Cover Story: Woke Up This Morning with Sawyer Point on My Mind

Cincy Blues Fest hits lucky 13 and gears up for the biggest event in its history

Lucky 13

Anyone who listens to the Blues, anyone who plays the Blues and everyone who loves the Blues will tell you it's more than a mere genre of music. It's a feeling that emanates from deep within the soul of one human being and is planted deep in the soul of another. It's a state of mind that encompasses the full range of human emotion — the joy of still standing after the daily battle to simply survive, the despair of losing in life or in love, the resolve to stay focused on a better tomorrow or, failing that, a better day after tomorrow.

The Blues teaches you that you should always allow at least one day for mourning, for grieving, for chasing away the sorrow with a friend or a bottle — and accepting the truth that sometimes they're the same thing.

The Blues were born one day, somewhere in the mist of time and trouble, a day that seemed like it would never end. The Blues were born in a time of oppression, when field songs of the shackled allowed captive hearts to dream of freedom while giving voice to the misery of their bondage, when folk tales of generations before became inspirational odes for generations to come.

As a musical form, the Blues is the root for nearly everything that's come after, and nearly every other style of American musical expression owes some facet of its existence to the Blues — from Country to Jazz to Rock to Swing to Rap to Soul. All of them have benefited from the ache, the comfort, the exultation and the devastation of the Blues.

For all that the Blues has given to every one of us, it's only fitting that we should celebrate that gift in a tangible way. And that's what drives the Cincy Blues Fest year after year.

When the festival — coordinated by the then three-year-old Cincy Blues Society and originally billed as the Queen City Blues Fest — debuted 13 years ago, it was a typically small affair for a fledgling event, held within the storied walls of Music Hall. The show was presented in the Ballroom in a single day, featured Blues legend James Cotton and drew about 1,000 fans who paid $15 each to attend.

And when the first Queen City Blues Fest was in the books and the all-volunteer army that helped mount the event had returned to their daily routines, Jeff Craven knew that the event's future monetary success would not necessarily translate to the Blues Society's stated goals. With just a single festival under his belt, Craven saw the need for a change.

"Being the proselytizers that we are, the mission of the Society is to preserve and promote the Blues as a musical artform, so we wanted to try and bring it to more than just the choir," says Craven, the 2005 event's co-director. "We wanted to take it to a venue where we could expose it to more than just the same old people you see out at the bars every month listening to these bands. We wanted to expose it to a much broader audience. So with an affiliation with two community councils, Columbia-Tusculum and East End, we were able to secure the Sawyer Point facility for our first outdoor festival in '94. We've been at Sawyer Point ever since."

'We take care of them'
In the decade since those initial festivals, the Blues Fest has evolved from a quaint niche-marketed concert into a widely acclaimed and highly anticipated annual two-day affair. The festival's physical growth has been equally impressive, as it shifted from a one-day/one-stage concert to a two-day/two-stage event to its current two-day/three-stage format, which began in 2002 with the addition of the Gospel stage to the Main Stage and Arches Acoustic Stage setup.

For the first 10 years of the Blues Fest's history, the event was free, but the economic reality of the situation caught up with the organizers two years ago. The Society realized that sponsorship wasn't keeping pace with the bills and grudgingly accepted the fact that patrons were going to have to toss a little something in the instrument case if the event were to survive.

"The city doesn't give you anything for free, and the bands don't play for free, and the beer doesn't come for free, and the sound and lights aren't gratis — so the expenses have gradually crept up over the years," Craven notes. "After soul searching and philosophical debate within the organization, we instituted an admission fee that's imminently affordable."

That's a grand understatement. The $5-per-day ticket price is negligible, considering the entertainment is spread over two days and includes 40 bands on three stages. As Craven notes, the caliber of entertainment appearing at the Blues Fest would warrant a $15-$20 cover charge per act in most nightclubs, ultimately giving Blues Fest patrons what he calls "the best entertainment bang for the buck here in the city in the summer, and we're proud of that."

Perhaps the biggest reason for the low ticket price is the fact that the Blues Fest is organized each year by an all-volunteer staff of about 20 individuals who take care of every facet of the festival's production, from soliciting corporate sponsorship and booking talent to coordinating volunteers for the actual event and the technical elements of assembling an outdoor concert (hospitality, food vendors, sound and lights, parking and a host of other details).

"If we tried to outsource all this, it would probably be $40,000-$50,000 worth of extra expenses," Craven says. "It's been on-the-job training and a gradual learning process for all of us, but we're passionate about what we do."

Above all else, the one quality that's defined the Blues Fest from its beginnings to the present configuration is professionalism. The Cincy Blues Fest has a reputation within the broader Blues community for being one of the better organized and operated festivals. That reputation draws plenty of patrons to the fest but, just as importantly, also piques the interest of a tremendous number of artists who want to be a part of the Cincy experience.

"My experience with the musicians has always been very positive," says festival co-director Barry Gee. "Blues musicians in particular are elated when you're out there to meet them and pick up their equipment and take care of them. They're very appreciative of a festival like ours, and I think we have a very good reputation out there in the industry for taking care of them and trying to make it a good experience. A lot of these guys get booked, and they have to park out in a field and carry their equipment to the stage. We meet them in golf carts and take them to hospitality. We take care of them."

'People come to hear the Blues'
From the very start, the other watchword for the Blues Fest has been diversity, from national treasures like Luther Allison to local legends like Big Joe Duskin. Even when the Fest was a single-stage event, the Society worked diligently to bring the widest possible range of Blues music to the city. That range is exemplified this year by veteran Blues/Soul chanteuse Dietra Farr and fresh-faced juke joint Blues guitarist Daniel "Slick" Ballinger.

This will mark Farr's second Blues Fest; she played at one of the early Fests with her band from the '90s, Mississippi Heat. She remembers well the hospitality of the staff — she'd brought her young son, who wound up spending the night at one of the organizer's homes playing with her grandson — and the warmth of the crowd.

"There's a picture on the Internet of me holding somebody's baby onstage at that show," Farr says. "I don't know how he got up there, but I'm notorious for holding people's babies. He's probably a big boy now."

This year is important for Farr's fans because it signals her renewed touring in the U.S. For the past several years, she's concentrated on touring Europe almost exclusively, but her new booking agent has convinced her to do more roadwork closer to home, and the Cincy Blues Fest is one of her first stops. Her set will consist of material from her 1997 debut solo album, The Search Is Over, as well as new songs from her just released disc, Let It Go, featuring her soulful vocals, full band and righteous horn section.

"I do Dietra Farr all the time," Farr says of her set. "Some friends of mine do corporate parties and weddings and they say, 'Dietra, you should do those, they pay good money.' But you can't be who you are. I have to do my show, or I'm not gonna be happy. I can't stand up there and do 'Mustang Sally' or 'Respect' or 'Sweet Home Chicago.' Nobody needs to hear the same stuff all the time. I enjoy doing my songs."

At the other end of the spectrum is Slick Ballinger, a 20-year-old white North Carolinian who sings and plays Mississippi Blues with the ancient soul and conviction of masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and R.L. Burnside. Not only will this be Ballinger's first Blues Fest, it'll be his first visit to the state of Ohio. He's greatly anticipating his Blues Fest experience, which will include songs from his forthcoming album on John Prine's Oh Boy Records, due out after the first of the year.

"I've heard about the festival in Cincinnati," Ballinger says in his irrepressible down-home, Deep South accent. "I didn't know too much about it, but the more you can do, the better. I've heard about it from friends who'd played it before. The thing that's great about Blues festivals is people come to hear the Blues. And that's what we want to bring 'em, some real, sho-nuff, deep down Blues. That's the best thing, because people are very attentive. People come to Blues festivals to listen to the Blues and have a good time, and that's what we came to do, too."

'A complete absence of tension'
Perhaps the most important function the Blues Fest accomplishes each year is to refill the coffers that make the Blues in the Schools program a possibility. Blues in the Schools is an outreach program that was started by the Blues Society in the mid-'90s as a way to inform school age children about the joys of Blues music, not only teaching them how to play the Blues but giving them a solid understanding of the history of the genre as well.

"It's an attempt to make up for the cuts in cultural and artistic curricula that have taken place over the last decade or so," Craven says of Blues in the Schools. "Schools just don't have the money to do this anymore, so we've stepped up to the plate. The program stipends artists to go into music classes or an assembly format where they will give a demonstration, do a little Q&A and then a brief didactic portion explaining what this music is, where it came from and what it's given rise to in the 20th century.

"That's our chance to influence kids so that they get an accurate view of Blues as opposed to a jaundiced view, which is unfortunately held by many adults, that it's sad music and all about drinking and losing things and everybody dies. That may have formed the stimulus for creation of the music but, in fact, the music is more about the soul's ability to heal itself through music than it is about the sorrow that's an inevitable part of life."

This year is something of a turning point for the Blues Fest; Craven has served as director since its inception in 1992, but now he's sharing the leadership with longtime staff volunteer Gee in anticipation of Craven stepping away from the position next year and Gee taking the reins for the 2006 event.

"It's not good for any event or any individual to keep that kind of affiliation cemented too long, because we all need to grow," Craven says. "Fortunately, Barry has proved to be an able successor and has the patience, the diplomacy, the talent and the energy to step into the shoes and lead the charge."

Craven will continue to serve the Blues Fest in the area of drumming up grants and sponsorships and will, of course, remain active in all other Blues Society business.

Like Craven, Gee is committed to spreading the gospel of the Blues through the auspices of the Cincy Blues Fest. Although he still has many months to go before his sole directorship takes effect, he already has a lot of specific goals for the Blues Fest and for the Society.

"I think our reputation with the city and the sponsors has grown and solidified," Gee says. "We're expanding our footprint at the park to include the Schott Amphitheater for the Gospel Stage, and I think we've expanded the talent every year and will continue to do that. We'd like to see Blues in the Schools expand and get into more schools and give more lessons.

"But we like the fact that we're not too big. I don't know if we ever want to get into where we're the same size as, say, a Tall Stacks. We like the fact that we're in Sawyer Point, and we like the space. And we're trying to appeal to a much wider range than is classically associated with the Blues."

When outgoing director Craven ponders what he likes best about the Blues Fest weekend, his response reflects the Herculean efforts that must be expended to pull everything together to make the event work and the relief that comes with the completion of a job well done once again: "I like Sunday afternoon, when I'm at the pool."

But his real answer to his favorite aspect of the Blues Fest is not just an event director's pride in his accomplishment. It's the hope that the goodwill and sense of connection generated by two days of music can somehow translate to the larger community and break down barriers that have needlessly separated this city for far too long.

"Really, the best part about the festival is seeing the fans there enjoying it and seeing the cross section of families parked on the lawn," Craven says. "It's seeing the cultural interchange. Seeing a white family at the Gospel Stage or a black family at the Main Stage, both enjoying the same music, appreciating one another and doing it with a complete absence of tension."

Like John Lee Hooker said, music is a healer.

THE CINCY BLUES FEST ( is Friday and Saturday at Sawyer Point. Find the official event program inside of this issue.