Photo courtesy of Lowertown Blues Festival
Lowertown Blues Festival
With so many music festivals and concerts and other ways to drink beer and be entertained this summer, it’d be a shame to overlook two worthy outdoor events that have a lot in common. Both happen in St. Paul’s Mears Park, involve outdoor music, and are totally free. And both are relatively new events that need and deserve public love and support.
The Lowertown Blues Festival, July 25, is only in its second year, and it is attempting to fill the hole left after the annual Famous Dave’s Blues Fest at Peavey Plaza flamed out a few years ago. Sponsored by Summit Brewing and Ken Davis barbecue sauce, this year’s bash promises an entire day of scorching blues from a trusty lineup of mostly veteran acts.
For true blues fans, the headliner, Elvin Bishop, has plenty of nostalgia appeal. Though I personally can never forgive the man for polluting the FM airwaves with his brain-curdling hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” he actually did his best work with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the early 1960s, for which he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Veteran bluesman Walter Trout is also on the bill after spending most of last year recovering from a liver transplant. According to Trout, the tremors and pain he was feeling in his fingers disappeared with the new liver, and now he’s playing better than ever. The lineup also features local favorites Lisa Wenger and Her Mean Mean Men, Jimmi & the Band of Souls, and gutbucket blues master Big George Jackson.
You also don’t want to miss the third Lowertown Guitar Festival, on Saturday, August 8. The love child of local folk-blues impresario Molly Maher, this daylong exhibition of six-string virtuosity is a can’t-miss for guitar geeks. The lineup will have filled out more by the time you read this, but Nashville picker Guthrie Trapp will be there, as will blues-rock royalty Greg Koch, jazz guitarist Park Evans, and female shredder Toni Lingren. Local favorites Jerry Kosak and Dean Granos will be there, too. Performances happen on two stages, and there will be a ton of guitar workshops and gear demonstrations by many of the same musicians.
“We’re trying to represent a broad range of guitar styles, and get more women involved,” Maher says. “Scheduling in summer can be a challenge, but we’re going to have a great lineup.”
Aside from the music and the price (free), the great thing about both of these festivals (as well as the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June) is that they take place in St. Paul’s Mears Park, which is one of the best urban performance spaces in the country. If you want to see how bad outdoor festivals can get, go to Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois, where not being able to see the stage is taken for granted. If you want to see how good they can be, spend a summer evening amid the landscaped splendor of Mears Park, where the trees, flowers, stream, and twinkle lights all contribute to a communal sense of musical magic. Mears Park is the perfect size for events like these, and the City of St. Paul manages them brilliantly.
Also worth mentioning is that this summer’s festivals coincide with the blossoming of Lowertown as a destination unto itself. After the shows, revelers who don’t feel like stopping can fan out to any number of bars, restaurants, and music clubs. And the Green Line’s Union Depot stop is only two blocks away from Mears Park, which makes it about the easiest place in St. Paul to access.
Now, it would be better for me personally if fewer people showed up at these festivals, so that I can get a better seat. But I want both the Lowertown Blues and Guitar festivals to have a long shelf life, and the only way that can happen is if us die-hard Mears Park fans learn to share.