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Anything But the Blues 

Blues Weekend 07 kicks off with Staples, but has space for local acts

It's hard to say why Tucson has been so good to the blues. We're hardly the traditional urban, blue collar town where blues music thrives. Yet for a city made up of students, snowbirds, immigrants and cross-country transplants--groups that don't appear to have many common threads--there is something about the blues that manages to excite and bring people together.

Since its inception in late 1983, KXCI radio's Saturday evening Blues Revue has been one of its most popular programs. Its critical acclaim and popularity are consistently reflected in its ability to raise huge sums of money during the station's pledge drives. A look back at Tucson history will also document scores of great live blues shows: the legendary Willie Dixon in one of his last performances at the Temple of Music and Art; Albert Collins playing his wireless rig out in the middle of Speedway on a Saturday night outside of Terry & Zeke's; the Statesboro Blues Band coming into its own backing Bo Diddley at a club in the mid-1980s; and Buddy Guy leading a parade of blues headliners to play El Casino Ballroom--all are but some of the great memories Tucson holds within its collective blues consciousness.

Then there is the annual Tucson Blues Festival. Originally conceived and executed by the Tucson Blues Society (TBS), the blues have been celebrated in mid-October with a free Sunday afternoon/evening of music in Reid Park every year since 1984. Five years ago, following organizational and philosophical conflicts, several members and officers within TBS left to form the Southern Arizona Blues and Heritage Foundation (SABHF). This is now the group that has taken on the task of producing the annual festival, one of the few blues fests that, according to SABHF president Gary Bagnoche, can still promote itself as a "no admission" festival.

"It's equally important to say that it's completely volunteer run," Bagnoche adds, referring to a dedicated group of core members that oversees this year-long, big-budget endeavor. "This is now a $25-30,000 exercise with about half of that going to the talent." The remainder, he notes, is tied up in lots of logistics including security, tents, insurance and an initial outlay for the purchase of beer. Lots of beer.

"Sponsors and beer are the lifeblood of our festival," Bagnoche says as he emphasizes the importance of each. This year's festival boasts no fewer than 20 co-sponsors and each plays an integral role in producing and promoting the festival. But it is the sale of alcohol to the several thousand attendees that will ultimately enable the festival to succeed financially.

Putting sponsors and beer aside, it's clear Bagnoche would much rather talk about the music, as he did in a recent interview. "The blues scene in Tucson is alive and healthy and I think that's reflected in this year's festival." To be sure, this year's show is packed with talent representing many different shades of the blues.

Headlining are national acts the Reed Family and Cephas and Wiggins. But don't expect these groups to close the show. Instead, they are part of a larger festival picture that is more attuned to the ebb and flow of the day rather than who wears the mantel of "headliner." Toward that end the show will open with the fabulous Reed Family. Fronted by Francine Reed (one of Phoenix's most redeeming qualities), they will treat the earliest festivarians to a rousing set of late morning/early afternoon gospel. John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, a guitar and harmonica duo that plays in the spirit of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, will show up later in the day for their impassioned set of East Coast/Piedmont blues.

The festival will also be highlighted by several local/regional acts. Train Wreck, from Bisbee, is the winner of SABHF's recent Blues Challenge (a battle of the blues bands). Local bandleader George Howard and his nine-piece Rhythm and Blues Revue will also be featured performers.

Perhaps the most interesting act, however, will be keyboard player Arthur Migliazza and his band New Town. As a 13-year-old phenom, Migliazza first played the festival as a 15-minute solo act before festival closer Little Milton. This will be his fourth appearance at the festival but his first fronting his own band. Ironically, he doesn't see New Town as a blues band or himself as a blues musician.

"I don't consider myself a blues piano player," he said recently. This is in spite of the fact that he's played in lots of blues bands and has released a CD of New Orleans-style piano. "I like to think of myself more as just a musician, able to work within any number of genres. Of course we'll cater our set towards the blues, boogie-woogie and New Orleans R&B, but we'll give it all a new approach with our own unique spin." Migliazza and New Town, which includes AmoChip Dabney on saxophones, Doug Davis on drums and Joel Gottschalk on bass, will close the festival.

As if all this weren't enough, Blues Weekend '07 really kicks into gear on Saturday evening with a stellar show at the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall. In a concert that's billed as Solid Blues, audiences will be treated to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Staples, blues harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, three-time Grammy nominee the North Mississippi All-Stars and New Orleans-style keyboard player Joe Krown.

Staples has been touring in support of her remarkable recording We'll Never Turn Back, a collection of songs from the civil rights era. Though the album was originally conceived as a renewed call for social justice via old songs, Staples found herself creating some new music in the process. "It was so spiritual in the studio and things were just coming to me," Staples, 67, said in a USA Today interview earlier this year. Produced by Ry Cooder, the album combines gospel, soul and the kind of blues that can only be delivered from the most personal of experiences. "These guys would be playing and I was just putting down my feelings and talking about things that happened to me over the years." In regards to Hurricane Katrina, another motivating factor, she said, "We're (still) in a struggle. Maybe that will stay on people's minds."

More by Jim Lipson

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