During the annual Lowcountry Blues Bash, there is never a shortage of cool bands, hot solo acts, or unusual groups on the roster. Gary Erwin, a guy who's been promoting blues concerts in town since 1986, sees to that.
"As ever, the venue structure changes year-to-year depending on who's still in the game and who's new in the game," says Erwin, who's been performing for years in Charleston under the stage name Shrimp City Slim. "There's something for everyone — 17 days of blues day and night. And over 70 percent of the shows are free admission. This is something you will not find on any other major American blues festival."
Celebrating its 21st year, the Blues Bash offers a hefty load of soul grooves and deep boogie, starting on Thurs. Feb. 3 and running through Sat. Feb. 19. Presented by Erwin and the Lowcountry Blues Society, this year's lineup features 50 acts playing in 25 clubs and restaurants across the Charleston area.
The majority of the shows will go down at clubs that have regularly hosted Blues Bash gigs over the years — joints like the Mad River Bar & Grill, the Blind Tiger, Morgan Creek Grill, the Mill, and the two Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ spots. It looks like the Southend Brewery, Coco Vivo gallery, and other venues have stepped up participation.
"We have a handful of trustworthy venues in town but, to belabor the obvious, people need to go out and support," says Erwin. "This is the one time of year when people seem to rise to the occasion and go out and dig the blues. I think visitors are mystified that we don't have more of an obvious blues and jazz scene in Charleston. We have a lot of work to do in all quarters. The Blues Bash, now 21 years old, is a step in the right direction."
As expected, there's a great diversity of acts at the heart of the festival — from totally unplugged country and Piedmont styles of blues to amplified electric blues-rock, soul, funk, and Caribbean.
Erwin is pumped about several new acts. He calls Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones and their guest Dennis Gruenling a "dynamite jump-blues with a wild harmonica and telepathic guitarist and rhythm section." He refers to Florida songwriter Ben Prestage as "an outrageous one-man band."
Other notable visitors on Erwin's list include Atlanta's Frankie's Blues Mission, who make their first Charleston appearance in 15 years, and the snazzy 10-piece Planet D Nonet, a "dirty little swing band from Detroit."
One of the biggest local showcases of the Blues Bash is the All-Star Blues Jam and Oyster Roast at Home Team in West Ashley. Booked for Sat. Feb. 5 as an authentic blues revue, the bill features singer/guitarist Tommy Thunderfoot, Pawley's Island act My Buddy Todd, local trio the Tips, and a headlining set from Atlanta-based blues man "Big Bill" Morganfield.
Local blues fans should look forward to hearing singer/guitarist Drink Small (a.k.a. the Blues Doctor) and his gritty boogie on Fri. Feb. 4 at the West Ashley Home Team. Another stand-out band, veteran singer/guitarist Mac Arnold and his Plateful O' Blues, plays a mix of funk, soul, and electric blues at the Blind Tiger on Sat. Feb. 12.
"As the cliché goes, we're keepin' the blues alive," says Erwin. "Looking back panoramically at the last 26 years, I can cherish the memory of so many deep and historic artists who have graced our Charleston stages. It has been an amazing ride indeed."
Visit bluesbash.com and the City Paper's event listings for more information.