With a month to go before the first notes of music were to be played, the newly re-dubbed Blues Between the Bridges festival was living up to its name a little too closely.
With the heavy rains and subsequent floods that hit earlier this month, the festival site at Riptide on the River — between the Ky. 2328 bridge (the "highway bridge") and the massive Clays Ferry bridge — was largely submerged.
"Riptide really had the blues between the bridges down there," said festival organizer, harmonica player and all-around blues enthusiast Greg Thomerson.
At roughly the same time, one of the festival's headlining acts, New Orleans funk-style guitarist Mem Shannon, became ill with a blood-platelet disorder. Thomerson didn't hear of his condition until after Shannon had been hospitalized for three weeks.
Never miss a local story.
But Riptide has since dried out, and Shannon has returned to the road. That means Blues Between the Bridges is on for a 10-hour blues party on Sunday.
"For a while there, I was a bit concerned — the flood being the first thing, along with Mem's health," Thomerson said. "I guess that's why they call it the blues."
Blues Between the Bridges is a new edition of a modest blues festival that Thomerson staged over Memorial Day weekend last year at The Red Mile's Paddock Park. Although presented with minimal sponsorship, the daylong event brought in an esteemed national headline act, Chicago's Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, and a crowd of 1,050.
Thomerson also compiled surveys from the audience to begin adjustments for what he hoped would become an annual event.
"There was a nice portion of the demographics that weren't even from Lexington. Some of those patrons would have preferred more local talent with the headliner. The local bands they heard last year got lots of positive feedback. But some of the older blues fans said, 'It was nice to see somebody we're all familiar with,' such as Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. So they wanted more big names."
For headliners this year, Thomerson began with Big Bill Morganfield. The son of blues legend Muddy Waters, Morganfield never seriously pursued a career in any kind of music until after his father died, in 1983. Even then, he earned his living primarily as an English teacher. He third and newest album, 2009's Born Lover, was produced by onetime Waters sideman Bob Margolin.
Fortifying the festival bill was Shannon, a former taxi driver whose grass-roots music career was rediscovered by landmark folk producer Joe Boyd (who helped establish such esteemed non-blues British greats as Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band). Shannon's 1995 debut album, A Cab Driver's Blues, intersperses recordings of conversations Shannon had with his cab patrons with the songs. His newest album is the 2007 concert document Live: A Night at Tipitina's.
Rounding out the main-stage lineup will be Thomerson's band, the G. Busy Blues Revue; Lexington guitarist Tee Dee Young; and Louisville-based Nick Stump, guitarist for The Metropolitan Blues All-Stars, a leading voice of blues and country blues in Lexington during the '80s and '90s.
"I've been involved in a lot of different festivals through the Appalachian region," Stump said. "They started out small and got bigger every year. But it always takes somebody like Greg to put in some energy and throw some money into it to get something started on a local level. If it does well this year, he can have more and bigger acts next time around. It takes sponsorship. It takes money. And money is tight right now. In fact, the money's not much better now for musicians than it was 15 years ago.
"Festivals are easy for me because I love playing music. But it takes people with a real dedication to the music to put these festivals on. That's something I can truly say that Greg has."
Part of that dedication had to deal with a change of venue. With The Red Mile unavailable this weekend, Thomerson relocated to Riptide. Using the venue's outdoor grounds, he will add a second festival stage of exclusively local acts dedicated to the late Lexington blues artist (and Thomerson's friend and bandmate) Ron Knott.
Playing short sets there on Sunday between the main-stage artists will be Tom Truly and the Knott Brothers Tribute Band, the Paul Childers Blues Band, Big Boss Man, Sofa King Deluxe, and Mike and Jill.
"I just want to grow my little festival year after year," Thomerson said. "The goal is to keep the blues alive here."