The Lowertown Blues Festival

 - Review/ Photos: Bart Morris; published in August 2014 Blue Monday Monthly

Some Blues fans spend thousands of dollars and travel perhaps a thousand miles or more, just to get on an enormous boat full of fellow Blues fans for a week of non-stop Blues indulgence. For most of us, the Legendary Blues Cruise is a "bucket list" item. Instead, we spend hundreds of dollars and travel perhaps a hundred miles or more by land to attend a Blues Festival and indulge ourselves for a weekend. On Saturday, July 26th, I could have made my way to The 1st Annual Lowertown Blues Festival at Mears Park in St. Paul via Metro Transit bus and the new Green Line Light Rail for about $3.00. Beat that! Alas, the idea of traveling to a "1st Annual" event, at an unknown venue, via public transportation that's still working out the bugs seemed like a recipe for unnecessary stress. Maybe for the 2nd Annual....

    Naming a Festival "The 1st Annual..." exudes an air of confidence on the part of the organizers. In the case of The 1st Annual Lowertown Blues Festival, that confidence was based on history rather than hope. This inaugural event was a collaboration between the Minnesota Blues Society and the Lowertown Blues Festival Committee, with support from the city of St. Paul. Festival producer Steve Heckler also runs the annual Lowertown Jazz Festival and other summer shows at Mears Park and is the founder of the late Famous Dave's Blues Festival, which had a 9 year run at Peavy Plaza in Minneapolis. The loss of the venue and the loss of the main sponsor brought an end to that Festival. Minneapolis' loss became St Paul's gain. In February, Steve contacted the Blues Society to gauge their interest in being the main sponsor. A Grant application was submitted to the St. Paul Cultural STAR Program, which promotes economic growth by strengthening the Arts and Cultural sector, and the ball was rolling.

    With such positive history behind it, the 1st Annual Lowertown Blues Festival proved to be a rousing success, with attendance exceeding all expectations. I heard the number 10,000 thrown out, but who knows? Not everyone stayed from beginning to end, but my guess would be that there were at least 2,000 Blues fans in the park at any given moment. And we all paid the same admission fee: $0.00! The Blues Society benefited in many ways, from new memberships that increased the ranks to over 500, to the sale of every single commemorative t-shirt, to the "passing of the hat" for donations. The Sponsor/Vendors also benefited greatly, trying to keep up with the demand for food and beverage.

     The music, of course, is what brought all those people to Mears Park. And Grant money can bring in some pretty awesome talent, starting with Blind Pig recording artist Sena Ehrhardt and her new band. Along with her standards, she mixed in some new material from an upcoming CD due out September 2nd. Sena was followed by Minnesota legends The Lamont Cranston Band and their many followers. The stage front was packed 5 deep, all anxiously awaiting "Upper Mississippi Shakedown". Of course, they weren't disappointed. That crowd seemed to move on, replaced by fans of one of the most entertaining and talented performers on the Blues circuit, Hamilton Loomis. The only glitch of the day occurred during another anxiously awaited number, "Bow Wow", as Hamilton lost amp power. After a quick scramble for an alternate source, he was off the stage and into the audience for his customary stroll. After a brief appearance by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (wearing the obligatory Blues hat), the New Queen of the Blues took the stage. And closer Shemekia Copeland proceeded to take the hearts of everyone within earshot. Not only can she hold her own vocally with anyone, she can rival the King of the Blues with her storytelling. She's just not as long winded as BB! 

    The 2nd Annual Lowertown Blues Festival is already in the works, again to be sponsored by the Minnesota Blues Society. With the 2014 version as historical reference, it should be even better. I'll be there. Just give me the date, because I know the line-up will be killer!

Photos by Jake Jacobson @ www.mnbs.org
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