After a rocky road, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is back just in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary

Aug 14, 2019 at 1:00 am
Benny Turner at the 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
Benny Turner at the 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Bryan Mitchell/Courtesy of ann Arbor Blues Festival

James Partridge was an ardent fan of the blues long before he ever knew it.

"I was a classic rock 'n' roll fan most of my life," says Partridge, the attorney-turned-impresario who became the driving force behind reviving the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which returns to the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds this weekend for its 50th anniversary celebration. 

"I grew up listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, all that stuff," he says. "But it wasn't until I started to learn to play the guitar as an adult that my instructor educated me that all that music was blues-based." 

So when the Brooklyn, N.Y., native relocated to southeast Michigan shortly after earning his law degree and settled in Ann Arbor 18 years ago, he soon realized he had landed on hallowed ground. Because while baby boomers wax nostalgic this summer about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, two weeks earlier an event was held near the University of Michigan that also carried historic significance in popular music annals. 

In August 1969, a small group of blues-obsessed U-M students, led by John Fishel and Cary Gordon and supported by the university, produced the world's first electric blues festival and arguably the greatest assemblage of blues artists ever, led by such legends as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. (The inaugural Ann Arbor Blues Fest is the subject of a recently released box set put together from long-lost tapes, released by Jack White's Third Man Records.) That began a long and checkered history for the annual blues bash, which changed its name and expanded its vision to the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival before ceasing operation in 2006. As the event's silver anniversary approached, however, Partridge — who became immersed in the guitar primarily to bond with his son, Nick, who wanted to learn — felt compelled to honor it in some way.

First he needed to know if he could rally any similarly devoted blues lovers to join him — a Partridge family, if you will — so he created the Ann Arbor Blues Society in 2016. "That's my baby," he says. "I'll admit it was a little strategic. When I started trying to put the festival together, I realized I was going to need a lot of help. My thought was, 'I need to build an army. How do I do that?' I decided to form a blues society and get a lot of people together who are interested in the blues. So that was my first step."

As a novice concert promoter, Partridge, who stopped practicing law in 2018 to concentrate on the festival full time, quickly learned how much he didn't know. "My reach exceeded my grasp, as they say," he admits. 

"My original vision was to bring it back in 2016 as a big three-day affair, very much like the original festival," says Partridge, 53. "I wanted to have big-name bands. I mean, I wanted Buddy Guy, the Black Keys. I had no idea what I was doing. But the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the Coachella of blues festivals, right? So I wanted it to pick up where it left off. But we couldn't get any funding, and with budget and logistics we just couldn't make it happen. I got discouraged, frankly, and I put it aside."

With the support and encouragement of numerous people, most notably local blues artist Chris Canas, Partridge, now the executive producer, relaunched the festival in 2017 as a more modest, one-day event. "I said, 'Let's really scale it down and do something small, see if we can build it so that by the anniversary in 2019 we can get it close to what it once was.'"

Mission accomplished, but even in its full three-day form, the festival has encountered its challenges: an emergency appendectomy performed on Devon Allman forced one of this weekend's top attractions, The Allman Betts Band, to cancel its appearance. (Ticket refunds are available; see info block below.) Ann Arbor native and The Voice finalist Laith Al-Saadi has moved his headlining set from Sunday to Friday night to replace the band, and the legendary Kinsey Report has been booked to close the festival on Sunday.

"I think we've put together a really strong lineup," Partridge says. "What I was hoping to do as we curated this was to get a good cross-section of acts that really honored the past and the legacy of the original festival, that pure Chicago-style blues, represented the current crop of contemporary blues musicians and also looked to the future of the blues. To let people know that despite all the predictions, the blues is very much alive and we've got a lot of really good music to look forward to for the next 50 years."

As his passion has become his profession, Partridge can wax eloquent about what this weekend's silver celebration means to him.

"The Ann Arbor Blues Festival is much more than a festival, more than a celebration of the blues," he maintains. "It's a cultural event, a social event, really even a political event. 

"You know, what happened in 1969 on that field in Ann Arbor changed the world, and not just because it was the first electric blues festival. That was a time when artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were not household names, not played on mainstream radio. When John and Cary brought in all those musicians to perform in front of 20,000 mostly white people, that was monumental. That changed history. That changed music. That inspired thousands of people, and it transformed their lives. 

"It transformed the lives of the musicians, the lives of the people in the audience, and ultimately the lives of people who never even heard of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. That's what we're celebrating 50 years later. That to me is the significance of this, and that's why I wanted to bring this festival back. Because it's just so important that we remember that."

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 50th anniversary, presented by A2 Hosting, takes place Friday Aug. 16 through Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds, 5055 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd., Ann Arbor; 323-908-0607; Gates open at 5 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with performances beginning one hour later. Tickets start at $40 advance, $50 day of show.

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