Northwoods Blues Festival CEO Steve Rheaume is excited about the sights as well as the sounds that await music lovers attending the seventh annual festival.
Slated for Friday and Saturday, the event features a lineup of big names, including Savoy Brown, Bernard Allison and the trio of Corky Siegel, Randy Sabien and Kalyan Pathak. This year also marks the opening of a beautiful new location: Chippewa Riverfront park in Chippewa Falls.
The blues fest, the first major event the park will host, is moving from its location at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls the past two years and in Spooner the previous four.
“The city had this in mind for the type of event they wanted to host,” Rheaume said.
With the permanent stage, new electrical system and the beautiful location, Rheaume believes the event has what it needs to grow. He sees as an example the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, Minn., which Rheaume said attracts 20,000 people.
That event owes its longevity — this year is the 31st annual —in part, he suggested, to a picturesque location on Lake Superior. He’s hoping Chippewa Riverfront helps the Northwoods fest in similar fashion.
“I think this new venue is really going to sustain our event and make it grow,” he said.
He certainly believes this year’s lineup will impress the audience. It starts with Savoy Brown, the blues-rock outfit that got rolling in 1965 in London. The band, still led by guitarist Kim Simmonds, released their critically lauded 40th album this year. They headline Saturday night.
“That’s a big get on our behalf,” Rheaume said. “It’s the biggest signing we’ve had since we got Johnny Winter and Canned Heat in the same year. Three weeks after we had Johnny Winter he passed away, so that won’t ever be re-created.”
The Friday headliner is Bernard Allison, carrying on the legacy of his famed dad, Luther Allison. (Luther Allison passed away in 1997.)
Bernard Allison is returning to the festival. They usually don’t bring back an artist so soon after a previous visit, “but we really love Bernard — he does a great show,” Rheaume said.
What Rheaume may be most proud of is the top-to-bottom strength of the roster. One indicator of that, he said, came from the Roots Music Report’s charts for blues rock about three months ago.
As he recalled, at the time the No. 1 slot belonged to the Lindsay Beaver Band, who are performing Saturday at the festival; Bridget Kelly Band, also playing Saturday, held the No. 2 spot; and Bernard Allison stood at No. 3.
Surprisingly, some listeners still don’t grasp the blues’ cathartic power, focusing instead on the troubles described in the lyrics. Rheaume recalled such conversations and how he handled the skeptics.
“I’ve had people tell me this: ‘I don’t like the blues,’ he said. “I say, ‘Why don’t you like the blues?’ They say, ‘It’s kind of sad.’ I say, ‘Are you kidding? You must not be a Three Stooges fan or a Laurel and Hardy fan. Because it’s man’s inhumanity to man,’” he said with a laugh. “You listen to a blues song, and the worse it gets the better it is.”
He continued on that roll.
‘My wife left me, and she took an XKE Jag, and left me with a mule, and the mule died before I could get it out of the driveway.’ That’s good stuff. The more tragic the better because it’s not you.”
Moreover, he added, blues musicianship should attract anyone who likes the instrumental fireworks delivered in rock ’n’ roll — as this year’s lineup amply demonstrates.
“(Attendees) aren’t even going to think they’re at a blues festival,” he said. “They’re going to hear some incredible live guitar work, some ax work.”
Besides the playing from Allison, Lindsay Beaver and the Bridget Kelly Band’s Tim Fik, Rheaume went on to name other guitar standouts, including Joanna Connor, who performs Friday.
“If you go and look at the best woman guitar players, you’re going to see her in the top 10,” he said.
Rheaume also called attention to P.K. Mayo, a band that will do three sets Friday on the side stage. Minnesota resident Paul Mayasich fronts the group.
“Paul Mayasich is in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame,” Rheaume said, explaining that Mayasich will be joined by keyboard player Toby Marshall, who has played with Bernard Allison, and guitar player Dylan Salfer, who’s a 17-year-old phenom “literally in the shoes of Johnny Lang.”
The opening set of the Northwoods Blues Festival will feature Howard “Guitar” Luedtke and Blue Max. The Chippewa Valley-based blues band, including Luedtke’s wife, Deb Klossner, on bass, will continue a streak of opening every Northwoods.
“I think the world of Howard,” Rheaume said. “I think he’s an incredibly gifted musician.”
In fact, the festival will present Luedtke and Blue Max at grand opening festivities for Riverfront park on Thursday night. Admission will be free, and festival vendors will be set up as well.
This year’s lineup, particularly the Lindsay Beaver Band and P.K. Mayo’s Salfer, represents what Rheaume sees as a healthy youth movement for the blues. It helps contradict the stereotypical idea of a blues fan, which starts with someone older than 50.
“There’s a lot of really good blues musicians now showing up that are young,” he said. “The young performers will attract a younger crowd and we’ll get some younger blues fans, and that’ll be good for the music, that’s for sure.”
Festival attendees will notice not just the sound of the blues but the sight as well. Xcel Energy will use LED lighting to cast a blue shade on the grounds and the water, Rheaume said. “We’re not going to shoot off fireworks, so we’ll light up the place in blue.”
An Ashland resident, Rheaume said he’s come to appreciate the city of Chippewa Falls.
“First of all, it’s got some of the most lovely cemeteries I’ve ever seen,” he said. “When I go, my ashes are going to be spread at Riverfront park after festival number whatever whatever.”
Told his quote sounds like lyrics from a blues song, he laughed heartily.
“You got it, man,” he said. “There’s a blues song in all of life, isn’t there.”
In any case, the Northwoods Blues Festival is doing its part to add to that soundtrack.