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Oh so blue!

Why seven years later, the Blues Fest is still red hot

Why seven years later, the Blues Fest is still red hot

May 20, 2002

The response is nearly instantaneous: "un-un."

Julie Donat has spent the majority of her life in Washington County and before the Western Maryland Blues Fest burst upon the scene in 1996, she can't remember anything like it galvanizing the community.

"I'm 38 years old and I can't think of anything," says Donat, senior vice president of mortgage operations, Home Federal Bank, a division of Farmers and Mechanics Bank. "And I don't remember there being a music festival of any sort."

Seven years old and comfortably entrenched as a post-Memorial Day fixture on the calendar, the Blues Fest is once again readying a barrage of scorched earth guitar solos and growling vocals for eager Tri-State ears.

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But what keeps the Blues Fest on top of its game? After seven years, even the most popular outfit/car/TV show starts to show its age.

As City of Hagerstown public information manager and Blues Fest veteran Karen Giffin says, special events like this aren't easy to stage, let alone market.

With a dedicated contingent of volunteers, the Blues Fest has managed to bring regular Joes, the politically powerful and corporate movers together - no small feat -to work toward pulling off a weekend of mind-bending music and fellowship.

"I think it's one of the main points that keeps the Blues Fest fresh," says Cindy Garland, vice president of marketing at Antietam Cable and co-chair of the Blues Fest marketing subcommittee. "The key people who have stayed throughout the years have not gotten complacent and are willing to try something new."

Their relentless tinkering may not always be evident. Warmer than usual weather in 1997 led organizers to better plan how to deal with potential heat-related injuries.

Garland chalks changes up to the natural evolution of an event as organic as the blues itself, made easier by a malleable brain trust unwilling to rest on its laurels.

Take this year. Eager to try something new on Friday night, a more formal Maryland Theatre concert has been ditched for a rooftop celebration on the upper level of Hagerstown Municipal Parking Deck.

"Every year we say what can we do better, what did we do wrong," says festival co-founder Carl Disque. "We weren't afraid to jettison things that didn't work. We weren't afraid to dream big. Not for the sake of being bigger, just for being better."

Make no mistake: bigger has been better. And, truth be told, the festival's 257 percent growth from a three-day audience of 7,000 to one that attracts 18,000, including regular travelers from New England and Florida, wasn't at all forecast from the outset.

Giffin had no idea, neither did Garland nor Donat, that the festival would be such a success. Each remember the struggle of pulling off the first festival, an 18-month endeavor spent painstakingly planning to put together the perfect event because, as Disque says, "we knew we weren't going to get another chance if it didn't take the first year."

"I never envisioned, from the first year, that seven years later we'd be at two stages with continuous concerns about capacity," Donat says. "I never really got the magnitude of how big it could be, and now we spend some time managing controlled growth, which I think is pretty cool."

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