The 17th annual Little Chicago Blues Festival continues tonight and Saturday at the Down Home with a lineup of a dozen regional blues acts ranging from acoustic to electric, funk, Chicago and the Delta.
The event is a benefit for WETS-FM, the public radio station of East Tennessee State University, which plays music of these groups throughout the year on its weekly “Blue Monday” show. Every year a dozen acts agree to donate their performances – often giving up lucrative weekends gigs – to show support for public radio.
Showtime at Down Home is 8 each evening. Tickets are $15.
The festival began Thursday when The King Bees, the Hoo Doos, The Bobby Knight Band and Soulfinger performed. Tonight’s festival lineup features Bleu Jackson and the Hitmen, Randy Webb & Blues No More, the Nomadz and B-Team Blues Band.
Saturday’s show will start with Lightnin’ Charlie & the Upsetters, followed by Buck Hoffmann, Blue Mother Tupelo and Jenna and the Joneses.
Most of the acts are longtime supporters of WETS and have played the festival before – some more than 10 times. The only new group to the festival this year is Soulfinger, a soul group.
Jenna and the Joneses are a versatile five-piece soul/blues/funk act from Knoxville, sporting two drummers and capable of turning blues into a jam. They were voted Knoxville’s Best Blues Band by Metro Pulse readers for 2006.
Hoffmann is an area blues veteran who normally plays Piedmont-style blues as a solo act, but he’ll be playing with a band on this occasion. Jackson has just released a new album, “Lightning.” He and his band, the Hitmen, are Little Chicago regulars. “Those guys can never quit,” Winkler said with a laugh. “They keep coming back.”
The logistics of the blues festival are part of what makes it different than a normal show at Down Home. Fans get shorter-than-usual sets from four bands in one night, and get a rare chance to see the other groups perform.
“It’s fun to tinker with the lineups each night and with the energy a little bit,” Winkler said. “There have been surprises. One of biggest surprises I got was the first time I’d ever heard Ghost Mountain Rhythm and Blues and they just tore the place up. Blue Mother Tupelo, usually an acoustic duo, was going to follow them and I wondered, ‘How are they gonna follow that without losing the audience?’ But they got a nice, soft groove going, went for a whole different approach and didn’t lose anybody. People loved them.”
Blue Mother Tupelo, one of the festival’s longtime supporters, comes to Down Home from the Nashville area every year.
Winkler said the booking process for the festival begins months in advance. Several performers always tell him they’re interested in performing. Then, closer to festival time, he’ll put out a request for bands on the air during the “Blue Monday” show.
“That’s usually all it takes to get enough bands in here to fill up three nights,” he said. “I could go through my phone numbers, but it’s easier on the air because blues musicians change their phone numbers all the time.”
The groups get a chance to show off their stuff to a blues crowd, the proceeds go to WETS, and Down Home donates the space, making some money off food and beverage sales.
“It’s a showcase for the bands,” Winkler said. “It’s like a Taste of Johnson City. All the restaurants are there, and maybe people haven’t gotten to try them all so it’s a way to get a little taste across to people who might not have known about them.”
That the band-festival relationship is mutually beneficial, Winkler added, “I think is the reason it’s been going on 17 years.”