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With a full plate of festivals, blues scene has no Labor (Day) crisis

Baseball fans are gnashing their teeth at the prospect of another players strike. However, come Aug. 30, what may be bad news for some (a strike, for instance, would cost Chipper Jones $92,592 per game) could be a windfall for other entertainment waiting eagerly to fill the void.
If baseball is resting on its assets come Labor Day, the region's blues music community will be more than happy to accommodate fans with a plateful of festivals — at least five over the course of nine days.

First out of the box is the seventh annual Harvest Moon Bluesfest (www.harvestmoonblues.com), which takes place Friday through Sunday at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers. Highlighting the three-day event is Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Jimmy Thackery & the Drivers, Tab Benoit, the Tommy Castro Band, the Holmes Brothers, Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band and others. The festival closes Sunday with The Six-String Showdown, featuring Benoit, Thackery and Scott Holt.

The 78-year-old Brown is the crown jewel of the event. Born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, Brown was a seminal force among blues guitarists in the '40s — his inheritors included Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Albert Collins. Still, Brown prefers not to be considered a blues musician. He has an affinity for everything from country to jazz, and in addition to guitar, he is fluent on mandolin, violin and other instruments.

Benoit is another one to watch: Born deep in the Louisiana bayou, Benoit has transcended the guitar-centric approach (which he attributes to pressure from his former record label) that characterized his early career. The most recent evidence of his development is Wetlands, released earlier this year on Telarc: It's a genuine artistic breakthrough — a rich, rhythmically diverse recording that captures Benoit's heritage and personality.

The Harvest Moon festival also includes several local bands, including Delta Moon, Motor City Josh & the Big Three, Sweet Betty with the Breeze Kings, the Donna Hopkins Band and Roger "Hurricane" Wilson. Look for a crowd of 6,000 to 8,000 for the weekend.

Before this year, the Harvest Moon festival was held at Chip's Roadhouse in Winder, the weekend after Labor Day. However, ownership and management changes at Chip's late last year included the departure of original owner Greg Forrester and his wife Anne.
It was not an entirely amicable parting, but by all accounts Chip's and the Forresters are both doing quite well. While no longer involved with Chip's, Greg Forrester did retain ownership of the Harvest Moon festival name. For Forrester, the new setting in Conyers allows him to enhance the festival aspects of the event, which include arts and crafts vendors, an expanded children's area and camping and RV facilities.

Chip's, meanwhile, is launching its own festival, now called the annual Chip's Music Festival (www.chipsbarandgrill.com), Friday and Saturday, Sept. 6-7. As the name suggests, the festival isn't purely a blues event. Headline acts include the Atlanta Rhythm Section, the Tinsley Ellis Band and Louisiana guitarist Kenny Neal. Also appearing is the band Barbara Cue, a part-time outfit featuring Todd Nance of Widespread Panic that pays tribute to the beloved bar band NRBQ. Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, as well as Hadden Sayers, Eric Culberson and others also appear.

Ellis' band, which closes the Saturday show, was the first act to perform at Chip's in 1995, and he enjoys a phenomenal following there. The opportunity to book the Atlanta Rhythm Section to close the Friday night performance was just plain luck, explains Rick Slayton, one of the partners in Chip's. When Mother's Finest played Chip's in June, members of ARS were among their guests, and they enjoyed the club.

Clearly, with the history involving the Forresters and Chip's, some fan loyalty may come into play as far as the two events, but since they take place on successive weekends, listeners won't have to make a choice.

"At the time we picked Labor Day weekend, we didn't have any idea what the plans were at Chip's," Forrester says. "The weekend after Labor Day is the traditional weekend [for the festival] at Chip's. It just worked out."

In fact, Slayton, is more concerned about the Mission Music Fest (www.missionmusicfest.com), which features headliner Delbert McClinton and takes place the same days (Sept. 6-7) in Jasper. "That's our real competition," Slayton says. "A lot of people are going to go see Delbert."

The Mission Music benefit features artists with both blues and country influences. In addition to McClinton, Jimmy Thackery & the Drivers perform, as will Atlanta's Bill Sheffield & the Ringtail Rounders, the Hadden Sayers Band, Bill Pound, Cain Hall, Chronic Tendencies, Kim Carson & the Casualties and Kevin Gordon. The festival benefits NARCONON of Georgia, the Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center, Prevent Child Abuse Pickens and the Community Food Pantry.

For Forrester, the biggest threat to a successful festival is not other festivals — it's the possibility of rain. "With the economy the way it is, everybody's competing," he says, "but we're all more worried about the weather than anything else. I want it to rain right now, so it won't rain Labor Day weekend."

No doubt they're thinking the same thing at WRFG (89.3 FM; www.wrfg.org), Radio Free Georgia, which hosts its 17th annual Blues BBQ Monday, Sept. 2, at the Atlanta Waterworks Lodge on the westside. Last year's event, held at the Blue Sky Tavern, was a mud bath, particularly for bands and listeners at the outdoor stage. This year's event, outdoors as well, features irrepressible South Georgia folk blues guitarist Precious Bryant as headliner. Other performers include Chick Willis (whom the station will honor for his contributions to the blues genre), Theodis Ealey, folk blues artist Veronika Jackson, Sammy Blue, vocalist Shirley Diamond, the T-E-E Band and the zydeco group Hair of the Dog.
The 67-year-old Willis is known as "The Stoop Down Man" for his 1972 recording, "Stoop Down Baby ... Let Your Daddy See" — a tune too risque for radio, but one that found a niche on jukeboxes and reportedly has sold 3 million copies. Willis began his career as a vocalist in the band of cousin Chuck Willis, a blues singer and balladeer who enjoyed considerable success in the '50s with such songs as "C.C. Rider," before his death in 1958.

In selecting this year's lineup, the station "chose bands that have been friends of WRFG, bands that we have not had [at the festival] for a while. We also aimed for a melting pot of styles, and a mixture of female and male artists," says JoAnn Cooper, who helped organize the event. The nonprofit community radio station, which airs 22 hours of blues programming a week — primarily in its weekday drive-time "Good Morn-ing Blues" show — counts on the event as one of its essential fund-raising events, Cooper says.

For both Willis and Ealey, the WRFG event will be their second appearance of the weekend. On Saturday, they'll perform at the Culloden Homecoming Blues Celebration. (Willis also returns to Atlanta Saturday night to appear at Blues in the Alley, the new blues club in Underground Atlanta.) Located about 70 miles south of Atlanta in Monroe County, Culloden (population 280) hosts the event for the third year. Like WRFG, the Culloden festival is a benefit, with proceeds going toward the Culloden Old Negro Schoolhouse Restoration Project.

Chip's Slayton — who, by the way, hopes the baseball players do not strike — says that, competition aside, the plethora of blues festival activity is nothing but good for everyone. "The winners out of all of this are the customers. They get a variety of music, and more bands get to play. It makes it good for everybody."

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