21st Annual Blues and Jazz Fest

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013 at 7:00 AM
21st Annual Blues and Jazz Fest by Cory Vaillancourt

She lazes all winter.

She smells the peppery smoke from chimneys unseen, while weathering wave after wave of arctic air. She listens to the hushed roar of heavy snowfall, and eagerly eyes the seemingly perpetual deck of noctilucence.

You see, she – that vivacious vital vibrating vivid vixen we call Erie – she knows all too well the fleeting nature of our short summer sabbatical from the savagery of the salty season. But she has a sixth sense for summer, so when she smells the sickly sour-sweet stink of grass in the air, and hears the faint opening strains of jangly quarter notes dancing over the water, she adorns herself with naught but a wet warm blanket of tropical temperatures, and ventures forth to stare at the edge of the unending azure sky.

Because when the big grey finally segues to the big blue, she doesn’t waste a minute of it.

She loves the Downtown Partnership’s Block Party series because she cherishes the historic charm of State Street. She dances there, as the big blue begets a padparadscha pink.

She loves the Erie Port Authority’s 8 Great Tuesdays because she adores the cozy beauty of the Bayfront. She sits there, pondering the protective peninsular paw.

She loves the UPMC Sunset Music Series because she treasures the sandy beaches of Presque Isle State Park. She wades there, in the shimmering shine of the setting sun.

And she loves the Erie Art Museum’s Blues and Jazz Festival in Frontier Park because she loves outdoor music above everything else.

Well, almost everything else.

“Erie loves this festival because it’s free,” says John Vanco, executive director of the Erie Art Museum, laughing. 

...the fest needs no fixing because it’s not broken, but any finely-tuned machine needs periodic tweaks.

“And it’s BYOB. Those are two big things, but I think they love it too because it’s always fresh, there’s always somebody they’ve never heard of before, and it’s in a beautiful setting.”

Erie Art Museum Director of Marketing and Public Relations Carolyn Eller has a slightly different – although no less valid – take on Erie’s affinity for the fest.

“It’s a great community event. People of all ages can look forward to it,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to be outside at the largest blues and jazz festival in the region.”

Eller and Vanco make a pretty good team; he brings more than 20 years of taking Erie’s musical temperature and prescribing the proper musical elixirs, and Eller – an Erie native and 2013 Erie Reader 40-under-40 alum – brings the perspective of someone who grew up attending the festival.

“I remember going to it as a little kid and just being amazed at how huge it was,” she says, like that wide-eyed child she must have been. “I never dreamed I’d one day be helping to produce it.”

Perhaps it’s stories like Eller’s that solidify the legacy of the Blues and Jazz Festival – a festival much of Erie grew up attending.

“It is family-oriented,” Vanco reminds us, citing the availability of children’s activities all day long. “We could make a lot of money, and God, I hope we never get forced into it, but if we sold beer on site, we could make a lot more money. We’ve been offered some very tempting sponsorships by beer companies, but it changes the nature of the event.”

It may be stunning to some that Vanco and the EAM would willingly turn down the opportunity to earn more money, but in a town where alcohol is often the main attraction of every event, it’s refreshing to attend something that keeps the focus where it belongs – on families listening to live music. “I think one of the reasons people love the festival is because it is the way it is,” he said.

And so it shall be; the fest needs no fixing because it’s not broken, but any finely-tuned machine needs periodic tweaks. No, you still can’t camp out overnight unless you want to end up sleeping in the greybar hotel; nor can you cook out, lest ye accidentally unbind Prometheus; nor can you bring your pet llama del Rey. But you can bring your own beer, chairs, cooler, food, friends, tent (if you set it up after 9 a.m. and tear it down each night), or wagon, and you can look forward to a very welcome addition to lineup of vendors – hometown fave Frankie and May.

“Part of our motto is ‘Good for you, good for your community,’ and we feel that the Blues and Jazz Fest is a great opportunity for people in the community – in addition to hearing all the great music – to enjoy something that differs from traditional fare,” says Anthony Perino, general manager of Frankie and May.

Another hometown fave, Chef Marc Berarducci, - still basking in the glow of becoming a best-selling cookbook author – will do all the cooking, as if Erie needed yet another reason to love this fest.

And again this year, the Blues and Jazz fest will be as green as ever; vendors like Frankie and May must utilize recyclable or compostable utensils, and must not use foil or single-use condiment packaging. Recycling bins will be set up throughout the park, and a monitored bicycle corral leaves festivalgoers no excuse to pollute either the air, or the earth.

But pollute some cretins will, so the Erie Art Museum is always looking for volunteers to keep the park clean during the event. Likewise, this year, the bucket brigades will be out in full force, encouraging the purchase of buttons, which help defray the cost of the fun they manufacture each year. The suggested donation is just a fin, but feel free to drop a sawbuck or a Jackson.

“It’s not a fundraiser,” Eller says of the fest. “We depend on corporate sponsorships to pay for the acts, and we really don’t net anything.” But this year, in an interesting twist on the usual procedure, teams of up to 15 bucket brigaders can sign up to compete against other teams, with the victors receiving what Eller calls “a sweet, sweet prize.”

Erie loves sweet, sweet prizes. She also loves free festal fun, featuring five fine performances every two hours from noon until 8 p.m. two days in a row. And she also loves that moment – that inevitable moment – during one of the performances, probably near the end of the fest, when you can literally hear summer split open and melt, and see the season turn the corner to assess the looming glance of the big laze.



Many of those who were lucky enough to attend last year’s Erie Art Museum Blues and Jazz Festival privately worried that Erie Art Museum Executive Director John Vanco had finally set the bar too high with his willful wizardry; headliners Super Chikan, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lee Konitz, and Red Baraat managed to blow the roof off a joint that ain’t even got no roof.

I’m happy to report that such quiet fears are wholly unfounded; Vanco’s once again invoked an effulgent ensemble of talent, and summoned them to appear in that magical corner of Frontier Park. I sat with him recently, where he gave me a preview of the exquisite enchantments he’s conjured up for us in this, the 21st year of the Erie Art Museum Blues and Jazz Festival.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Noon - Susan Goodman

“I don’t remember when I started doing a family act for the opening act, but it was a long time ago,” said Vanco. “I did children’s acts for quite a few years – you know, performers who are on ‘Sesame Street’ and the like, and the only one who was really musically valid was Susan. So after all these years we get to bring her back, and I’m happy she’s still doing it.” What award-winning children’s entertainer Susan Goodman is doing is using her saxophone to make music with a message – raising awareness about social justice and bullying. Sort of like a real-life grown-up Lisa Simpson.

2 p.m. – Ron Yarosz and the Vehicle

Ron’s got an interesting quandary – as a blues harmonica virtuoso, he carries around one of the lightest instruments in existence, but as a Hammond B3 player, he’s got to lug around a 550-plus pound vintage block of wood and wire. Luckily for us, he manages both with skill and grace, backed by local well-knowns Eric Brewer, Ralph Reitinger, and Ron Sutton. “They’re really excellent,” Vanco said. “I think everybody locally knows them. They’ve done extremely well in terms of getting out into the rest of the world and performing, they’ve done well at the blues competitions, and they were a big favorite at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival last year.”

4 p.m. – The Breeze Band

This versatile, funky local ensemble comprised of veterans Barry King, Maurice Troop, Kenny Hollis, Kevin Sapper, and Rahman Hooks did such a good job opposite DJ Born at last month’s pARTy on the Patio that Vanco apparently decided to give them a spot in another choice EAM gig. “I’ve known them all in different bands for years and years,” he said. “They’re great players and have an extensive repertoire. It’s good, danceable music.”

6 p.m. Corey Harris & the Rasta Blues Experience

“Corey was here years ago,” Vanco said. “I did an exhibition of resonator instruments, and I had a whole series of performers who played resonator guitars, and he was one of them. It was the probably the late ‘90s.” Since that visit, Harris has risen to relative stardom in the blues world as the standard-bearer of the acoustic blues revival of the late ‘90s alongside performers like Keb Mo’ and Taj Mahal.  In 2003, he appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “Feel Like Going Home,” where he revisited the connection between American blues and the African folk music from which it is derived by visiting Mali and performing with local musicians. Accordingly, Harris’s stateside performances span the gaps between roots, rock, and reggae. No disrespect to Kenny Neal or anyone else on the bill this year, but Corey Harris is my personal can’t-miss pick of the day for Saturday, and not just because both of us share the same first name; also, be sure not to miss his “Meet the Artist” session at 3:30 p.m. in the gazebo near the west side of Frontier Park.

8 p.m. – Kenny Neal

This year’s blues headliner is from a famed Louisiana musical family, which says a lot. Like the Nevilles and the Cheniers, the Neals serve as both emissaries from and ambassadors to the swampy sounds of South Louisiana, and Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist Kenny Neal – son of vocalist/songwriter/harmonica player Raful Neal and sibling to eight additional musicians – is sure to serve a heapin’ helpin' thereof. “He’s a great blues player, and way underappreciated,” said Vanco. “He’s been doing it a long, long time; he plays everything, does anything, and when I mention him to a lot of people, they say ‘I don’t know who that is.’ So we’ll change that.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Noon – Parade Street Dixieland Jazz Band

Earlybirds – meaning anyone in Erie who actually shows up to anything on time – will get classic jazz instead of a worm on Sunday. “They haven’t played at the festival before, and I do tend to put more traditional stuff in this opening act,” Vanco said. As a fitting segue from the swampy sounds of Saturday, the PSDJB’s website promises that their New Orleans-style treatment of American standards will get “your hands a-clappin’ and your feet a-tappin," which is a pretty bold statement that they probably wouldn’t make if they weren’t intent on delivering.

2 p.m. – Lydia Marks

“She’s local – intermittently – and she’s never played the festival before either,” said Vanco. Erie native Lydia Marks is exactly what you hear in your mind when you imagine a classy, classic female jazz vocalist – her sonorous-yet-cheery voice beckons with clarity, composure, sparkle, and sass as she saunters through the standards of the Great American Songbook.

4 p.m. – Cat’s a Bear

If you’re from Erie, you know that this ensemble is really more of a supergroup than anything else. “This is a band that’s been playing for, I don’t know, a couple of decades,” Vanco said. Known for their originality, their proficiency, and their 80-plus years of collective professional musicianship, Cat’s a Bear’s dynamic and vigorous approach to contemporary jazz – led by Berklee College of Music alum Frank Singer – makes them an always-welcome presence in the Gem City.

6 p.m. – Tony Grey Trio

It’s awful hard to call him this guy a “bass player,” if you ask me. I prefer “soundscaper.” You see, Tony Grey is 10 feet tall, has 15 fingers, and plays the hell of out a 19-string bass (don’t quote me on those numbers) all the while engineering lush audio landscapes that will leave you wondering where the hell you are. Again, no disrespect to Jeremy Pelt or anyone else on this wonderful bill, but Tony Grey is my personal can’t-miss pick of the day for Sunday. Of Grey’s style, Vanco said that Grey is “very much in that Berklee fusion continuum; it’s contemporary, and it’s got his twist to it.” That’s right, it’s back-to-back Berklees!

8 p.m. – Jeremy Pelt Quintet

Make that back-to-back-to-back Berklees! If names like Duke Ellington Big Band, Mingus Big Band, Roy Hargrove Big Band, The Village Vanguard Orchestra, the Lewis Nash Septet, and the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band mean anything to you, then this is your night; if those names don’t mean anything to you, well, they will after trumpeter, producer, and music educator Jeremy Pelt completes the Berklee trifecta by closing the festival with his quintet. “He’s tearing it up these days,” said Vanco. “Lots of great press. Playing with lots of ensembles. It’s mainstream stuff and will be well received.”

For audio and video of this year’s artists as well as exclusive interviews with headlining acts, check out Vaillancourt's web exclusive, or follow him on Twitter @VLNCRT

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