Big Blues Acts Converge on Rhode Island

Rhode Island has become known internationally for its Folk Fest, Jazz Fest, Rhythm and Roots and Classical Music Fest – that’s a lot of music for a little state. The Rhode Island Blues Fest is a new entry that hopes to shine a similar spotlight on the blues.

Blues music seems to be rising in popularity right now in New England, and like a lot of modern genres, the edges that define it are wide and creatively blurred. Traditional blues now fuses with rock, roots, jazz and other forms – there’s upbeat blues, which seems oxymoronic, classic blues and even electronic blues.

Many of these forms will be on display in RI on August 18 – 19, when two full days of music will blues-out at an outdoor festival at mini-golf, golf, batting practice and event venue Mulligan’s Island in Cranston. BBQ, a variety of food services and ribs will underscore the theme. RI’s Revival Brewing will also bring a range of beers, and a variety of other vendors will be on hand.

The fest is new, but optimistic about doing for blues what nearby Newport has done for other musical styles. “We didn’t see anything like that for blues fans,” said founder and blues aficionado Michael Friedman. “We were in discussions with Marcia Ball, trying to figure out the right fit for her to stage a special RI performance, then we talked to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and we realized there was a gap to fill in RI’s powerful musical festival heritage,” Friedman explains. “We wanted to create an event that would provide a stage for these phenomenal, internationally touring acts.”

Each day features four performances with regional acts leading up to the international performers. Saturday opens at noon with Neal & the Vipers, the RI-based band that has expanded since its “Young Neal” days into all kinds of roots-rock, including blues, but always with an emphasis on danceable tunes.

The Heather Gillis Band will be next, featuring infectiously enthusiastic 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist Heather Gillis, who radiates future stardom. She’s followed by Jack Broadbent, fresh off a popular international tour. Broadbent was called “The new master of the slide guitar” by the Montreux Jazz Festival and “The real thang” by the legendary blueser Bootsy Collins.

Marcia Ball, a Texas-Louisiana singer-songwriter who is this year’s “State Musician of Texas,” will cap off Saturday. The New York Times says, “Marcia Ball plays two-fisted New Orleans barrelhouse piano and sings in a husky, knowing voice about all the trouble men and women can get into on the way to a good time.” The Houston Chronicle says simply, “She’s as perfect as an artist can be.” She’ll start around 6pm.

Sunday opens with the Stovall Brown Band, whose front man, Chris Stovall Brown, is the drummer for Watermelon Slim and has done regional shows with J.Geils, Jeff Pitchell, the Colby’s, James Montgomery, Sweet Melissa, Madeleine Hall, and Shirley Lewis, to name a few. The Lois Greco Band – Lois won “Most Outstanding Female Singer” in the Blues Audience Readers Poll, and The Lois Greco Band was voted Best Blues/R&B Act in the 2014 WMRC Music Awards – will follow.

Then there’s Selwyn Birchwood, bringing a contemporary blues style that won his first album The Blues Music Award and Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album Of 2014 and the 2015 Blues Blast Rising Star Award. His tunes sound like an especially unusual mix within the blues spectrum.

Concluding Sunday is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a powerhouse N’Orleans supergroup with a 40-year history. The Dirty Dozen have blended traditional brass band music with a mix of genres, including bebop jazz, funk and R&B/soul. This unique sound, described by the band as “musical gumbo,” has carried them to five continents and more than 30 countries, and into collaborations with a range of artists from Modest Mouse to Widespread Panic to Norah Jones.

Tickets are sold by the day or for the weekend, and cost more at the event – $25/day, $40/weekend in advance, $35 and $55 at the door – er, field. For more on this event, go to


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