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Blues Fest popularity continues to grow

May 26, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

The scope of the Western Maryland Blues Festival is swelling like a Billy Branch harmonica crescendo.

At least 18,000 people are expected to attend the fourth annual festival on June 4-6, said Karen Giffin, spokeswoman for the City of Hagerstown.

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That's a jump of 2,000 visitors over last year, she said.

Some 12,000 blues enthusiasts flocked to the city in 1997, and 7,000 people visited in 1996, the first year the festival was held.

"It's going to be the best one ever," Blues Fest founder Carl W. Disque said.

Scheduled performers are top-notch, entrances and exits to the Public Square fee area for Saturday's events will be more efficient, acoustic quality on the second stage there will be better than before, and there will be "more energy in the park" for Sunday's free band shell concerts, Disque said.

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There also will be more portable toilets than last year, he added.

The goal of the festival's programming committee is to expose people to a diverse group of blues musicians, Disque said.

The panel was bombarded with promotional material from musicians eager to play at the festival, he said.

The committee chose acts featuring both genders, soloists and groups, acoustic and electric sounds, and included a Cajun band "to liven things up a bit on Sunday," Disque said.

British Blues icon John Mayall will headline the Friday kick-off date at a Maryland Theatre concert, and crowd-pleasers Deanna Bogart and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown will top Saturday's Public Square agenda.

Three nominees for the W.C. Handy Blues Awards - Shemekia Copeland, Rory Block and Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers - will perform at the festival. The award is the most prestigious honor given to musicians by the Blues Foundation.

The Cajun band Fil will round out a day filled mainly with acoustic blues at City Park on Sunday.

Soulful melodies might fill the air, but Hagerstown won't be singing the Blues.

"We're showcasing that Hagerstown is on the right track," Disque said. "I'm really pleased with the way the community has decided to own the festival."

The city has been getting calls about the festival since January, and faxes and e-mails have arrived from as far away as Germany, Giffin said.

"They just keep making the festival bigger every year," fund-raising committee chairwoman Julie Donat said. "It takes a greater amount of support to put it on."

Last year's $89,000 comprehensive festival budget ballooned to $106,000 this year, Donat said.

The budget includes funding for performers, facilities, souvenirs and children's activities, burgeoning costs that reflect the growth of the blues festival, Donat said.

Private contributors donated about 70 percent of the money needed to stage this year's festival, Donat said.

Currently at $78,000, the amount of individual and corporate donations has surpassed the fund-raising committee's goal by $8,000, Donat said.

Built-in revenues such as vendor fees, ticket and product sales, $5,000 seed money from last year's festival, and state and local Arts Council grants covered the remainder of this year's festival funding, she said.

The Blues Fest received a $5,000 grant from the Washington County Gaming Commission in 1998, but the panel denied the City of Hagerstown's 1999 request in February.

The festival's first-rate marketing and fund-raising teams helped propel the event past such obstacles, Disque said.

"We have come really close to fulfilling the vision," he said.

That vision started out as a "daydream" of a soulful, multi-day, urban-based, family-oriented music festival that Disque said he described in a letter to Hagerstown Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein after he returned from a 1994 blues festival in Virginia.

The potential of Hagerstown assets such as The Maryland Theatre, Public Square and City Park sparked Disque's imagination, he said.

"It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment idea, but I had high hopes. I could see it," Disque said.

He credits Saum-Wicklein, who introduced him to Giffin to work out festival logistics, with making his dream a reality.

The music now fills city streets for three days, and draws more visitors and tourism dollars to Hagerstown each year.

Disque's wish for total family involvement has been realized, and the "Kids Jam Too!" portion of the festival continues to grow with help from artists such as ace Harmonica player Billy Branch and financial support from Citibank Credit Services Inc., he said.

In the end, though, the success of the outdoor festival may hinge on the weather.

Though blues fans will turn out in the rain, people will stay longer, drink and eat more, and have a better time if the sun is shining, Donat said.

But she said she's not losing sleep over the weather forecast.

"I've got it built into the budget," Donat said.

For more information on the Western Maryland Blues Fest, call 301-739-8577 ext. 116, or visit the festival's Web site at www.blues-fest.com.

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