Between Nashville’s slew of country western mega-stars and Austin’s yearly hub for indie musicians in SXSW, it can be relatively easy for music enthusiasts to gloss over Tucson as one of the music meccas of the nation. To do so would be a mistake, however.
The Southern Arizona Blues Heritage Foundation proved that point in spades for the 31st time in a row Oct. 18 with the latest iteration in its annual Blues & Heritage Festival.
Hundreds piled into Rillito Park, with food choices ranging from German bratwurst and meatloaf sandwich to Vietnamese banh mi, pizza and more assuring that festival-goers would keep from going hungry while they enjoyed the eight-hour show.
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater brought his Chicago-bred, Macon, MS-born blues to the festival as its headliner this go-around.
Alongside the likes of Otis Rush and teacher Magic Sam, Clearwater’s feral, fervent rendition of the blues deservedly earned him a Grammy nomination, seven Blues Music Awards nominations and a W.C. Handy Award. The 80 year-old proved his worth as one of the grandmasters of blues and founders of the West Side sound all over again with a vibrantly emotive style and grit to set the evening alight.
Clearwater wasn’t the only import, with the fan favorite Dennis Jones Band reprising their performing role at the festival with a set full of funky California blues. Aside from Jones and Clearwater, however, the Blues & Heritage Festival was once again chockful of local acts.
10 year-old Magic Voice Studios protégé Greylyn Zurita astounded audiences with her beautiful rendition of the National Anthem. From there, crowds were treated to more young talent, and this time from the Cholla Blues Standard student ensemble hailing from Cholla High Magnet School.
Like the Dennis Jones Band, the Cholla Blues Standard are a set of recurring faces at the Blues & Heritage Festival. Returning for another encore opening hot off the heels of their well-received 2014 and 2013 performances, the students exemplified the importance of music in schools with a set showcasing their proficiency without missing a beat of infusing their performance with their fun-loving, youthful energy.
Up-and-coming Tucsonan blues, groove, surf and soul stars Kathy Davis & the GrooveTones were up next, showing off their seasoned chops with the glitz and flair that local audiences have come to know of the band quite well. The band recently released a new album the members promoted throughout their set, aptly titled “Tunes in the Key of Groove.”
Davis and the GrooveTones arguably had one of the biggest moments of the festival when they invited drummer Chip Ritter onto the stage. Ritter found his claim to fame after his vibrant style of percussion went viral following an appearance on “Letterman” in 2004, and he was able to showcase a variety of his best tracks alongside his masterclass drum skills during two songs in the band’s set.
In between his performances, Ritter made it a point to explain the importance of music and how it can influence children in a positive light, and used the Cholla Blues Standard as his perfect example. Ritter, an author and music instructor himself, informed audiences that his new Chip Ritter app is available to download for free on Android devices and will make its appearance on Apple products soon. On the app, he intends to offer rudimentary courses on his drumming technique, and promises exciting future updates if the app reaches 1,000 downloads.
The Bad News Blues Band followed the GrooveTones and were anything but bad news with their dynamic performance style, accentuated by their buoyant brass line. Little House of Funk followed Clearwater to close the night off with one last Tucsonan act to enjoy, garnering some movers and shakers amongst the audience before another Blues & Heritage Festival came to an end.
The band had made it a point to accentuate the presence of GaitWay, a local non-profit organization specializing in intensive programs crafted for conductive education for those with motor skill disorders.
For more information on GaitWay, the Southern Arizona Blues & Heritage Foundation and any of the festival’s performing acts, including specific websites and where they may appear next, visit their respective Facebook pages.