The Alpena Blues Festival starts next weekend

ALPENA – The 11th Annual Alpena Blues Festival is coming, and its organizers are hoping to bring world-class musicians to town while working on other missions.

The festival kicks off June 20 at 6 p.m. and continues June 21 at 1 p.m., all at the Alpena County Fairground on 11th Avenue, according to the schedule. Eight bands are set to lay down the grooves, some of which hail from around the country while others will be playing their home town.

Another Alpena band will play for an after-party following Saturday’s performers. Alpena Blues Coalition Ed Hickock said the lineup includes International Blues Challenge finalists and 2013 winner Selwyn Birchwood.

On his way to a CD release party Tuesday in Delray Beach, Fla., Birchwood said he’s looking forward to coming to Alpena for the first time. He and his band have been waiting to hit the road again after a harsh winter.

“We’re really just looking forward to getting out and playing,” he said. “We love doing what we do and we try to give a high-energy show and as much of a fun show as we can every time out.”

Birchwood’s been playing with his current band for about three years now, and picked up the guitar at 12, he said. Buddy Guy was his first big influence, although his influences change over the years depending on the kind of style he’s seeking. When he was 19, blues guitarist Sonny Rhodes gave him a gig with his band, a gig he kept on and off for about four years.

Birchwood’s been playing on and off with different bands ever since, he said. Now 29, he thinks more young people would listen to the blues if it got more airplay.

“We have young people coming out to our shows,” he said. “They like it and dance to it, they buy the records and stuff but it’s not something they’d necessarily know what it is and go out and seek it.”

Festival-goers who come out to see Birchwood and other artists will have plenty of dining options, Hickock said. There’s also camping opportunities at the fairgrounds, although spaces are filling up fast.

It’s all possible thanks to the festival’s sponsors, Hickock said. Along with promoting blues music by bringing highly skilled musicians to town, the Blues Coalition is focusing on feeding the hungry and keeping music in schools.

“We’ve been consistent, and what we’ve been consistent on is bringing really top-notch blues artists to the festival every year,” he said. “What we’ve added to our consistency starting last year was our interest in helping feed hungry folks in Alpena.”

Hickock said he’s asking anyone who attends the festival to bring a non-perishable food item to donate. There’s also a drop box at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, 400 W. Chisholm Ave. The food will go to the Friendship Room at Alpena’s St. Bernard Catholic Parish. Once that organization’s needs are met, it’ll help direct food donations to other groups that need them. Donations were good last year, and the Blues Coalition is hoping to do even better.

The coalition also is bringing music to ACES Academy, Hickock said. Last year, ACES students got to hear Grammy-winning harmonica player Peter “Madcat” Ruth play and talk about music.

“We got in there and asked the school what kind of things we could do that we had the capability of doing to reach (students) and pique their interest, and show them what music might be able to do for them as far as a creative outlet,” Hickock said.

This year, ACES students who show their school ID at the gate get in half-price, Hickock said. Plus, they may get a chance to talk to the musicians about their own artistic aspirations.

It’s all a part of keeping the blues alive for young listeners and old, and everyone in between, Hickock said. Birchwood won’t be the youngest artist there, since Pett Crow’s oldest member is 17. The genre has changed over the years in a way that appeals to many, and the festival helps expose more music lovers to the style.

For more information, visit www.alpenablues.com or call 657-9313.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.