Musician Bobby Rush heads a soulful Sarasota Blues Fest lineup

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click to enlarge ALL-OUT RUSH: Southern bluesman Bobby Rush and his Soul Blues Revue will close the Sarasota Blues Fest. - Courtesy Beaty Four Entertainment
Courtesy Beaty Four Entertainment
ALL-OUT RUSH: Southern bluesman Bobby Rush and his Soul Blues Revue will close the Sarasota Blues Fest.

Eighteen years is a long time to keep any arts event alive, but when it's run by one-woman gang Barb Strauss, maybe that's not so surprising. She founded the Sarasota Blues Fest, and it's safe to say that she's the singular driving force behind this one-day slab of blues, booze, greasy food and good times that comes around every fall, usually about the time the weather breaks.

She has no board of directors or advisers — although this year she did get an intern from Riverview High School — she puts up her own money, books the bands, recruits the sponsors, sells the booths, contracts sound and light and handles numerous details — right up until the day before the show.

Then, "I have a paid staff the day before and the day of the festival," she says. "And I have a lot of volunteers. Over the years, people have come to think of the Sarasota Blues Fest as everybody's festival. Some people just show up the day of and ask, 'What can we do to help?' I have people who've been doing that for as long as 16 years."

Those who've known Barb over the blues fest's tenure are aware that at least a few times she's been inclined to just let the event quietly slip into the graveyard.

So I had to ask her, in something of a yearly ritual: Is this the last year of the Sarasota Blues Fest?

Barb pauses, then laughs. "I say I'm going to end it, but that's probably never going to happen," she says. "I don't want the blues fest to go away. There are people there who tell me it's like Christmas; they're so excited the night before they can't sleep. It's hard to say it's gonna die. If I don't do it, I'll make sure the right people step up to the plate and take over."

Let's have a look at this year's lineup:

8 p.m., Bobby Rush Soul Blues Revue

This year's fest comes with the proverbial Big Finish, featuring one of the most authentic and entertaining Southern blues/R&B musicians walking the earth. Born in Louisiana, Bobby Rush spent some time in Chicago but has been based in Jackson, Miss., for a long time. He tirelessly works the circuit, playing clubs, armories and festivals. Over the years, Rush has recorded everything from uncluttered acoustic blues to high-production R&B with touches of funk and hip-hop. But it's on stage where he shines. He'll perform with his nine-piece Blues Revue, which features horns, backup singers and dancers. This set is a lead-pipe lock to be a stompin' good time.

6-7:30 p.m., JJ Grey & Mofro

Birthed in Jacksonville and steeped in an array of Southern musical traditions — and a generous helping of hippie jam-band vibe — JJ Grey & Mofro will bring the loose-limbed funk, swamp-rock and flowing rhythm-and-blues to the fest stage, seasoned from near-nonstop touring. Grey, the band's leader, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, possesses a soulful set of pipes. Although not categorically a blues act, Mofro is a welcome addition to the bill and should spread some mellow, feel-good vibes — and a horn section should add just the right amount of spunk.

Mofro is, for lack of a better word, the blues fest's wild card. "They're a little out of the box, but enough in the box so it won't offend blues die-hards," Strauss says. "If I want to stay current and the festival to stay fresh, we have to bring in the next generation. We're hoping for an infusion of 25- to 35-year-olds. We've never really had that before."

4:10-5:40 p.m., Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin & Diunna Greenleaf

What do you do with a top-shelf blues guitarist who doesn't altogether cut it as a singer? Well, most of the time, he sings anyway, mostly just to fill up space between solos. Bob Margolin, a case in point, has made the admirable move of bringing a Big Mama blues belter into his fold. She's Diunna Greenleaf, a blow-the-house-down vocalist from Houston who's been influenced by Koko Taylor, Aretha and the like. Together they should set off some sparks.

2:40-3:50 p.m., Jason Ricci & New Blood

This Nashville band, led by vocalist/harmonica player Ricci, plays a hotwired brand of blues-rock with hints of funk, post-Coltrane jazz, boogie and more, with all kinds of jam-band abandon and even some psychedelic touches. Ricci pushes his harmonica through an overdriven amp — and plays with equal parts chops and passion — and on vocals he ranges from the unhinged yelping of a Jon Spencer to the gruff shout of a Tom Waits. This is clearly an ensemble that thinks nothing of turning it up to 11.

1:05-2:20 p.m., The All-Stars

For who-knows-how-many years, the Sarasota Blues Fest has presented an aggregation of blues and blues-minded players from the West Florida scene. This year's edition includes a varied array of singer/guitarists, including Greg Poulos, Damon Fowler, Thorson Moore and Henry Ferree. Cool thing is that these guys aren't all cut from the same Strat-slinger cloth. They're joined by smoldering singer Sandy Atkinson, organist Tim Heding, bassist J.P Coley and drummer Art Siegel (the latter two of The Venturas). The various iterations of the All-Stars have always played loose, spirited sets over the years, and with this aggregation of talent, there's no reason to expect that to change.

Noon-12:45 p.m., Wyatt Garey Band

The fest has something of a tradition of presenting young up-and-comers early in the bill. This year's event stays the course by showcasing 16-year-old South Carolina artist Wyatt Garey, who describes himself on MySpace as "the Low Country's own teenage phenom guitarist." Garey and company play blues-rock that pulls from the Allman Brothers, Hendrix, SRV and the like.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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