Can St. Louis support a roots-music event on the scale of New Orleans' famed Jazz & Heritage Festival? Mike Kociela intends to find out.
Kociela is the head of Entertainment St. Louis, the producer of this weekend's Bluesweek Festival, and he says the dramatic expansion of Bluesweek performances in 2012 isn't without inspiration. "We want to keep growing this, and quite honestly, we're semi-patterning it after Jazz Fest," says Kociela. While visiting the Crescent City during Jazz Fest, Kociela said he and other Bluesweek organizers "took a look at how the whole community was celebrating their culture and heritage. In St. Louis we have the same deep history in blues music, and from there, we set out to do this."
Starting at 5:30 p.m. this Friday and continuing through Sunday night, the 2012 Bluesweek Festival will present more than 40 performances, free and open to the public, on three stages around Soldiers Memorial at 1315 Chestnut Street downtown. That's a big increase from last year's event, which took place over Labor Day weekend and featured fifteen bands on a single stage in front of the Peabody Opera House.
The move from fall to spring came about when the Rib America Festival, which had used the Soldiers Memorial on Memorial Day weekends in recent years, did not return for 2012. "That's a weekend that we think is really strong in St. Louis," explains Kociela. "It's a high-profile location on a very high-profile holiday weekend."
The Bluesweek Festival's new location also means there's a lot more space to accommodate a bigger audience, and it also allows room for various ancillary events and sponsor activities that just wouldn't fit on Market Street. He estimates the maximum capacity of the old festival site near the Peabody was 8,000 to 9,000. In contrast, the area around Soldiers Memorial can hold from 15,000 to 20,000 people at a time, depending on how it's configured.
Another change for 2012 is that Bluesweek will feature a number of touring headliners along with St. Louis bands and musicians. Friday's biggest name is singer Shemekia Copeland. She got her start doing cameos with her late father, famed guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland, and is now a formidable headliner who, in the estimation of many fans and critics, has succeeded the late Koko Taylor as "Queen of the Blues."
The festival on Friday also will feature a tribute to the late singer–guitarist Michael Burks. He lived in Arkansas but developed a big fan base here through many in-town performances over the last fifteen years. Burks had been scheduled to appear at Bluesweek, but he died suddenly on May 6, collapsing in the Atlanta airport after returning from a tour overseas.
Instead, St. Louis’ Marquise Knox will front an all-star band in tribute. Knox was a friend and protégé of Burks and had been scheduled to appear with him.
Local acts set to play on Friday include the St. Louis Guitar Slingers featuring Steve Pecaro, Jimmy Lee Kennett and Michael Thomas; guitarist and singer Tom Hall; and Boss Hall, featuring Margaret Bianchetta and John Bridenbach.
Saturday will feature three visiting performers with a Mississippi connection: soul-blues singer Bobby Rush; the Cedric Burnside Project, from the drummer-guitarist and grandson of blues legend R.L. Burnside; and singer-guitarist Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, who has made several recordings for the St. Louis-based label Broke & Hungry Records.
Also on tap for Saturday are Chicago's Nick Moss; Champaign, Illinois' Sugar Prophets; and St. Louis acts including the Jim Stevens Group; Roland Johnson and the Voodoo Blues Band; St. Louis Social Club; Marsha Evans and the Coalition; Matt Hill & Deep Fried Blues featuring Miss Jubilee, Nikki Hill and Honey Lee Brown; Brian Curran; Dave Black; Leroy Pierson; Renee Smith; Jeremiah Johnson with the Sliders; and Curt Landes.
Sunday's touring attractions include regional favorites the Bel Airs from Columbia, who will do a set with New York-born singer Tad Robinson; pianist and singer Kelley Hunt from Kansas City; Clarksdale, Mississippi's James "Super Chikan" Johnson, a singer and guitarist; and Chicago guitarist Chainsaw Dupont, who will team up with St. Louis' Boo Boo Davis and Arthur Williams for the closing set of the weekend.
Other St. Louis bands and musicians playing on Sunday will include Big George Brock; the Ground Floor Band; Skeet Rodgers; Billy Peek; Soulard Blues Band; Bottoms Up Blues Gang; Rough Grooves; James Matthews; the Fabulous Foehners; Joe Pastor; R. Scott Bryan; Silvercloud and Ron Edwards; and Sandy Weltman and Hot Club Caravan.
The concerts are the culmination of a week of activities that included a pub crawl through Soulard last Saturday night; a blues brunch on Sunday at the Great Grizzly Bear; and a harmonica workshop on Wednesday at Blues City Deli.
On Thursday, May 24, the third annual Bluesweek Awards ceremonies will get under way at 7:30 p.m. at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups. The event will include music from harmonica player Annie Raines and Rich McDonough and Rough Grooves, as well as the presentation of awards in categories including "Blues Advocate," "Blues Artist of the Year," "Rising Star" and "Best Recording of the Year." In addition, pianist/vocalist Roosevelt Sykes and drummer and singer Billy Gayles will be honored posthumously with awards for lifetime achievement.
Status Update: National Blues Museum
Besides his work on Bluesweek, Mike Kociela also is one of the people behind the effort to open the National Blues Museum, which would occupy space in the redeveloped Laurel building on Washington Avenue downtown.
According to the museum’s website, the proposed facility would include “25,000 square feet of programming space, a 100-seat theater as well as technology and artifact-driven exhibits” dedicated to the history of blues music in general, as well to St. Louis blues history specifically.
With the blues in the news this week, the museum’s board chairman Rob Endicott, an attorney with Bryan Cave as well as the trumpet player for the Voodoo Blues Band, provided an update on the project’s status.
“Right now, we continue to remain in the planning phase for the build-out,” Endicott says. “One of the premier exhibit designers in the U.S. [Gallagher & Associates, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Singapore] has done some work for us, to help us figure out how we’d bring the space to life from a curatorial standpoint.”
Endicott says the museum organizers also have received considerable help in developing a preliminary curatorial plan from Bob Santelli, who currently heads the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and previously worked with both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
While the NBM has been approved officially as a not-for-profit organization for tax purposes, the budget for building the museum and the plan to raise the money are both still being developed, Endicott says. Organizers are “working quietly behind the scenes to gather our donor base,” talking with foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals who might be persuaded to back the effort. Ideally, the museum would be able to secure some major gifts before launching a fundraising drive aimed at the general public. Later this year they hope to have a timetable set for the museum’s opening.
In the meantime, he says the museum plans to stay involved with “some targeted things in the community,” such as sponsoring ten local high school juniors and seniors on a trip to the White House in Feburary. There, they attended an educational program celebrating blues music hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. Endicott says the museum will have an information booth at the Bluesweek Festival and will continue to “look for opportunities to further the mission and get the word out that we’re doing this thing.”