For those who put in all the hours it takes to plan the Tuesday Night Blues series, seeing the crowd gather in Owen Park on the Chippewa River banks provides the greatest reward.
Eric Johnson, chairman of the summer series organized by the Chippewa Valley Blues Society, talked about that welcome sight recently before next week’s kickoff of the 11th annual event.
“To watch the people — they come from all corners of the park,” he said. “They come up the bike trail; they come from First Avenue to fill the seats and lay out their blankets, wherever they want to go. … If there’s a reward, that’s it.”
Mike Fischer, one of the original organizers of the series and the society, was asked about what gives him satisfaction for all the time he has devoted to the cause. Although he was interviewed at a different time from Johnson and got no prompting, he gave a similar answer.
“You watch people through the trees, down the street,” he said. “Watch the place fill up.”
That assembly will be repeated starting next week when the Eau Claire-based Stefan Geisinger Band gets the music rolling for another season.
Johnson and Fischer, as well as others who volunteer for society duties, can be proud in seeing how the series presenting local, regional, national and international performers has grown steadily through the years.
“The first year or two we’d be lucky, probably ecstatic, if we had 300 people, 350 people,” Johnson said.
“Every year it seemed to grow a little more. We’d have 500, 600. ... Where today, if we have good weather, a good band, we’re averaging 1,500 people a night now. We can break 2,000, and we’ve still got room for more.”
The story about how the series began could well be titled “Rainy Day Blues.” The society used to put on a one-day annual event called Coalition Blues. In 2008, when they had booked six acts, foul weather effectively wiped out the party.
“Rained all day,” Fischer recalled.
It was then that the society thought it made more sense to put together a weekly series rather risk the investment of time and money on the hope that, on the chosen day or weekend, Mother Nature would shine on the festivities.
Thus was born the series, whose complete title, Fischer noted, is Tuesday Night Blues at Owen Park on the River.
That and other history of the society can be found at its impressively detailed website, chippewavalleyblues.com. Blues lovers also can find out more about the group and its activities, including Blues on the Chippewa at Memorial Park in Durand. This year the event is Aug. 2 through 4.
The website also notes the vendors and sponsors that are so vital to the success of Tuesday Night Blues, Blues on the Chippewa and other endeavors. You also can visit the site to find out how to become a member of the group, starting at $10 for an individual membership.
Typically attendance for Tuesday Night Blues grows as the series progresses in a given year.
“It’s like our best advertising is word of mouth,” Johnson said. “We’ll have 5, 600 for the first night. And then it just gets rolling, and by three, four weeks in we’re easily 1,000, 1,200.”
The roster of bands has no doubt helped in the success. Grammy nominated artists such as Ellen Whyte, who performs with locally based saxophone star Sue Orfield, and Bryan Lee are among the nationally known performers who have appeared.
The numerous high-quality regionally based bands also have played an important role in building the series audience.
The plethora of potential acts means organizers have to tell some talented performers there’s no space for them on the schedule.
“We have easily 100 or more bands that contact us,” Johnson said. “You always have your local favorites that you want to use. But we’ve got bands contacting us all the time saying, ‘We want to play.’ A nice problem to have, but we have to whittle it down to 14.”
The result is reflected in the popularity.
“We feel like we put on a really quality product,” Fischer said. “The music is just superb.”
Johnson noted a few names he’s especially interested in seeing this year:
• Bridget Kelly Band, June 25. From Gainesville, Fla., the group’s credits include making it to the semifinals of the International Blues Challenge in 2015 and 2016.
• Dee Miller Band, July 30. With a frontwoman known as the “Dutchess of the Blues,” the Twin Cities-based group took first place in the 2014 Minnesota Blues Society Battle of the Bands, and in 2018 won the Road to Memphis Challenge and the privilege of representing Minnesota in the International Blues Challenge.
• Joyann Parker, Aug. 20: The Twin-Cities based vocalist has earned critical raves and strong word-of-mouth for her numerous performances locally and elsewhere.
Blues with feeling
As for what the draw of the blues is, Johnson pointed to its emotional content.
“I’m an old classic rock guy,” he said. “I grew up in the ’70s. Music like this has more of a passion. You can feel it or you can hear it. Where the modern stuff with all these new music shows and stuff, it seems so ‘all I want to do is sing good enough so I can win a bunch of money.’”
Both Johnson and Fischer have found that, when it comes to the blues, hearing is believing.
“We’ve had a lot of people who come up and say, ‘I never sat down and listened to this stuff, but it’s really good,’” Johnson said.
As Fischer put it, “People go, ‘I didn’t know I liked the blues, but this is great.’”
Fischer also said Eau Claire can take pride in the fact that many cities, even bigger ones, don’t have a series like this.
“You get people coming into town for business,” he said. “I’ve had people from Boston, Miami, San Diego come up to me (and say), ‘We don’t have anything like this where we’re from.’”
When you note that the society’s credo, positioned at the bottom of their home page, reads “To Support and Promote the Blues in the Chippewa Valley,” it’s clear that Tuesday Night Blues offers a prime example of doing just that.