Central New York’s long history of embracing blues music continues this month with one of its most high-profile celebrations of the genre, the Chenango County Blues Festival.
This year’s festival takes place on Aug. 16 and 17 at the Chenango County Fairgrounds in Norwich, New York. At Friday’s portion of the festival, which is free of charge, the Gabe Stillman Band, Joanna Connor, and Rick Estrin and the Nightcats will perform from 5:30 until 10:15 p.m., with gates opening at 4 p.m. The next day, gates open at 11 a.m., and the performances, held at two different stages simultaneously all day, begin at 11:30 a.m. and continue until 9:45 p.m. Saturday will feature Tab Benoit, Mississippi Heat, and Jontavious Willis, among several others. Tickets are available before the festival’s first day for $25 at chenangobluesfest.org and $35 on the day of the show.
Festival organizer Eric Larsen thanked the team of people who help make the event possible each year, and said the 2019 festival would follow much of the same formula as years before, which has proven to be successful. Like always, there is an emphasis on keeping the event accessible and affordable for people of all backgrounds.
“We try and run an event that is good for both fans and artists and that is family friendly and affordable for as many people as possible,” Larsen said. “We are an all volunteer run group with no paid staff and no profit motive, so we try and bring that vibe forward in to the event. Nothing against big festivals, but we kind of strive to be the opposite of the events where you pay $5 for a water and $15 for a beer. We are in it to share great music with as wide a group of friends as we can round up.”
Organizers cast a wide net when recruiting a lineup for the festival, in order to give blues fans in the area the most variety of musical options. Looking for up-and-comers who might not have attained much fame yet is also a priority, Larsen said, which likely guarantees that fans will be hearing the artists for the first time.
“In developing our lineup, we always look for diversity first,” he said. “We want to represent as many different styles as we can realistically fit in. We want to move it across the regions: west coast, south, and of course Chicago is its own region. If we can get someone international, that’s always fun, and we also try and dig up a couple artists that people probably haven’t gotten the chance to hear yet.”
Larsen’s excited about the lineup, which he said has drawn compliments from regular festival-goers. Pokey LaFarge, who is performing on Saturday, doesn’t normally make it up to the central New York area, Larsen said, so he’s excited to hear from him, plus Tab Benoit and Downchild Blues Band are both capable of electric live performances. There are also award winning acts like Lurrie Bell, who Larsen mentioned won the Living Blues Critics Poll Guitar Player of the Year, and will be closing down the festival with Mississippi Heat. The music is the main attraction for the crowd, but Larsen said he also thinks people enjoy the community feel of the festival. Though it has the production value of a formal event, it can avoid the hassle of larger and more crowded festivals.
The event wasn’t going to be a yearly event, Larsen said, until Joe Portelli grouped together his friends as volunteers to see if they could keep it going for an additional year after the inaugural event 27 years ago. They hit their goal of 200 attendees that year and decided to go for a third, and it has stayed alive since then. The festival has been able to grow over the decades with the help of volunteers and local sponsors, plus the persistence of organizers.
“If it weren’t for a core group of about a dozen people, it wouldn’t be possible to put the festival on,” Larsen said. “My favorite part is easy, looking out at a lot of people coming together and having a good time listening to music. It’s community in the best sense of the word. Having people pat us on the back and thank us for doing it is an incredibly rewarding feeling.”