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Utah Blues Festival

In a changing industry, the Utah Blues Festival keeps the fire burning


Roach, singer of Cafe R&B
  • Roach, singer of Cafe R&B

The Utah Blues Society has rebranded its blues music festival, the Rhythm & Blues Rendezvous, with a second stage and a new name: The Utah Blues Festival. The day-long festival at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center will show off the chops of local blues bands as well as two big-name, nationally touring bands: Café R&B and the Lloyd Jones Struggle.

With the addition of the Garden Stage, musicians can set up while other bands play, so the music will be nonstop from 1 p.m.-10 p.m. at the outdoor stages. The proceeds from the festival will go the revived Utah Blues Society, to be dedicated to helping local blues bands book bigger gigs and reach wider audiences, building a network of artists and educating youngsters.

"Part of this whole mission is to spread the gospel of blues," says Brian Kelm, KRCL 90.9 Monday-night blues DJ and emcee/producer for the festival. "The blues is the foundation of all other forms of music that you are going to listen to on your iPod or your radio or any of your CDs, guaranteed. Without the blues, we wouldn't be where we are today."

Although it's being promoted as the first annual Utah Blues Festival, its original incarnation, the Rhythm & Blues Rendezvous, blasted the blues for five years. During its run, the organizers donated the money from ticket, food, beer and merchandise sales to Shriner's Hospital to buy musical instruments for kids there.

The Rendezvous was started by Sharon and Greg Daniels—the latter the guitarist for The Ides of Soul—originally to bring local blues bands together, and then as a fundraiser for Andrew Arnold, a Heber City boy with liver cancer. Before that, The Zephyr Club and the Dead Goat Saloon had popular weekly blues nights—and the Dead Goat's was broadcast live on KRCL.

Now, Kelm says, it's a crucial time for the genre of Etta James and B.B. King. An astounding 602 weeks after closing in 2003, the Zephyr—once Salt Lake's premier live music club—is an empty, sticker-covered monument. The once-mighty Dead Goat Saloon also closed that summer. Despite efforts to keep it alive as the Crazy Goat, it, like the Zephyr, remains an empty shell.

Utah is "a challenging place to promote blues," according to Kelm, but things are tough all over. Blues acts across the nation are booking less stage time, clubs are bringing in less blues music and the existing blues musicians are vying for spots on the summer festival circuits or on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, a floating multi-day music festival that hits various countries twice a year.

"In the last 15 years, it's gotten harder and harder to attract national bands here and fill the joint," says Kelm. "There's a small but dedicated audience for the blues, which is what we're trying to expand with this festival, in order to support getting more club-scene blues going from fall through spring."

That's why the festival earnings will be donated to the Utah Blues Society, which originally organized in 1994, but faded away. Last year, Kelm and Tony Holladay, a local blues musician, resurrected the organization.

"The day that blues musicians stop or significantly reduce touring [will be] an extraordinarily sad day for music," says Kelm. "The architects of this music were around, and frankly, one of the last of them just passed away, B.B. King. Who's left? Buddy Guy and maybe a small handful of others, and then it's gone. We need to sustain it and keep it going as best we can."

As the tribute to blues is scheduled a mere month after King's death, this year's Utah Blues Festival is dedicated to him. One of the local acts, the Music Garage Blues Band, a handpicked group of five students from the Music Garage will perform a cover of one of King's biggest hits, "The Thrill Is Gone."

The Music Garage is a prime example of where the music-education dollars will go. Similar to the School of Rock, the nonprofit brings students, recording artists and producers together for classes, workshops and rehearsals, with an emphasis on an after-school youth-rock-band program.

The headliner, Cafe R&B, a Santa Barbara, Calif. group, played the Utah Arts Festival five years ago. The lead singer, Roach, "is a force to be reckoned with," says Kelm. "She is on fire. Period. Exclamation mark. She is a tigress on the stage—part Tina Turner and part Etta James. She'll get down on her hands and knees, crawl around, land on the ground and put her legs up and scream the blues. She wails."

The rest of the lineup includes The Kapp Brothers, The Soulistics, Amanda Johnson, Harry Lee and the Back Alley Blues Band, Sister Wives, George Gregory Band, Better Off With the Blues, Candy's River House, Riverhouse and Blues on First.

The Utah Blues Society intends to revive the blues scene, and will continue the festival as long as there are fans to play for—even if it means the genre shifts and mingles with other genres, as is the tendency in the current musical climate. "As long as it has soul and it resonates with me and everyone," says Kelm, "I think we'll be OK."