13th Blues from the Top fires up Winter Park
Special to the Sky-Hi News
“I’m open for business in your neighborhood,” belted singer Sadie Johnson at this weekend’s 13th Annual Blues from the Top Festival, echoing the late great Etta James. “The Blues is my business … and business is good!”
And it was — Johnson, a dozen main-stage acts, a dozen more emerging young performers and thousands of fans filled downtown Winter Park to celebrate the rhythms, spirit and community that are ubiquitous with this distinctly American genre of music.
The event, presented by the Grand County Blues Society, kicked off its 13th year with a free concert in Hideaway Park Thursday night, featuring the Boogie Boys and the all-youth Keeping the Blues Alive Band. It would be just the beginning of a non-stop schedule that would keep the town rocking and swaying into Sunday evening.
In true festival style, the event has had steady growth over the years and suffuses more and more of the town, and their hearts, each year. Performers traveled from around Colorado, from Chicago, Kansas City, and even Oslo, Norway. Music could be heard and enjoyed not only in the park, but at Cooper Creek Mall, The Foundry, and Smokin’ Moe’s.
Three more performances were open to everyone on Friday with the Andy Irvine Blues Collective and Keeping the Blues Alive Band playing in the open air at Cooper Creek and Keeping the Blues performing at the Foundry, where they would return Saturday night.
A Friday night pre-party at Smokin’ Moe’s was led by Katy Guillen & the Girls, who were joined by a “super set” of musicians like Albert Castiglia and Michaela Rae.
The festival itself was inaugurated by, again, Keeping the Blues Alive on Saturday morning. It would be a day of bold music and impressive acts by Katy Guillen & the Girls, Kirk Fletcher with Reese Wynans, Chris Cain, Deanna Bogart, and Joe Louis Walker. And the fun continued with Zac Harmon, Austin Young, Kate Moss and more jamming into the night at Smokin’ Moe’s.
Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful, as did the music onstage, where the Gospel All-Stars held a more prominent space in this year’s entertainment. Such dynamic voices as Dorothy Morrison, Adrianna Marie, Eleanor Tsaig, Kirk Fletcher and Grammy award-winner Ashley Cleveland were backed up by an all-star band, including Reese Wynan, Cedric Goodman, Andy Irvine and Deanna Bogart.
Even the other performers were blown away by the magnificence of the set with Colorado native Austin Young saying that, “such beautiful music in such a beautiful setting is what the blues is about, the Blues family coming together through music.”
The day was rounded out with more favorite shows by Jarekus Singleton, the Boogie Boys, Eric Gales, and the Danielle Nicole Band. Finally, the weekend was brought to both another height and a close by Chicago’s Ronnie Baker Brooks and his newly-assembled 8-piece Big Band.
The breadth and talent of this year’s Blues from the Top is a clear testament to the maturation of an event that began with a small group of locals and their desire to share the music they love with Grand County. However, beyond that, it reveals an even stronger dedication to passing the joy of the Blues on to the younger generation.
For as the festival has grown up, it has also grown its youth engagement. Having youth not just exposed to the genre but participating in it has been a long-time object of the GC Blues Society. It was a festival goal from the very beginning, and it has inspired young music-lovers to grow into professional musicians.
In fact, the Keeping the Blues Alive Band, seen everywhere this weekend and on its own stage between each main act, is an amalgam of some of the best young blues talents from around the world.
Young, Johnson, and Rae – all previous festival youth performers – are now mentoring the younger artists.
“It is amazing to go from watching Samantha Fish four years ago to calling her my friend, playing on the big stage, and helping out the other kids this year,” beamed Johnson, who’s just returned from a six-month Girls with Guitars tour in Europe.
The veterans were joined this year by numerous astounding up-and-comers from seven different states and Hans Christian Nordin, a 16-year old from Oslo.
Thirteen-year old Grace Ritter from Dallas, Texas, rocked the drums for her sixth year at Blues from the Top. Eleven-year-old Fort Collins vocalist/guitarist Grace Kuch ascended the Keeping the Blues Alive stage for her second year. And high-schoolers André, Brandon, and Chris Piña of Witchita’s Piña Brothers brought a complete sound for the occasion.
In conversation, all of them are enthusiastic about the festival and the music and are spreading that passion.
“My dad hated the blues before we came to the festival two years ago,” says Kuch. “Now he listens to it in the car, 24/7.”
“I love it because you can feel the music,” says André. “You don’t have to play verbatim,” Brandon cuts in to explain before André can finish his thought, “You can improvise the way you feel it.”
The festival’s young stars also all speak with great enthusiasm about Blue Star Connection, a nonprofit founded in 2005 by John Catt, GC Blues Society board member and Blues From the Top talent director.
Blue Star’s mission is to “bring music into the lives of children and young adults who are fighting cancer and other life-challenging situations.” Over the past decade, they have supplied instruments to over 60 patients in 21 states and have provided hundreds of performances to children’s hospitals and other community organizations.
“It’s incredible to play in a hospital room with kids fighting for their life,” recounts Young, “I hope the momentum keeps coming.”
And Ronnie Baker Brooks echoes that sentiment, “The kids remind me so much of myself when I was young, but without the resources. It is important to get all young people involved to keep the music going.”
To learn more about Blue Star Connection, donate an instrument or offer your time or money, go to bluestarconnection.org or contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Blues from the Top, the Grand County Blues Society and other upcoming events, visit them at http://www.grandblues.org or look for them on Facebook.
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In partnership with Winter Park artist Shannon Foley Henn, Cooper Creek Square has debuted a public mural on the retail center featuring stick figures and animals representing donors participating in a new fundraiser.