14 August 2019 | Martin Slagter | MLive
ANN ARBOR, MI – While the 50th anniversary revival of Woodstock — the most widely recognized outdoor music festival in American history — was called off, the 50th anniversary of another festival its organizer describes as “arguably more significant” lives on this weekend in Ann Arbor.
Organized by a small group of University of Michigan students led by John Fishel and Cary Gordon, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in the summers of 1969 and 1970 came to represent the first modern electric blues festival in North America.
“Music was fundamentally changed, and that happened right here in Ann Arbor,” Ann Arbor Blues Festival Organizer James Partridge said.
The lineups assembled for those first festivals included names deeply embedded among the greatest blues artists of all time, including Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Freddie King, Hound Dog Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Big Mama Thornton and Mighty Joe Young and dozens of others.
“Without the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, so much of what we hear and what we know today couldn’t have happened,” Partridge said. “When the Ann Arbor Blues Festival first happened, people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s careers were, for the most part, on the downward slope. Most white people hadn’t really heard of them.
“It created shockwaves in the music world. Although Woodstock got much more press, the significance of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is arguably greater.”
This weekend’s festival aims to celebrate the blues past and present, Partridge said, with three days of music set for Aug. 16-18 at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds.
The festival’s headliners illustrate that mission, with Ann Arbor blues-rock guitar hero Laith Al-Saadi, representing a new generation, as Friday’s top billing, and Benny Turner returning to headline Saturday after playing the first festival in 1969 with his brother, Freddie King.
“When first putting together the festival and putting together a dream team, (Al-Saadi) is the first name I wrote down,” Partridge said.
Financial difficulties caused UM to cut ties with the festival after 1970, largely due to the Goose Lake International Music Festival happening near Jackson at the same time.
But the festival’s initial popularity eventually led to expanding the title to the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals, which took place in 1972-74, organized by local music promoter Peter Andrews and noted MC5 manager, poet and political commentator John Sinclair.
It featured an equally impressive roster of performers including Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Koko Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Big Walter Horton, Charles Mingus and Freddie King.
The festival remained an on-and-off-again part of the summers in Ann Arbor over the ensuing decades, until 2006. Partridge revived the festival in 2017 with an eye toward the 50th anniversary and the mission to introduce a new generation to blues music.
Closing out the festival on Sunday are The Kinsey Report with Carl Weathersby and Carlos Johnson. The group’s history of playing with legends, ranging from Muddy Waters to Bob Marley, represents their versatility as one of the most popular and innovative blues bands of the 1980s, Partridge said.
“They bring so much history and so much tradition,” he said. “They’ve got a great synergy together and a wide variety of styles. It’s going to be a really cool performance.”
Tickets for the festival are $110 for a three-day pass; $75 for a two-day pass and $40 for single day tickets, prior to the day of the show. The day of the show, those tickets increase to $135, $90 and $50, respectively. General admission ticket holders may bring a blanket or a small lawn chair.
Here’s a look at the lineup for this year’s festival:
Friday, Aug. 16
5:50 p.m.: The Ann Arbor Music Center All Stars Youth Band
6:45 p.m.: Thornetta Davis
8:15 p.m.: Bernard Allison
9:15 p.m.: Laith Al-Saadi & Friends
Saturday, Aug. 17
Noon: Kara Grainger
1:15 p.m.: Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones
2:30 p.m.: Chicago Blues Supersession
4:15 p.m.: Eliza Neals and the Narcotics
5:30 p.m.: Lindsay Beaver
7 p.m.: John Primer
8:15 p.m.: Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers
9:45 p.m.: Benny Turner
Sunday, Aug. 18
Noon: Alex Johnson
1 p.m.: The Altered Five Blues Band
2:15 p.m..: Harper & The Midwest Kind
3:30 p.m.: Vanessa Collier
5 p.m.: Danielle Nicole
All Photos courtesy of the Ann Arbor District Library Old News archive