Festival brings Weight of the blues to Mystic Shipyard Friday through Sunday

The Weight, from left, Randy Ciarlante, Marty Grebb, Bryan Mitchell, Jim Weider, and Brian Mitchell, are among the performers this weekend at the third anual Mystic Blues Festival. (Phil Mansfield)
The Weight, from left, Randy Ciarlante, Marty Grebb, Bryan Mitchell, Jim Weider, and Brian Mitchell, are among the performers this weekend at the third anual Mystic Blues Festival. (Phil Mansfield)

A lot of American music fans learned about the blues from a most unlikely source: British Invasion rock stars.

"What? You mean Mick and Keef didn't write 'Little Red Rooster' or 'Love in Vain'?" And: "Who's Robert Johnson? Does he play for Cream?"

Well, yes, blues are a treasured American resource and also, fortunately, a highly popular and respected form right here in our own US of A. Numerous types of blues have evolved and mutated as artists of various musical disciplines have incorporated blues into their work.

Bottom line: blues music in all its forms is an essential component of the fabric of American music — and this is particularly evident as the third annual Mystic Blues Festival takes place Friday through Sunday at Mystic Shipyard.

There are plenty of established local and touring artists, Grammy winners and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees scheduled for the festival, including stellar musicians Professor Harp, Bad News Barnes, the Greg Sherrod Blues Band, Jay Stollman with Debbie Davies, Neil Vitullo & the Vipers with Dave Howard, Muzzy Horn and Wooly Mammoth, Paul Gabriel, and Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice.

Mystic Blues is also about education. In addition to the featured performers, then, there is also a Student Spotlight Side Stage devoted to nurturing and showcasing local younger artists. (See sidebar schedule for all the acts.) There also will  be a veritable bounty of food and beverage options from several local and renowned restaurants, breweries and caterers.

In all of this greatness, Sunday's finale set is a killer. The Knickerbocker All Stars — featuring decades' worth of Rhode Island's finest blues practitioners — is a can't-miss highlight.

But perhaps the jewel of the entire festival is one of those alluded-to blues-inspired acts — as opposed to a group sporting pure blues DNA.

The Weight, performing songs of The Band, headlines Saturday's bill. But this is far more than a tribute act. The Weight features former members of The Band as well as guys who played with Rick Danko and Levon Helm. That's about as pure a pedigree as one can hope for, and Jim Weider, who handled The Band's post-Robbie Robertson guitar duties for more than 15 years, is looking forward to this opportunity.

"Getting to play this festival is a lot of fun because it gives us the opportunity to focus on more of the blues and rockier songs in The Band catalog," Weider says. "If you look at all the songs over the years, The Band was at heart a cross between blues, rock and rockabilly — going directly back to Memphis. There's a strong connection.

"Playing for so many years with The Band, the set lists focused on a lot of material fans expected. With The Weight, we can dig much deeper and find so many great songs — and Mystic gives us a big opportunity in that context."

In addition to Weider, The Weight includes Randy Ciarlante, who played drums with Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble Band as well as The Band; keyboardist/accordionist Brian Mitchell, also with Helm; multi-instrumentalist Marty Grebb from Rick Danko's band; and bassist Byron Isaacs of the Helm group.

Admittedly, carrying on a legacy as, well, weighty as The Band is a delicate proposition. And it crossed Weider's mind that perhaps going out as The Weight might not sit well with purist fans of the original Band's lineup and legacy.

"Frankly, it's been very special," Weider says. "People have been thanking us and we're grateful for that and for the opportunity to do this. The hardest part is to replicate the vocals. Those original voices were so distinctive. But we've got five singers and the key part is that, if you close your eyes, Marty sounds just like Richard Manuel. No one could ever sound like the whole thing, but we're close. Most importantly, if we all hadn't been connected to those guys and played with them for years, I don't think it would be possible."

One final component to the whole weekend resonates with Weider in big fashion. With his other band, ProJECT PERCoLAToR, Weider has now played Mystic many times. In addition to the festival, he's been a regular in the theater at the Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas. "We're looking forward to this," he says. "Mystic is such a beautiful town and people love coming here and supporting the arts. (Festival co-founder) Chris Leigh and (Olde Mistick Cinema owner) Bill Dougherty have done a wonderful job of bringing quality live music to a great town. The town council has been forward thinking and supportive. And that kids are a big part of it is very special. It's important in this day and age to learn that live music is a wonderful thing."

Third Annual Mystic Blues Festival, 6-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-7:30 p.m. Sunday, Mystic Shipyard West, 100 Essex St., Mystic; parking and shuttles for Saturday and Sunday at Fitch Senior High School parking lot, 101 Groton Long Point Road, Groton. No parking at the shipyard; $10 Friday, $55 Saturday, $50 Sunday, $90 weekend pass; mysticbluesfestival.com.

Mystic Blues Festival schedule

Friday

6-10 p.m. — Kickoff Jam with Green Tea and guests The Water Street Quartet

Saturday

Noon  — Professor Harp

1-1:30 p.m. — Student Stage All Stars (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

1:30-2:30 p.m. — Lisa Marie and Johnny Juxo

2:30-3 p.m. — String Theory Adult Rock Band (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

3-4 p.m. — Bad News Barnes and the Brethren of the Blues

4-4:30 p.m. — Voices of String Theory (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

4:30-5:30 p.m. — Greg Sherrod Blues Band

5:30-6 p.m. — ACT III (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

6-7 p.m. — Neal Vitullo and the Vipers w/ Dave Howard

7:30-8:30 p.m. — Jay Stollman w/ special guest Debbie Davies

9-10:30 p.m. — The Weight Playing songs of The Band
Featuring former members of The Band, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm Band

Sunday

Noon-1 p.m. — Muzzy Horn with Mammoth (Gray Hallberg, Eric Lasai, Mike LaChance and Toby Halsey)

1-1:30 p.m. — Who Dat Brass Band (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

1:30-2:30 p.m. — Paul Gabriel

2:30-3 p.m. — The Gospel of the Blues (Student Spotlight Side Stage)

3-4 p.m. — Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice

4:30-7:30 p.m. — The Knickerbocker All Stars Featuring: Bruce Bears, Fran Christina, Bob Christina, Rich Lataille, Brian Templeton, Willie J. Laws, Bob Worthington, Cliff Goodwin with special guests James Montgomery and Christine Ohlman

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