Like a Good Bluesman, the Carolina Blues Festival Just Keeps on Rollin’
Sometimes late at night John Amberg must lie awake wondering if in a former life he went down to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil. No, make that this life.
When Amberg assumed the reins as president of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society in 1995, the mythical scenario put forth by Robert Johnson likely meant no more or no less to him than any similar lyric by, oh, Muddy Waters or Charley Patton or Mississippi Fred McDowell or Lightnin’ Hopkins or any of a few dozen other blues legends. But in the ensuing years, the vicissitudes of life and a thousand variables worthy of the finest Delta lyric must at times leave Amberg beseeching the devil to keep up his end of the bargain.
By nature, definition and mission statement, the PBPS exists for the prime purpose of preserving that rather narrow genre of music. But it has been the Society itself that, on occasion, has needed preserving.
It’s not supposed to be this way. But, then again, maybe it is. Maybe you’re supposed to wake up this morning with them mean ol’ Piedmont blues. If it were easy, anybody could do it, right? If the PBPS is to live up to its mission, perhaps it needs to be both a microcosm of the blues itself and also its practitioners. Nomadic, at times shunned, underappreciated, often broke, living on the edge, passionate but poor, two steps forward and three steps back, high highs and low lows, playing on against a stacked deck.
Nothing ever comes easy to the bluesman. Hell, if it did, it wouldn’t be the blues, now would it? If the city stepped in or a sugar daddy emerged with boatloads of cash, maybe the PBPS would be compromised and co-opted, losing sight of its mission to keep the blues vibrant and alive for succeeding generations.
None of this should be taken to mean that they are anything but a successful, viable organization ‘— merely that it’s a continuous struggle. Again, perhaps that is as it should be.
Still, just like the bluesman himself, every now and then you’ve got to flip, flop and fly; you’ve got to shake it, break it, hang it on the wall; you’ve got to boogie chillun. And the proof’s in the pudding again this Saturday, when the PBPS presents its 19th annual Carolina Blues Festival. This marks the second year it will be held under the big tent at Center City Park, at the corner of Elm and Friendly. Rain or shine, it promises to be a whang-dang doodle.
Shortly after Bill Mitchell and a handful of dreamers founded the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society in August 1985, they realized that even non-profits with good intentions need revenue. To ensure their long-term existence, they came up with the idea of producing one big annual festival that would a) bring some national acts to town and b) make some money. For 19 consecutive years, beginning in 1987, they’ve accomplished a); it’s b) that’s tripped them up.
Not every year, mind you, just often enough to prevent it from being easy, just enough of a struggle to make it blues-worthy. The culprits are generally weather related ‘— rain or wind or cold or all of the above at once ‘— but they crop up often enough to put a crimp on the finances.
But sometimes they are man-made, not by the Society itself but certainly by factors beyond their control. Venues, for one reason or another, don’t always work out, but the resilient blues buffs always find another by the following year. Cases in point:
During its early years, from 1987 to 1989, the blues fest was held at the Friends Motor Inn. That motel has since been torn down.
It moved outdoors to the grounds of the Depot for a nice run from 1990 to 1992, but the massive renovation project there necessitated another move.
From Greensboro it headed to Jamestown to the lovely site at Castle McCulloch, where it enjoyed five excellent years of stellar festivals from ’93 through ’97. But then the castle owner decided to pave the Tiltyard where the event was held, forcing yet another move.
Emerald Pointe was the next stop, but concrete was a poor substitute for grass and a water park did not seem the ideal venue for a blues concert, so after a couple of years it moved on.
Tanglewood Park, the festival’s home from 2000 to 2002, had a lot of plusses ‘— plenty of open grassy space, a large stage, ample parking, easy ambiance ‘— but those were outweighed by one factor: Clemmons is simply too far for many Greensboro fans to drive and there was not enough support from Winston-Salem to make it work.
So the event returned to its roots ‘— or at least near them ‘— for one year, to a vacant lot in downtown Greensboro at the corner of Church Street and Friendly Avenue. That was the year that a torrential rainstorm wiped out the festival and forced a few hearty diehards indoors to Ritchy’s Uptown, where a stripped-down version was held. The lot, owned by Duke Power, is still vacant
Last year the daylong concert returned to form with a new venue at Center City Park, beautiful weather, a top-notch lineup (the one constant), and strong attendance.
‘“We bounced back in a big way last year,’” said Amberg. ‘“We made about $7,000 and a good time was had by all. We were delighted.’”
This year the blues fest returns to Center City Park, but, alas, 2005 will be the swan song at that venue.
‘“They’re going to redesign and renovate the whole park,’” laments Amberg, ‘“and a year from now it will be completely different. They are adding fountains and walkways and flower gardens, which makes it unsuitable for us. They will have a stage but it will only accommodate very small crowds.
‘“Action Greensboro obviously didn’t feel using the park as a music venue was a viable option. They seem to be discouraging that with this new park.’”
Ever resilient, ever optimistic, Amberg assures fans that next year’s 20th renewal will be a special one, regardless of venue.
‘“We’ll figure it out by next year,’” he smiles. ‘“We’ve been doing this a long time, so this is nothing new to us. We have several options already. I can’t tell you on the record just yet, but there are some things going on that are quite promising. I will tell you, however, that we want to remain downtown.’”
Although the courtship with Center City Park did not wind up a long-term relationship (insert blues lyric here), Amberg does feel that the symbiosis between the PBPS and the Eastern Music Festival-produced Jazzfest ‘— which has resulted in the broadened Piedmont Jazz and Blues Festival, of which this Saturday’s concert is one component ‘— is very beneficial and will last for the duration.
‘“This is the best thing we’ve done from a publicity and exposure standpoint,’” says Amberg, who by profession is an Entercom radio exec and former DJ at Rock 92. ‘“It has allowed us not to have to put as much of our resources into promotion. When non-profits work together it’s a win-win. Plus, it gives us an alternative to promote our festival to another group of people who may not have thought of going to a blues festival before. So it’s just been a great experience.’”
Another bright spot is that Miller Brewing is back aboard as a corporate sponsor after a year’s absence and that private support for the festival has remained steady.
‘“Yes, it’s good to have Miller back, although they’re not at the level they used to be,’” says Amberg. ‘“We have some wonderful sponsors, including Yes! Weekly, Rock 92, Smith Stokes, the Weaver Foundation, Kraft Insurance, and WNAA radio.’”
Despite the endless travails, Amberg envisions a bright future for both the PBPS and the annual festival.
‘“I’d love to see us have a full- or part-time staffer and a place where we could share our archives with the public,’” he says. ‘“People could come in and view our tapes and listen to our CDs, sort of a blues library. I think that would be a good resource for the community.’”
Meanwhile, the Society’s annual amateur talent contest, renamed Talent Showcase, continues to be a popular event for fans and musicians alike; PBPS membership is steady (but there’s always room to grow); a half dozen or so club shows per year are planned; and ancillary income from internet merchandising is increasingly lucrative.
‘“It’s a labor of love,’” grins the affable, hard-working Amberg. ‘“Sometimes I think I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive about this thing, but I feel so strongly about this form of music. We want people to be aware of it and to pass it down to the next generation. You need groups like us to preserve this music and keep it alive.
‘“Plus, we have a heck of a good time doing it.’”
The 19th annual Carolina Blues Festival will be held Saturday, May 7 at Center City Park in downtown Greensboro. Gates open at 1 p.m. and the music starts at 2 p.m. Admission is $15, $10 for groups of six or more. Bring your own lawn chairs and blankets; food and beverages will be available. Advance tickets may be purchased at the Carolina Theatre box office (336.333.2605), BB’s Compact Discs, and J&B Music Connection.
For further info call 336.275.4944 or visit piedmontblues.org.