Editors note: The following is a sponsored article provided by the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, the official destination marketing organization for the city of Wheeling and Ohio County, West Virginia. The Wheeling CVB is a phenomenal resource for local events, shopping, and more for both visitors and residents alike.
Wheeling’s Heritage Music BluesFest returns for its 22nd year with another weekend of high-caliber talent, great food, and always a twist of something new. In the two decades since its founding, the event has grown into one of the most appreciated blues festivals in the country. This year’s festival takes place August 11-13, gates open at 4 p.m. on Friday with the first musician taking the stage at 5 p.m.
For many people, Heritage Music BluesFest is a magical experience, one that keeps them returning to Wheeling year after year. Indeed, founder Bruce Wheeler and family have found a magical recipe for an award-winning music festival. And after two decades of hard work and a few hurdles along the way it is a recipe that Wheeler refuses to tinker with much, “People always ask what’s new? And I always tell them if isn’t broken, why fix it?”
So, he doesn’t veer from the three-day + two-stage + after-hours party formula. Then add to that the rolling Ohio River, a national historic landmark bridge, amazing sunsets, peak summer weather, and the best blues musicians on the planet…you have a magical recipe.
Despite never seeking to change the recipe Wheeler admits something always pops up and over the years he and the BluesFest crew have become adept at turning lemons into lemonade. This year’s change is nothing but pure lemonade as the after-hours party will be held at the newly opened Waterfront Hall—across the street from Heritage Port.
It’s through his longstanding ties with The Blues Foundation and International Blues Challenge (IBC) that Wheeler connects to the tremendous talent that perform at each year’s festival. Looking back at past years one can see he has a knack for grabbing young performers just before they are about to hit primetime and become the biggest names in the industry. Their names show up again years later as a headliner, no doubt because of their initial magical experience at the Heritage Music BluesFest and interaction with the Wheeler family. It is personal relationships like these that have driven Heritage Music BluesFest to persist for over two decades. This year’s lineup will not disappoint.
The festival opens Friday at 5 p.m. with legendary hill country blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside. Burnside, a former member of the North Mississippi Allstars and son of the late R.L. Burnside, released his first album in 17 years in 2022. The evening will close with New Orleans piano player Jon Cleary, who has emerged as the Nawlins Piano Player in the wake of Dr. John’s death.
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Those are some big shoes to fill but Cleary lives up to the challenge. Wheeler assures it will be a piano-pounding good time along with plenty of brass. He is particularly excited about the horn section he assembled to back-up Cleary. “Cleary’s last couple of albums had horns all over them. I wanted horns. A New Orleans horn section,” says Wheeler. However, flying a New Orleans brass section to Wheeling would be pricey. Still yet, Wheeler knew he could pull it off with local talent and worked with Cleary to assemble the Heritage Horns. This horn section will be led by Wheeling native and Pittsburgh’s leading trombonist Reggie Watkins. Watkins come by his blues and jazz roots honestly as his mother is famed Wheeling singer Olga Watkins.
Saturday kicks off with a performance unlike any seen before at BluesFest as West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul, Lady D, performs a homage to Bessie Smith. “It will be part one-woman stage play and part vocal exploration of Bessie Smith’s life and career.” Wheeler saw her perform as part of a traveling series offered by the West Virginia Humanities Council, “I just knew we had to have her at BluesFest. It should be an interesting way to kick off Saturday.”
Another unexpected highlight for Saturday comes at dinner time as hard-rockin’ bluesman Tinsley Ellis sits down for a set that is perhaps a bit out-of-character for him. “It will be Tinsley, a guitar, and his stories,” says Wheeler, “you do not want to miss this.”
The final day brings the rising stars from the International Blues Challenge to the stage. The day kicks off with the 2023 IBC Harmonica winner Deuce’n a Quarter. Then the 2023 guitarist and band of the year, Mattias Lattin, takes the stage next. Mid-afternoon sees Nashville sensation Yates McKendree rise to the BluesFest stage. At just 21 McKendree is a seasoned musician with nearly a decade of performing and touring under his belt. Finally, the festival comes to a big finale with the belting voice and high energy of Sugaray Rayford. Rayford’s album In Too Deep is the winner of the 2023 Soul Blues Music Award’s Album of the Year.
Heritage Music BluesFest 2023 is held August 11, 12, and 13 at Wheeling Heritage Port, 1201 Main Street. For the entire list of musical acts, schedule, and to purchase tickets online visit heritagemusicfest.com.
Gates open on Friday at 4 p.m. Those with canopy permits to gain entry at 2 p.m. for set-up.