The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Entertainment

June 6, 2014

Thousands headed for Billtown

WILLIAMSPORT — Lycoming County is bracing itself for the influx of thousands of blues fans as they gear up to host the 25th Annual Billtown Blues festival on Sunday.

The festival will kick off at 10 a.m. at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds and will feature 10 hours of non-stop music on two stages. It will be held rain or shine.

The festival got its start on June 24, 1990, when approximately 150 people gathered on the property of then-County Commissioner Paul Glunk. The idea for the festival was born just a few weeks earlier, when six fans of blues music — Doug McMinn, Chris Bastress, Penny Austin, Fred Daniele, Charlie Lockard and Bonnie Tallman — were gathered together at Franco’s Lounge in downtown Williamsport. They each contributed $50 to get the inaugural event going.

And so began the Annual Billtown Blues Festival.

In the 1990s, said Tallman, there was a “subtle underground interest” in blues music and Franco’s Lounge was becoming a routing stop for touring blues bands and regional blues acts. Daniele was key in introducing area music fans to blues by Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band and Ben Andrews. Tallman and Lockhard embarked on a mission to get blues music on the local radio, eventually winning over Eagle 108, which was interested in a more diverse programming schedule than other stations at the time.

It was the timing of the music hitting the local radio and seeing those live performances in local venues that laid the foundation for a successful first festival. Word began to spread about the festival and, over the years, the numbers slowly grew. What started out as an event drawing only hundreds is now drawing crowds of nearly 4,000 fans.

“I think what affects our attendance the most is the weather,” said Tallman, who serves as secretary of the Billtown Blues Association. “That and whatever else might be going on that weekend. It could be a perfect day, but if we have a bad weather forecast, it will affect our advance ticket sales.”

Tallman, who still helps organize the event each year, said she believes the interest in blues music has grown over the years, due in part to festivals like this one exposing more people to the style.

“I think that the more people who have the opportunity to hear blues music and learn the value of the music itself is a good thing,” she said. “The more festivals like this are a benefit to us because people learn that blues music is a valuable art form — one that has affected music worldwide.”

And while people do certainly come to appreciate the music, Tallman said they get their fair share of those who simply come to enjoy the fellowship within the community.

That’s why they moved from their original location to the Lycoming County Fairgrounds.

“They accepted us with open arms,” said Tallman. “They allowed us to bypass using the bleachers and rather present the acts from the rear of their permanent stage, which allowed fans to bring lawn chairs and coolers, spread out and relax on the grassy track infield of the Fairgrounds.”

“Word of mouth has definitely helped us grow over the years,” she said. “We draw people from all over Pennsylvania and the United States.”

Last year, she said, fans came from approximately 40 counties in Pennsylvania and about 19 different states.

She credits the draw of the festival to the tremendous effort put into organizing “a high quality event from beginning to end.”

“We really try to make it effortless to attendees,” she said. “We want their experience to be safe and pleasant while at the same time putting on the very best talent that our budget will allow.”

In the past that has included legends of the blues such as Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Levon Helm, all holding prominent places in American musical history. The organization is also known for exposing up and coming artists with minimal national awareness, but destined to move up the ladder in the blues world.

When booking talent, Tallman said she works very hard at presenting a diverse group of musicians on stage so it doesn’t get boring for the crowd.

This year’s national line up for the main stage includes Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Shawn Holt and the Teardrops, Kelly Richey, Brandon Santini, EG Kight, The Nate Myers Band, K.G.+3. Other acts scheduled to perform include the 2014 Audition Solo/Duo Winners Sean and Adam (in the acoustic tent), “JT Blues” Thompson w/Andy Tolins and Steve Mitchell’s “Circle of Drums.” There will be workshops and acoustic performances in the blues tent and plenty of food vendors will be on site.

Tickets the day of the festival are $30 at the gate. There is free parking on site.

Though that pesky weather report is predicting a chance of rain for the weekend, it wouldn’t be the first (or likely the last) time the festival went on despite the lack of cooperation from Mother Nature. Through the years the BBA has experienced 11 consecutive years with some degree of rain — sometimes nuisance showers and other times full on downpours. They trudged on, though, and never let the rain dampen their spirits.

For more information on specific acts, schedules and ticket information, go to www.billtownblues.org or call (570) 584-4480.

Email questions or comments to scoop@ptd.net.

 

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