At first mention, the marriage seems perhaps … incongruous. Take quaint Mystic, where architecture, restaurants, shops and a colorful whaling history have organically produced a classic New England village. Then, as an added twist, why not have Mystic host a … blues festival?
As in: raucous, sweat-slingin' roadhouse music? The legacy of Memphis and Chicago and the Mississippi Delta and Robert Johnson selling his soul at a moonglow crossroads? Those blues? "We've thought for a long time that Mystic was actually the perfect area to serve as a launching pad for an annual blues festival," laughs Chris Leigh, a longtime area blues guitar wizard and leader of the Chris Leigh Band. "There are so many attractions already in place that draw visitors. It's a beautiful place — and there are a lot of venues so you could have the festival take place community-wide."
It's a very compelling concept, and in fact the First Annual Mystic Blues Festival will happen June 28, 29 and 30 on a variety of stages around town. Leigh, along with Amy Leigh and Richard Douglas, is the festival's co-founder. Numerous blues legends, Grammy winners, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and Blues Artists of the Year honorees are scheduled, including headliners James Cotton, the James Montgomery Band, Al Kooper, Jaimoe's Jassz Band, Roomful of Blues, Debbie Davies, and Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez. In addition, southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island's South County have a strong blues background dating back to the '70s when a core group of artists turned Westerly's Knickerbocker Café into a nationally known blues mecca.
Since then, a sturdy blues community with more than its share of talented artists — all of whom bring a devoted fan base — has grown and flourished. In that spirit, and with a history of waterfront activities, parades and a steady stream of summer visitors, the idea of Mystic hosting a blues music extravaganza might just work in huge fashion.
Organizers have done their homework and borrowed liberally from such community-wide music and film festivals as Austin's South-by-Southwest. Rather than have the festival take place in one location, artists will perform and tangential events will take place in several locations: the Sperry tent at the gorgeous Mystic Shipyard; the Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas Stage; the Grand Ballroom of the Mystic Marriott Hotel; and, in a bit of appropriate poetry, nearby Westerly's historic Knickerbocker Café. Along with music, there will be an opening-night fireworks extravaganza over the Mystic River, a Music Expo showcasing local and regional music retailers, services and vendors, and thematic events and performances at bars and restaurants such at the Octagon at the Mystic Marriott, the Voodoo Grill, La Luna, the Steak Loft and Go Fish.
There will also be merchandise kiosks throughout, offering not just festival-centric gear, but also available CDs, T-shirts and posters for each of the artists. One of the really fresh concepts of the Mystic Blues Festival is a revolutionary approach to the performance set times: the organizers are placing young and newer artists in some terrific, high-profile slots on the various bills. For example, Chris MacKay and the Toneshifters, an emerging local roots band, will play on Saturday between longtime stalwarts the Mystic Horns and Jeff Pitchell.
An even more heady set time belongs to Clinton guitarist Brandt Taylor, who performs Sunday sandwiched between international acts Roomful of Blues and Jaimoe's Jasssz Band. "Brandt is an amazing guitarist and I wasn't even aware of him," Leigh says. "A friend told me, you've got to watch this guy play. I was completely blown away. He's such a nice guy, too — and this is part of what we want to bring to the festival. You're going to be seeing these nationally famous artists, and you get introduced to some newer talent that's absolutely competitive." Taylor is completely flattered not just to have earned a slot at the festival, but to share a stage with such luminaries.
"It's enough to get a chance to be part of this," Taylor says, "but you'd expect to have a really early set time. That would be fine. But to get a chance to play between artists like Roomful and Jaimoe is almost too much to believe." Such is the conceptual magic of the first Mystic Blues Festival. "The idea of bringing the blues to a town like Mystic, and exposing terrific but perhaps relatively unknown artists along with established headliners, is part of the fun," Leigh says. "We think this is something the whole region is going to really enjoy."