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When I first heard about the inaugural Mystic Blues Festival last summer, I admit I had to wrap my brain around the idea of someone like Junior Wells playing down the street from the quaint Daniel Packer Inne as boatbuilders restored a 19th-century whaling ship. The juxtaposition of stereotypes seemed rather like Herman Melville arriving at a midnight Mississippi crossroads to sell his soul in order to punish a great white whale and get a weekend reservation at The Oyster Club.
But the more I thought about the fest, the better I liked it.
Today, the 2nd annual Mystic Blues Festival kicks off at 5 p.m. in the Mystic Boatyard. It runs through Sunday and features international luminaries - Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, the Spin Doctors, to name a few - as well as a rich array of local and regional talent reflecting the fact that Westerly and New England are perhaps under-appreciated bastions of blues talent and lore.
The festival is the brainchild of Chris and Amy Leigh - they operate the String Theory Music School in Niantic, and Chris is a much-in-demand local guitarist - and the brilliance of their concept may just lie in the fact that they're bringing world-class blues artists to a quaint New England showplace village like Mystic.
And the first Mystic Blues Festival was a success. As veteran bluesman James Montgomery told me earlier this week, "(The musicians) couldn't believe it was (the Leighs') first try at running a festival. I've played some festivals that have been around 10 to 15 years that aren't as well organized as Mystic. It's well-oiled and everybody - from the stage managers to the green rooms and definitely the audiences - were perfect last year."
In preparation for Volume II, the Leighs and dozens of volunteers and Mystic civic honchos and area blues-lovers have worked for a year to streamline the concept, and will this weekend present an even better festival complete with after-party showcases, adjunct workshops and classes, and plenty of food and merch vendors - all within walking distance of the shops and restaurants of downtown Mystic.
Yes, the single-day tickets are expensive at $78 ($207 for a weekend pass). By comparison, this year's New Orleans Jazz Fest charged $70 at the gate, with dozens more stages and performers ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Vampire Weekend to Sonny Landreth and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A music festival is a growing/nurturing proposition. The first New Orleans Jazz Fest attracted about 350 people even though Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain and Mahalia Jackson headlined. Over time, they've garnered tremendous private and state support down there - and the allegiance of fans who come from all over to enjoy (and spend money) in their city.
With time, the Leighs and the Mystic Blues folks will similarly begin to generate grants and get more corporate sponsorships, and in turn attendance will continue to grow as the already-impressive artist roster expands and the word gets around.
In the meantime, get out this weekend and enjoy Mystic and the blues. Perhaps oddly - perhaps not - they were made for each other. And remember: you're getting in on the ground floor of what can and should be a tremendous annual event.