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Swamp magic: baton Rouge Blues Festival expands to two days

For 35 years, fans of the blues have been coming to the Red Stick for one of the oldest blues festivals in the country, the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival.

Originating in 1981, the Baton Rouge Blues Festival was first held on the campus of Southern University before moving to downtown Baton Rouge. This year, the festival will see growth as it expands to two days of music for the first time in two decades.

“The festival has seen such an exponential growth, and it was only a natural decision for us to make it a multi-day festival,” said festival chairman Chris Brooks, who previously worked for DIG Magazine. “It gives us a lot more opportunity to promote the blues, a lot more opportunity for the vendors and the artists… [and] it gives the general public something to do.”

Each year, the festival honors the legend of home-grown blues artists like Slim Harpo, Tabby Thomas, Chewin’ Gum Johnson and Raful Neal. Generations of musicians and blues lovers alike will be exposed to some of the most prominent names in the blues genre. Among them this year are Buddy Guy, Latimore, Henry Turner and Flavor, OMT, Gregg Wright and Kenny Neal and the Neal Family.

“I love all genres of music pretty equally, but because the blues is inherent to this part of the state, I think that’s where the blues kind of gets an edge over all the other ones,” Brooks said, who is also a Baton Rouge musician. “You know when you have cultural juggernauts like Lafayette and New Orleans, two one-of-a-kind worldly cities, you know Baton Rouge can get easily overlooked with having a culture. With us being the seat of the state capital, and also the seat of the largest public university, you’re going to build [culture]. So Baton Rouge has a significant culture here, and the blues is just one of them.”

The free family-friendly event will be on Saturday, April 9 from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday, April, 10 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., located in and around Repentance Park and Galvez Plaza. The festival is free and open to the public. This year the festival is partnering with local Baton Rouge non-profits, including the Arts Council of Baton Rouge, which will host blues musician Kenny Neal and his family with their tribute to Raful Neal as part of their Sunday in the Park series.

The festival is also partnering with NOVAC, who will be producing backstage at the festival and will premiere two music videos by Kenny Neal and Boogie Long as part of their Music Video Production Project. Launch Media will live stream the event and infuse different content into the stream such as Q&As with the performers. According to Brooks, it is through their partnerships that cultivate the festival’s goal.

“Our goal for the festival this year is to promote the festival [further],” Brooks said. “Meaning we want people to drive in for the weekend. We want this to be an economic development for the city. Local businesses are seeing a lot more success during that weekend and to really grow this thing into a multi-day festival makes it very significant for the state and the southeast United States. The more participation we can get, the bigger this festival can become. It’s really a community effort.”

Returning this year will be the 12 Bar, the festival’s VIP lounge area that features exclusive beers on tap, full bar and additional viewing areas. VIP tickets are $125. The festival will also be highlighted on the NPR radio show American Roots, who will be present at the festival obtaining footage and soundbites.

“That will be pretty significant for the Blues Festival and Baton Rouge specifically,” Brooks said.

In addition to the music lineup, arts and crafts vendors and food vendors will also be set up throughout the festival grounds, and will be available for purchase during the event.

“All of our food and art markets are curated,” Brooks said. “We try to have quality and talented folks in these markets because we want people to have a snapshot of what Baton Rouge is about.”

Leading up to the festival will be a series of events promoting the blues and the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation. Up first is the Listening Party, which will be held on Thursday, March 31 at Radio Bar from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Next will be the Blues Lagniappe, a panel discussion on the blues and blues culture on April 6 at the Roux House from 6-8:30 p.m. The event will also feature a special performance by Henry Gray. On April 7, the Prince Hall Masonic Temple will be the site for the pre-festival party known as the Rent Party and feature a set by Mighty Fine.

“A lot of Blues Festival performers show up, and it kind of turns into a jam session,” Brooks said. “That’s a really cool event.”

For interested parties, there are currently volunteer opportunities throughout the festival weekend for individuals, groups and non-profit organizations. For more information, visit batonrougebluesfestival.org.

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