek, Candye Kane, Michelle Wilson and the Evil Gal Festival Orchestra and Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers are just a few of the many scheduled to appear.

"This year's event will be a unique celebration in music, of where blues has been and where it's headed," said Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation, the non-profit organization that produces the event. Parts of the festival also will be cybercast on www.handyawards.com.

The following weekend is the Denver Blues & Bones Festival, which features a barbecue championship cookoff accompanied by music from R.L. Burnside, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Chris Smither, Tad Benoit and others.

Learn To Play In Chicago, N.Y., West Virginia

Six stages full of blues and free admission are the lures at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park in early June. "Celebrate the Heritage & Tradition of Blues Music" is the theme of this year's festival, which is dedicated to the centennials of Tampa Red and Pink Anderson.

In addition, there will be performances in honor of the 90th birthday anniversary of the legendary Howlin' Wolf. Other highlights of the Chicago fest include Blues in the Schools (June 8), a "Sweet Home Chicago" songwriters' seminar (June 9) and a Record Row Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (June 11). Among the many performers are Little Milton with Koko Taylor, David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Deborah Coleman.

For a more academic look at the blues, players and listeners alike can check out the International Guitar Seminars Acoustic Blues and Slide Guitar Workshop, June 12–17 at Columbia University in New York. Teachers will include Woody Mann, Bob Brozman, John Cephas and Orville Johnson. There's a West Coast edition scheduled for Aug. 19–25 at UC Santa Cruz in California.

Booker T. & the MG's, Angela Strehli and Tracy Nelson headline the San Diego Blues Festival along with local favorites including Len Rainey and the Midnight Players, Chill Boy and the Firebirds and Steve White. These acts hit the stages in Embarcadero Park on June 10.

Virginia's prestigious Wolf Trap's Jazz and Blues Festival is on tap for June 21–25. Headliners will include Dr. John, Wilson Pickett, Seals, Susan Tedeschi, Odetta, Kenny Neal and the Neal Family, Mem Shannon and the Membership and Chris Thomas King.

Starting June 30 and continuing through Independence Day, Portland, Ore.'s Waterfront Blues Festival brings Dr. John, Kelly Joe Phelps, Long John Baldry, Jonny Lang, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Curfman to the banks of the Willamette River. The Rolling Fork Review, featuring Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Carey Bell and Big Bill Morganfield, also is scheduled.

From July 5–9, the Ottawa Citizen BluesFest finds Sting trying his hand at the blues along with Taj Mahal,Al Green and Keb' Mo'.

For those who'd like to learn and play the blues themselves, Augusta Heritage Center presents its annual Blues Week on the campus of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., from July 16–21. Teachers at the event's classes, seminars and performance opportunities will include Cephas, Paul Geremia, Mary Flower, Sparky Rucker, Phil Wiggins and Gaye Adegbalola.

Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers highlight the bill at the free Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Festival In Sioux Falls, S.D., on July 14–15. That weekend, in the shadows of the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Mountains, the Wintrop Rhythm & Blues Festival offers Etta James, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Joe Louis Walker, C.J. Chenier and others.

Legendary Kansas City, Mo., ivory-tickler Jay McShann is one of more than 40 acts expected to draw in excess of 50,000 fans to the massive late-July blues fest in Kansas City. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Canned Heat, Milton, Hubert Sumlin with Little Hatch, Marcia Ball, Roy Rogers with Shana Morrison and Claude "Fiddler" Williams also are scheduled for the festival's three stages.

The One That Got It Started

The longest running blues festival in the country — the San Francisco Blues Festival — is celebrating its 27th year on Sept. 23–24. Founder Tom Mazzolini notes the proliferation of blues festivals since he first struggled to make his work in the early '70s. "Now, everybody is doing them," Mazzolini told the magazine Blues Revue. "The challenge is to try to keep it fresh and unique and visionary."

This year he plans to do that by whetting fans' appetites with a free show by the Clarksdale Mississippi Revue with Super Chikan, Sam Carr and Robert Bilbo Walker on Sept. 22. Among the artists scheduled for the San Francisco gathering are Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine, Keb' Mo', rockabilly queen Rosie Flores, the Johnny Otis Show, young singer Shemekia Copeland (daughter of the late Johnny Copeland), Joe Louis Walker and the New Blues All-Stars — featuring Alvin Youngblood Hart — and Elvin Bishop with special guest and mentor Little Smokey Smothers.

Called the sweetest of blues fests, the King Biscuit Blues Festival caps a summer of blues Oct. 5–7 in Helena, Ark., the town that gave the world Sonny Boy Williamson and Lockwood. Four stages along the Mississippi River levee will showcase headliners of the caliber of Milton and Seals, standouts from last year's event. This year's lineup is yet to be announced, but information will be posted on www.kingbiscuitfest.org.

A good source of information about these and other blues festivals scheduled in the United States and internationally is www.bluesaccess.com/festival.html.