By Austen Krantz
When the 2014 Baton Rouge Blues Festival kicks off on April 12, it will honor the legacy of the city’s musical history while demonstrating the wide expansion of the blues genre, and show the growing support for live music in the Red Stick.
The lineup encompasses musicians from some of the earliest generations of blues in Louisiana, as well as newer bands from Baton Rouge and other musicians from farther away. Programming director Clarke Gernon explained that this collection of artists will demonstrate blues influences on other musical styles as well as the respect traditional blues commands in its own right.
“We fuse a very broad view of blues with a very heritage-oriented version of blues, to where, if you come to this festival, you can really get anything you want,” Gernon said. “And it’s all tied back to the core, which is to preserve and make sure that the blues remains a strong thing for years to come.”
While the Swamp Blues stage focuses on the traditional blues of Baton Rouge and Louisiana as a whole, Gernon explained that the Blues Foundation stage, and the newly added Gospel and Soul stage, will feature music with strong blues influences in other popular genres.
This year’s Swamp Blues stage will feature new and old musicians related to the city’s unique Swamp Blues brand of music. In particular, its final set will feature both young and old generations of the genre with blues guitarist Kenny Neal and pianist Henry Gray. While Neal, the son of blues singer Raful Neal, learned from local greats like Slim Harpo and Buddy Guy, Gray spent the earlier years of his career playing with artists as renown as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James.
“He’s basically played with everybody who was anybody in the blues world,” Gernon said. “He’s probably the oldest Blues piano player around — anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Baton Rouge, or Chicago, or anywhere else.”
In addition to the Swamp Blues stage, the back stage interviews and events will also give attendees a more personal glimpse into traditional blues, particularly with a few intimate acoustic performances.
“We have so much access to people who do this music, who are part of it, who live here, or near here and have some connection to Baton Rouge and Louisiana,” Gernon explained. “That gives us an opportunity to hear what they have to say about their music, to learn about their experiences and why they do what they do.”
The final backstage interview will feature Jimmy Dotson, a Louisiana native who played and recorded with artists who comprised the original Baton Rouge blues scene.
“He’ll have so much knowledge and stories to tell about his experiences with the greats like Slim Harpo and Silas Hogan,” Gernon said. “He was in so many of their records and their bands.”
The Blues Foundation stage will feature a more diverse array of blues influenced music from zydeco and folk to heavier blues-rock and funk. That will be demonstrated when the stage opens with Lafayette’s Brother Dege, who mixes roots rock, folk and other musical styles as a songwriter and guitar player. Dr. John will also close out the stage with a uniquely mixed musical style as a New Orleans piano player and songwriter who built an extensive discography of genre-spanning albums over the years.
“His music is kind of hard to really describe as one style,” Gernon said. “You might say its New Orleans, but really its piano-based rock and roll, soul, blues, funk — he basically kind of melds all that stuff to where it’s his style of music at that point. “
The Newly added Gospel and Soul stage will also feature funk and soul music. While many rock and roll bands are influenced by blues, Gernon explained, there are just as many soul and gospel artist with those influences. In addition, Gernon said church music helped foster blues and blues artists, which is why demonstrating these roots is important.
Local jazz-fusion soul players Speak Easy will take this stage as part of a victory in DIG’s most recent battle of the bands armed with new songs to showcase and an excitement to play “in front of those new faces” as bassist Chris Polk put it.
With the band’s sights set on two more local festival dates, percussionist and vibraphonist John Mann V explained his excitement about the support for local music-supporting events like Blues Fest.
“It’s so amazing to see that the culture around here is really embracing of free festivals,” said Mann. “There’s so much music going on now and it’s cool that the community supports that.”