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Blues on the Rise

If you were wondering how much longer the blues will be around, you could have gotten some strong clues about its future by attending the Second Annual South Florida International Blues Festival last weekend.

At times, the genre seems like it's dying off slowly, like a patient in a hospital bed. It was a different story last week at Nova Southeastern University, where revelers danced, drank, and shouted for three days. It was the type of weekend when no one could feel gloomy about the often-neglected genre because it was alive and thriving right before our eyes. Children and senior citizens cheered together as acts like Blind Mississippi Morris and Jason Ricci delighted fans with performances that should linger in the memories of South Florida blues fans for a long time. Although it's only the festival's second year, organizers managed to land several big names, like guitar wiz Kenny Wayne Shepherd and songstress Janiva Magness. Best of all, the university decided against charging admission, proving that not every concert is solely about profit margins.

Attendance figures were hard to tally since there were no ticket sales, but early estimates suggest that about 8,000 people came out for the events. All told, it's a significant success for a genre desperately in need of a boost.

Things have been as bad as anywhere here in South Florida, where local blues venues seem to be disappearing one by one.

But Dar Lopez, who hosts the weekly Sunday Blues With Dar radio show on WKPX-FM (88.5) and was also on the festival's planning committee, says the benefits of last weekend's blues extravaganza may linger for years.

"I think the festival really helps the blues community as a whole," Lopez says. "It helps our local artists as far as CD sales go, of course, but also with exposure. If someone came out to see Kenny Wayne Shepherd on Saturday, they probably got to see the Hep Cat Boo Daddies too, and I know the local artists benefited from that."

Joel DaSilva, lead singer/guitarist for the Boo Daddies, was all smiles Saturday night after the show for that very reason. Aside from playing a kick-ass set, one that in my opinion was even better than that of Shepherd, who closed the show. DaSilva's band definitely gained lots of new fans.

"If I remember correctly, we sold a lot of CDs Saturday night," DaSilva said two days later via phone. "We had a bunch of people come up to us that had never seen us before. It kind of threw me off in the beginning that the organizers were deciding not to charge admission, but it sure paid off."

Should the festival return next year? "Hell yeah. Just from the turnout alone, you could tell people really embraced it. I don't think anybody anticipated that many people would show up."

What jumped out at me was the number of young people in the audience. Sure, there were plenty of older fans, most of them as interested in the blues as in Southern rock, but lots of college students attended also. Children who came with their parents didn't look bored. Interestingly enough, a part of the festival's high turnout was related to the Southern-rock element that was most prevalent on Saturday night. Some die-hard blues fans were complaining that Saturday's lineup had too much rock — and they were probably right. The Boo Daddies are bluesy as a foundation but often merge rock and swing into their sets. There's nothing wrong with that. But after their set, Anthony Gomes brought pure, uninhibited Texas rock to the stage, and I personally couldn't hear much blues in his music at all.

Shepherd's set was a little better. He played well — no two ways about that — but if you were looking for the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, forget it. Still, the crowds came out in high numbers to see him perform. However, real blues fans couldn't complain about Sunday's set. The most pleasant surprise for me was to catch James "Super Chikan" Johnson, of Clarksdale, Mississippi, who played a highly animated set — and best of all, his band was full of young musicians. His 23-year-old daughter plays drums, and 19-year-old Jeremie Horton is his bassist. That alone shows that young people do gravitate toward the blues as musicians.

"I notice a lot of young people turning toward the blues," Horton said after the set. "I started out with hip-hop mainly, but living in Mississippi, you're sort of surrounded by the blues, so that makes it easier."

Clarksdale is often described as the cradle of the blues — home to John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and a slew of legendary blues players, so Horton's point is well-taken. But as long as the music from that region is played live here annually, it will inevitably catch on with discerning young music fans from South Florida. And if that continues to happen, the blues will be on the rise again.

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Jonathan Cunningham