Friday, September 04, 2009

A Blues Festival Without Real Blues

I just received the latest Blues Rag, the Baltimore Blues Society's newsletter, and there was a discussion of some recent blues and other festivals by (I presume its President) Bob Sekinger. There was some discussion of the fact that it was a sellout but that some rumblings that it lacked enough 'real blues,' and some usual suspects were missing. The line-up included Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa and a local band Old Man Brown, all of which had blues elements in their music. Then came the statement "HAB has been billed as a 'roots' festival the last few years and I believe that's the way to go to attract a larger audience. The proliferation of blues only fests the last 15 years has been great in the short term sense for both the acts and the afficondos, but I don't think it does much to expand the blues audience. I loves me a good blues festival, but would love to see more music festivals where blues is included." He then goes into a discussion of some festivals of the Woodstock era that included some blues and how such festivals (Texas International Pop Festival) turned folks on to some blues acts that was booked.

I should mention that I was one of the usual suspects that were missing. My issue is not lack of enough 'real blues,' but the lack of any blues. Rock guitar heroes like Bonamassa may be involved in blues education (but to what extent would he discuss the cultural aspects of blues and not simply evolution of blues music devoid of its cultural context), and Derek Trucks is a brilliant genre-spanning performer, but how does it help spread the blues when an event, even if it is a roots festival, called Hot August Blues does not present any blues performers. Bob mentions that at the Texas International Pop Festival some who went to see Grand Funk Railroad or ZZ Top, got blown away by B.B. King, James Cotton and Freddie King. The problem with Bob's argument when considering this year's Hot August Blues, was there was no Jimmy Johnson, Long John Hunter, Lazy Lester, Lady Bianca, Sista Monica, Eddie C. Campbell or any of numerous others that could have been listed to blow away those coming to see Bonamassa or Trucks.

Blues acts also rarely get booked at pop festivals. Certainly, Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa get booked by far more blues festivals than pop festivals book a Jimmy Johnson or Long John Hunter. Furthermore, blues festivals not only present blues music but is a source of generally good paying gigs for a number of performers who certainly can use the gig. I have no problem with certain 'rock' acts, whose music is heavily rooted in the blues playing blues festivals as it may enable some acts to indeed be exposed to a wider audience, but to the extent such festivals end up limiting the bookings available to blues performers, then it is a double edged sword.

One final point. One should not assume that many who go to a pop or other festival to hear a mega-star will be wowed by the blues performer. In fact, the reverse may happen. Brett Littlehales, a fine DC area harp player and singer, noted that Hammond Scott, by having Dr. John's set immediately precede Bon Jovi at this year's New Orleans JazzFest, managed to get Dr. John booed in his hometown. Those Bon Jovi fans illustrate the principal that one should never underestimate the musical intelligence of the average pop music lover.

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