Reviving The Ann Arbor Blues Festival

. August 1, 2017.
Ann Arbor’s own Chris Canas - Photo by Carlos Almeida
Ann Arbor’s own Chris Canas - Photo by Carlos Almeida

If you dig back, you’ll find the legacy of blues music in Ann Arbor astonishing. In 1969, for example, a couple U-M college students were actually able to curate what many say is the first electric blues festival in North America, where attendees were treated to performances by the greatest icons and innovators of the blues, from B.B. King and Howlin Wolf, to Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters. What’s maybe more astonishing, however, is how that legacy has come to be disregarded as time’s gone on.

Reclaiming the legacy

Ann Arbor’s own Chris Canas seeks to make sure that legacy not only stops being overlooked, but also continues to flourish. A lifelong musician who leads the Chris Canas Band – a tremendous and versatile ensemble that’s relentless both in its live presentation and tour schedule, but above all, constitutes some of the most impassioned players you can find when it comes to performing pure blues music – Canas has been given significant credit for helping revive The Ann Arbor Blues Festival. That credit comes from James Partridge, a local legal consultant who fell madly in love with the blues later in his life and wound up establishing the Ann Arbor Blues Society to promote and further enrich a new generation’s experience and enjoyment of live blues music in our region.

Ann Arbor’s influence

“I’m really proud of what Ann Arbor has contributed to the music world,” Partridge says, “and to the blues, particularly. But I feel, to a large extent, that contribution has been forgotten.” Reclaiming Ann Arbor’s vital place in the national blues scene is one of Partridge’s biggest inspirations for organizing the city’s revived Blues Festival on August 19 at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds.

“Everybody knows what Detroit did for music – and rightfully so,” he adds. “Ann Arbor’s influence isn’t as well known. But Ann Arbor Blues Festivals changed the course of music history. Without them, a lot of the music we listen to today would never have been made. That’s an incredible legacy and something this town should be incredibly proud of.” ”

“Pretty much every form of music that we have now, whether it’s country, or rock, or folk, all comes from the blues,” says Canas, who was a standout performer at this year’s A2 Summer Fest’s Top of the Park series. “I think that’s why (blues) is so personal, because you can have folk blues, or rock blues, or country blues, it doesn’t matter what type of blues you’re playing; it’s almost like water! We’re all made of water! That’s (the Blues) the basic element we need and the basic ingredient in every song. Blues, to me, is everything.”

Growing the festival

“I want to grow this festival,” Partridge says, “and really build excitement and enthusiasm for when we hit the 50th anniversary of the very first blues fest, which is 2019.” Partridge’s intent is to reintroduce, and reinvigorate excitement for the blues to a music scene that wound up drifting more toward contemporary indie-rock or folk throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.

“One thing about the blues,” says Partridge, who also plays guitar, “is that it’s simple in structure, and yet very complex. It takes a long time to study and master because there are so many different layers and variations.”

Playing for the future

Canas, meanwhile, has an eye toward the future. “We all know where blues has been,” he says. “Nobody knows where it’s going! We want to usher in a new generation of players and new fans. You gotta have new fans, otherwise the medium is gonna die. The true meaning of keeping the blues alive is to not live in the past; sure you pay homage, but we’re also playing for the future!”

Canas and Partridge agree there’s something for everyone at this year’s festival. Diversity amid the blues stylists on this lineup was important. “There’s something for blues purists, sure,” says Canas. “But we got something for contemporary folks, blues-rockin’ folks, a bit of flavor for everyone. That’s what Ann Arbor means to me; that diversity!”

Headliners include Benny Turner & Real Blues, The Nick Moss Band, Eliza Neals and the Narcotics, The Chris Canas Band, and many more.

$35-$45.
1-11pm. Saturday, August 19.
Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds, 5055 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd.
734-429-3145 | a2bluesfestival.com