Several years ago, Robert Lockwood Jr. (who happened to be blues master Robert Johnson’s stepson) was up in arms about being the Heritage Music BluesFest opening act. “Why are you doing that … I am a headliner!”
But BluesFest producer Bruce Wheeler responded, “Robert, I start the weekend strong and continue it all weekend long.”
“That’s how I try to program every year of the Heritage Music BluesFest, and this year — the 18th annual festival — is no different,” Wheeler said.
“We’re opening at 5 p.m. with Heather Newman, who is an amazing singer-songwriter and bass player who I happened to see when I was at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Right then, I knew she needed to come to Wheeling, so she’s kicking off the festival,” Wheeler said.
Following Newman is Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, nominated for the most Blues Music Award nominations this year — eight — and came home with three —Best Traditional Blues Male Artist, Song of the Year for “The Blues Ain’t Going Nowhere” and Band of the Year.
“And then after that is an act that has never been here — which is one of the things that I like to do at the BluesFest, to mix it up with people that have been there and people who are new. We’ve got Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, which a lot of people have been asking for. Well, we finally got them,” he said.
“And it’s kind of a little twist that they’re called the Big Damn Band, because there’s only three of them. I’m looking forward to their performance — I’ve never seen them perform live.”
“Another person who has never been at the BluesFest is Delbert McClinton. Delbert, a Texas blues icon, is back out and touring. A couple years ago, he had a heart attack, but he’s back and performing strong, with a new album out that he’s supporting.”
On Saturday, Wheeler is pleased to present Southern Avenue, “a band that is really kicking it up on the jam band stage. They performed at the recent Wanderlust weekend down in Snowshoe. Their leader, Ori Naftaly, originally from Israel who relocated to Memphis, surrounded himself with Memphis musicians and that began Southern Avenue,” Wheeler said.
One of Wheeler’s favorites, Paul DesLauriers Band, out of Canada, is next up on Saturday night.
“Paul is just a really incredible songwriter and guitar player. He has won the best guitarist in Canada for numerous years in the Canadian Maple Blues Awards,” Wheeler said. This year, the band was named Entertainer of the Year, for the second year in a row.
“Coming back to the place where they were born is Southern Hospitality, friends of mine and incredible musicians: Damon Fowler, Victor Wainwright and J.P. Soars. We are going to show Southern Hospitality a little northern hospitality and let them close on Saturday night,” Wheeler said.
In 2011, Southern Hospitality graciously stepped in when blues icon David “Honey Boy” Edwards took ill and couldn’t make it. “Actually the act wasn’t even performing that season as Southern Hospitality, but they had already put out their promotion and were pitching it for the next festival season. We were able to put it together. So they’re coming home to the Heritage Music BluesFest where they were born.” Edwards died at the age of 96 just a couple weeks after BluesFest that year.
While Wheeler said he’s excited about all of the acts set for the festival, “I’m incredibly excited” about an act he didn’t even know existed. Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers was pitched to him by an agent. When he put out the lineup, the reactions started rolling in. So many happy fans told him, “I can’t believe you got Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers at the BluesFest!”
“An incredible saxophone player and performer, she used to do smooth jazz saxophone, but in recent years has picked up a harder edge and is now doing incredibly well on the blues/jazz crossover scene.”
Closing the festival on Sunday is Eric Gales.
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“Gales was at BluesFest five years ago, and that was right after he got clean. He was really into drugs and alcohol, then changed things around. He basically became sober, and his career really took off at that point. A lot of people call Eric Gales the new Jimi Hendrix. He plays an upside-down guitar but, unlike Jimi Hendrix who restrung it, Eric plays it exactly the way it’s supposed to be strung. So instead of the bass strings on the bottom of the guitar, the bass strings are on the top of the guitar.”
Along with the main stage, a second stage will offer more blues artists, and Wheeler is really pleased with the second stage this year.
“We kind of kicked it up a notch. We’ve got an act coming from Kentucky — a Laurie Jane and the 45s on Friday. On Saturday, we’ve got a duo out of Pittsburgh called Soulful Femme, which is a guitar player and a great vocalist.”
On Sunday, Wheeler is presenting an act on the second stage “that should’ve been on the main stage, but the main stage was full.”
“I’m really happy that they were coming through, and I was able them. Frank Bang and the Cook County Kings. They get heavy rotation on SiriusXM, and they’re an incredible Chicago-based blues act. I’d call them a little more rockin’ Chicago blues. They’ll have two sets on the second stage to make up for the time they should’ve been on the main stage.”
Hosting the AfterJams at River City this year is Pittsburgh bluesman, Jimmy Adler.
“Jimmy has been a regional International Blues Challenge winner in the past representing Western Pennsylvania in Memphis, and he has performed on the BluesFest main stage and the second stage. And, by the way, if people aren’t sure if they should go to the AfterJams to hear Jimmy and what he puts together, he’s going to be opening up the main stage as the guitar player for Heather Newman. Her guitar player had a problem and couldn’t make it, so Jimmy will be playing guitar with Heather,” Wheeler said.
The 18th annual Heritage Music BluesFest kicks off with a free Taste of the Blues at 11:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 10, with music and vendors, at the Wheeling Heritage Port.
Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday. For tickets, visit, www.heritagemusicfest.com. Advance ticket sales end at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8. After that, tickets will be available at the main gate beginning at 11:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 10.
Along with two stages of music, there will be food vendors and vendors selling handcrafted art, jewelry, blues photos and more. AfterJams take place following the festival each night at River City Restaurant, 1400 Main St., Wheeling.
“As long as the weather holds out, it should be an incredible weekend of award-winning blues,” Wheeler said
HMBF 2018 Artist Lineup
FRIDAY, AUG. 10
5 p.m.: Heather Newman
6:30 p.m.: Rick Estrin & the Nightcats
8 p.m.: Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
9:45 p.m.: Delbert McClinton
SATURDAY, AUG. 11
Noon: Felix Slim
1:30 p.m: Miss Freddye
3 p.m: Eden Brent
4:30 p.m.: Keeshea Pratt Band
6 p.m.: Southern Avenue
7:45 p.m.: Paul DesLauriers Band
9:30 p.m.: Southern Hospitality
SUNDAY, AUG. 12
1 p.m.: Kevin “B.F.” Burt
2:30 p.m.: Ghost Town Blues Band
4 p.m.: Welch/Ledbetter Connection
5:45 p.m.: Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers
7:45 p.m.: Eric Gales
FRIDAY, AUG. 10
6:05 p.m.: Laurie Jane & the 45s
7:35 p.m.: Izzy Steter
9:05 p.m.: Laurie Jane & the 45s
SATURDAY, AUG. 11
1:05 p.m.: ezra & the reletivs
2:35 p.m.: Soulful Femme
4:05 p.m.: Felix Slim
5:35 p.m.: The Bail Jumpers
7:05 p.m.: Miss Freddye
8:50 p.m.: The Bail Jumpers
SUNDAY, AUG. 12
2:05 p.m.: Nate Lupi
3:35 p.m.: Frank Bang & the Cook County Kings
5:05 p.m.: Kevin “B.F.” Burt
7:05 p.m.: Frank Bang & the Cook County Kings