Sunday, September 01, 2013

Why I Was Elsewhere Yesterday

Bobby Parker was one of the highlights of the 1st DC Blues Festival.  If you are going to celebrate a 25th Festival you could have brought back some of the local legends still with us.
As a Duke Ellington composition puts it, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” Looking back 24 years ago around this time I remember meetings that Michael Roach, Eleanor Ellis and I had at a District of Columbia recreation center  near Dupont Circle. The DC Blues Society held instrumental workshops at that recreation center where the likes of Neil Harpe and Michael Roach (then the Society’s President) would teach guitar and Charlie Sayles teach blues harmonica. I would conduct listening sessions of recordings from different blues traditions there as well. That afternoon, Mike mentioned that there was interest on some folks in having events East of the Anacostia River, and one such event turned into the first DC Blues Festival.

A few months later in late August 1989 (I believe two Saturdays prior to Labor Day weekend) the Society produced the DC Blues Festival in Anacostia Park. A couple hundred people showed up on that overcast day and I remember that Guest Services provided only one food truck (which ran out of food except ice cream), so I was hungry. I also remember was the outstanding music that day. The festival opened with Flora Molton joined by Eleanor Ellis opening with her truth music. Other acts that day included Franklin, Harpe & Usilton joined by Phil Wiggins; Archie Edwards; Ben Andrews; Bobby Parker; Nap Turner; the Uptown Rhythm Kings; and Jesse James & the Raiders. Charlie Sayles and His Blues Disciples (which also included Larry Wise) may also have performed. Also Mike Roach brought on the finger style guitar master, Duck Baker, who did a couple of wonderful numbers. 
Eleanor Ellis was among those who founded the DC Blues Society and helped produce the 1st DC Blues Festival. At the first festival she performed with Flora Molton. She is one of the finest acoustic blues practitioners alive. If she was at the Blues Festival, she would have been with the Archie Edwards Ensemble. She should have been on the main stage
In the intervening years a number of the performers, Flora Molton, Archie Edwards, Ben Andrews, Nap Turner and Jesse James (Johnson) passed on while the Uptown Rhythm Kings broke up. It should be noted that a number of the performers, Franklin, Harpe and Usilton, Daryl Davis, Bobby Parker and Charlie Sayles are still with us. Also with us are Eleanor Ellis who played with Flora Molton as well as Phil Wiggins, who sat in with Franklin, Harpe & Usilton. 

The next year, the Festival moved to Langdon Park in NE Washington where it was for three years and in 1993 the Festival moved to the Carter Barron where for the first few years it took place on the Saturday after Labor Day. What a line-up we had back then. It was the first time that we had Saffire-the Uppity Blues Women, along with Willie Kent and the Gents, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s pianist); The Nighthawks, Jesse Yawn & the Soul Providers; The Whop Frazier Band; Mixed Blend with Bernée Colbert (and David Cole on guitar) and Eric Butz and Friends opened it. The mix of National acts and touring acts was quite something and acoustic blues was an integral part of the Festival.

Two years later on September 9, 1995, Bobby Parker headlined a festival line-up that also included Daryl Davis; the wonderful Mississippi Heat; Larry Wise; Delta blues man John Weston; West Virginia traditional bluesman Nat Reese and the trio of Franklin, Harpe and Usilton. Again I note the mix of acoustic and electric blues at the festival as well as an outstanding mix of local and national acts on the main stage.
Phil Wiggins and the Chesapeake Sheiks is a marvelous new group featuring one of the DC Blues Society's founders. 
Which brings me to this year’s DC Blues Festival, the 25th and the 21st at the Carter Barron. One would think the festival would be a celebration of the Society and its heritage and that at least one or two of the performers from the first few festivals might have been included in the line-up on the main stage. I will let you go to the DC Blues Society’s website to view the line-up for this year's festival. In my humble opinion a line-up that included Franklin, Harpe & Usilton (and friends); Charlie Sayles, Daryl Davis and/or Bobby Parker would be at least as entertaining (if not more so) than the scheduled line-up. You could have celebrated Bobby's Birthday. I would not be as negative about this line-up if this wasn’t the 25th Festival and the line-up indicated some awareness of the Society and Festival's history. The Archie Edwards Barbershop Jambassadors (who usually include Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin) should have been on the main stage, not outside the main gate of the Carter Barron. Phil Wiggins could have been featured with his marvelous new ensemble the Chesapeake Sheiks. Even if just one or two of these performers had been part of the main stage, it would made things better.  All I know is that the DC Blues Festival ain’t what it used to be.

I should note that no one from the DC Blues Society came to me asking for suggestions for this year’s festival (or my reaction). If they are unhappy with my criticisms and believe they had an outstanding line-up, that is fine. Its free and I am sure those who attended enjoyed themselves But it could have been better. I was elsewhere.

The photos in today's blog entry are © Ron Weinstock


Geoff said...


First let me thank you for having the courage to share your observations with the entire DC music community. Your comments are spot on and hopefully will inspire further dialogue on this topic in the days ahead.

Cheryl Usry said...

For the DCBS (or any similar organization) to thrive, they must 1) introduce new listeners to the blues; 2) entice younger adults to attend the festival, “experience” the music and understand how the blues relates to their world 3) educate middle and high school musicians and 4) help us older listeners appreciate today's blues artists and ever-changing music.
With those goals in mind, Saturday's festival line-up was brilliant. The audience included a remarkable # of 20-somethings, Asian families with young children and teenagers wearing Hjab head coverings. There were several standing ovations and the dance floor was crowded.
It is my understanding the DC Blues Society has a limited amount of $$ and not enough volunteers. Do they use the festival as their major/only "welcome uninitiated - hey listen to these blues-the music is incredible and relevant" event? Please correct me if I'm wrong (my children certainly do :)
It would have been lovely to have a tribute event if volunteers/funds were available. I'd be delighted to attend a festival w/just Phil Wiggins on stage (of course he could bring Ian, Matt and company.) Unfortunately, this type of “preaching to the choir” festival wouldn’t tempt many newcomers to the blues.

Ron W said...

Cheryl, the line-up was not brilliant. This was the 25th FREE festival so that folks expect this event, it likely received considerable publicity as the 25th Festival. I am certain there were enjoyable performances, but it was amongst the weakest line-ups in the Festival's history and it ignored the Society and Festival's history. A line-up celebrating some of DC's blues legends would have been at least a brilliant.

BTW, I wonder whether this was your first festival, because your description of the audience also describes the audience for every DC Blues Festival I attended over the past twenty years.

Cheryl Usry said...

No, this was my 7th (maybe 8th) festival. In my admittedly fading memory, the attendees @ these events were 50/55% grey-haired white folks; we must have been sitting in different sections. This year's festival audience certainly seemed to have a larger,more diversified group of blues newbies. I am a member of the DCBS, but I don't follow the local politics. I do attend their blues in the schools events. I try to see local blues artists on occasion, though I'm clearly not aware of these folks' professional histories musicians history

Ron W said...

Well, given I would be with a camera and always wandering up and down the amphitheater and also where the workshops, I always noted a great diversity in the audience with always a lot of young college age folks amongst the crowd. Given the Society cannot actually accept memberships (or even solicit such) at the Carter Barron, it is hard to gauge motivation of folk.

I want to reemphasize that the tenor of my post was based on the 25th Festival and reflects my disappointment in the line-up, particularly in light of that fact. I should note that my wife was quite happy because we got to take a vacation which ordinarily we would not do because of the Festival.