Home is where the blues is…

by Ogi Overman

When discussing the 21-year history of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, the temptation is irresistible to view the organization as a microcosm of the genre it seeks to preserve. Like the blues itself, the PBPS is variously underappreciated, underfunded and under the radar, existing just outside the mainstream and fighting for recognition. Yet, again like the blues, its adherents possess a spirit of unwavering loyalty to the cause and a quixotic temperament that relishes fighting the unwinnable battle.

Concomitantly, it is enticing to compare the society’s annual daylong, multi-act concert, now known as the Carolina Blues Festival, with the stereotypical bluesman. Both could be characterized as living an itinerant, vagabond, hand-to-mouth existence, never quite putting down roots, waiting for that big break that will bring with it some financial security.

And while both analogies contain an element of truth, there is another theory that views it from a different perspective. It holds that the us-against-the-world mentality, the David-and-Goliath mindset no longer applies to either the idiom or its devotees. It maintains that the blues has at last gained the respectability it had long deserved and that its fan base is now sufficiently large and vocal enough to demand mainstream status. And as for the local non-profit, the theory argues that the perseverance it has demonstrated over the years in rising above any and all obstacles thrown in its path has produced a strength of character that has earned it coequal status with any civic, charitable, advocacy or professional group in central North Carolina.

In other words, the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society and the Carolina Blues Festival have arrived.

And if that be the case, the twentieth incarnation of the festival, this Saturday, May 6, will mark its coming out party. Moreover, it will be both a celebration of the music and musicians as well as a recognition of the travails along the way, both of which have combined to get the society to this point.

But where exactly is this point and what did the PBPS do to get there? The succinct answer can be found in one simple sentence uttered by its president, John Amberg: ‘“We do what needs to be done.’” That one statement of fact illustrates how every condition that could have easily spelled doom for the society or the festival ‘— or both ‘— has been dealt with. It speaks to the can-do, never-say-die spirit that would not allow the membership to crumble in the face of financial crises, internal dissention, sponsorship defections, a changing marketplace and a dozen other circumstances beyond its control.

Another remark by Amberg, who joined the society in 1992 and has been its president since 1995, could serve as a motto for any corporate head wishing to overcome adversity, erase bitterness and maintain a sense of optimism, to wit: ‘“Since it’s out of our control, we prefer not to dwell on it.’”

Amberg could have been referring to any number of factors over the years’— prime among them the weather ‘—but he was responding to a specific question of being forced to leave the venue that had hosted the festival the past two years: Center City Park, a venue, by the way, that seemed ideally suited to the event.

‘“That was a great place, no doubt,’” he said diplomatically, ‘“but we saw it coming. The city had told us about their plans to landscape it and put in all the things that will make it unsuitable for a large music event like ours. Still, when it’s finished it will be a great addition to downtown.’”

So they did what they always do; they went out and found another venue that will serve their purposes just as well. And site, but owner Richard Harris decided to get out of the medieval festival business and paved over the tilt yard where the blues-loving masses had congregated.

A two-year stint at Emerald Pointe Water Park ended when it became Wet ‘N’ Wild, which was just as well, as some fans complained of too much asphalt, too little shade. So Amberg & Co. made a radical decision to move the festival to a site they were certain wasn’t going to change hands or become something else, Tanglewood Park. Here space and shade were in abundant supply, but the downside was that many loyalists from the Greensboro area felt the drive to Clemmons was simply too far, and not enough support from Forsyth and Davie counties could be generated to make up for the difference. Plus, a freak thunderstorm one year and a daylong rain another essentially washed out the show for two years.

So, a decision was made to bring the festival back to its roots, to downtown Greensboro at a vacant lot owned by Duke Power at the corner of Market and Church streets. On paper, this seemed like an excellent choice, given that downtown was just beginning to see a resurgence at the time, and this site was a mere block from the festival’s ancestral home. But for the third straight year, Mother Nature intervened, turning the lot into a muddy quagmire and forcing what was left of the diehards into a parking lot beside Ritchy’s Uptown (now the Green Burro), whereupon Greensboro’s Finest threatened to charge them with unlawful assembly if they didn’t disburse.

After three successive years of watching its annual fund-raiser turn into a funds-loser, the PBPS found itself in dire financial straits. So who but the blues community itself came to the rescue. Several musicians ‘— Bob Margolin, Cyril Lance and Allison King to name but a few ‘— put on benefit concerts, and several venues such as Solaris and Café Europa hosted them. The result may not have been complete solvency, but the combined efforts of hundreds of supporters did enable the blues preservationists to fight another day.

If the opening of Center City Park was a Godsend, it was the weather itself that proved to be a gift from the divine. For the past two years the festival has been played under sunny skies and balmy breezes, and coupled with a downtown that was now approaching full flower, the crowds responded in kind.

‘“Our best advertisement is a sunny, 75 degree day,’” smiled Amberg. ‘“We are getting close to solvency again, so a nice day again this year would help immensely.’”

Ample help is already on hand, however, in the form of a power-packed lineup that genuinely rivals any in memory (although Amberg did add that they could still use about 20 additional volunteers the day of the show). This being the festival’s twentieth anniversary, it was only natural that the society pull out all the stops. And pull they did.

‘“For the first time since 2002, we went back to six acts,’” revealed Amberg, whose day job (meaning the one that pays him money) is a sales executive for a highly popular local radio station, although many still remember him from his on-air stint as a DJ with Rock 92. ‘“And I think that you can legitimately say that four of those are headliners. Top to bottom, we’re strong.’”

No argument here. Strong may be an understatement.

As is the custom, the reigning PBPS Blues Challenge winner will open the show at 2 p.m. (Gates open at 1 p.m.) This year that honor will fall to Mighty Lester, an eight-piece ensemble that includes a three-piece horn section. The Raleigh-based group will release its second CD to coincide with its appearance here.

Area fans will recognize this edition’s acoustic act, Winston-Salem’s Peter May and the Rough Band. So genuine is Peter’s love for his craft that he once trekked across Mississippi searching for Charley Patton’s grave (just ask him about it). His authentic voice and guitar is further reinforced by his sidemen, arguably the Triad’s finest harp player, Mike Wesolowski, and its preeminent bassist, Bobby Kelly.

Zydeco has been an on-again-off-again element in festivals past, and this year is an on year. Rosie Ledet has earned respect in a male-dominated genre with both her accordion skills and her sultry voice, and her band, the Zydeco Playboys, composed largely of family members, is one of the tightest units this side of Louisiana.

If blues in Greensboro had a face it would be that of Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin. After coming off the road as Muddy Waters’ guitarist from 1973’–’80, he settled down in the Gate City, and the town is the better for it. He’ll be joined onstage for this show by another headliner in his own right, Nappy Brown (‘“Night Time Is The Right Time’”), as well as Mookie Brill on bass and harp and Chuck Cotton on drums, who, incidentally, was last year’s recipient of the PBPS Keepin’ The Blues Alive Award.

‘“Bob has done so much for blues in this area that you can’t even quantify it,’” smiled Amberg. ‘“We thought if we wanted to make the twentieth anniversary really special, it needed to have him be a part of it. Blues has no better friend than Bob Margolin.’”

While Maria Muldaur is best remembered for her hit ‘“Midnight At The Oasis,’” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1974, most of her career has been as a blues performer. And a fine one, at that. As proof, her last two CDs, Sweet Loving Old Soul and Richland Woman Blues, were each nominated for Grammys in the Best Traditional Blues Release category. She also has as platinum-selling album on her résumé.

Closing out the show will be harp master and vocalist Rod Piazza and his band, the Mighty Flyers. Easily one of the most dynamic and powerful live shows on the circuit today, they are the odds-on favorite to take home Band of the Year at this year’s Blues Music Awards (formerly the WC Handy Awards). Moreover, Rod’s wife, Honey Piazza, is considered one of the finest blues pianists around. If West Coast blues/jump/swing is your thing, this band is a must-see.

The proceedings will be even further spiced up by a ceremony honoring past recipients of the PBPS Keepin’ The Blues Alive Award, initiated in 1990. (Trivia buffs take note: The inaugural award went to Bill Kennedy.) It will take place before Bob Margolin and his band hit the stage.

‘“We should have all but two of the 16 past winners here,’” said Amberg. ‘“Bill Mitchell, founder of the PBPS, lives out west and won’t be able to make it, and, of course [legendary club owner], Bill Griffin passed away.’”

For those whose blues appetites have still not been sated after the daylong event, Café Europa will host an after-party at 11 p.m. featuring local stalwarts, the Fairlanes. Admission is $5 for festivalgoers with wristbands, $10 for the general public and free for volunteers.

While Festival Park will clearly make a fine host for this twentieth edition of the Carolina Blues Festival, Amberg has learned from experience that all bets are off past this year. One possibility may be to take a page from Durham’s Bull Durham Blues Festival, which has had great success holding their two-day event at the old Durham Athletic Park, and move it to Greensboro’s War Memorial Stadium. Amberg agrees with prevailing sentiment that downtown Greensboro is becoming boomtown and hopes to keep it in the vicinity.

‘“People have embraced downtown as a destination,’” he observed, ‘“and, judging by the past two years, they’ve embraced our being there. It only makes sense that we continue a relationship with downtown in some form or fashion.’”

But one thing should by now be obvious. Whether or not the PBPS ever finds a permanent home for its annual festival is a secondary concern. What’s important is putting on the best possible show, and making it fan-friendly, accessible and affordable. Blues aficionados, being the hearty lot that they are, have proven that they will support an event that’s well managed, has a good talent roster, and is within easy driving distance. It is, after all, the fans and the musicians ‘— not the venue ‘— that make the show. To paraphrase ‘“Field of Dreams,’” play it and they will come.

If blues is music from the heart, then home is where the blues is.

The festival is produced in collaboration with the EMF and the Piedmont Blues and Jazz Festival, which runs from April 29 through May 10.

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