Musicians croon the blues at annual festival

HUGHESVILLE – Billtown boogied down at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds all day Sunday on a lovely June day.

As devotees of the Billtown Blues Festival – in its 24th year – now anticipate, local musicians and international acts filled the Hughesville air with grooves and shreds and jives and wails from noon until dark.

The kind weather and a loaded bill brought plenty of people out early to set up camp for a day of music and fellowship and sun, like the live music aficionados of Newports and Woodstocks and Bonnaroos of the past.

“This is the first time we’ve filled the first parking lot here before 1 p.m., and this is the furthest we’ve had tents set up back in the field,” said Bill Van Campen, president of the Billtown Blues Association.

A new addition to the Blues Fest was a supersized video screen, set up so those taking a rest from dancing under pop-up canopies and umbrellas toward the back could watch the acts on stage perform.

Members of the Uptown Music Collective were one of those acts. Fresh off their 24-hour Blues-A-Thon, they played a set on an hour’s notice when scheduled performer Kelly Richey had a vehicle breakdown on the drive here.

“Some of us were here helping out volunteering, and the folks that run the festival asked us to play,” said Gabe Stillman, on guitar. “It was hard finding songs we all knew. The collective prepares you as a musician to be in any situation when you haven’t rehearsed.”

After their set under the stage, on some couches likely older than their parents, Barrence Whitfield regaled the Uptown players with stories of finding he had some fans in England – fans such as Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols.

“People were asking me, ‘How could you stand there next to Robert Plant?’ ” Whitfield said. “When you meet so many great musicians over there who are listening to your records, at first you want to be a person who admires them as a fan. But then you’re all musicians, and that’s the easiest way to talk to them and they respect that.”

Whitfield’s legal name is Barry White. He told the story of picking a stage name to distinguish himself from the soul singer of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” fame:

“My friends used to kid about with rich kid names like Chauncey, Poindexter – they made a name up and called me Barrence. I said, ‘One day, I’m going to use that name and be famous.’ “

Whitfield and his band, The Savages, out of Massachusetts, have a busy fall lined up. They release a new record on Aug. 13 on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, then will play the prestigious BBC program “Later with Jools Holland” in October.

Many of the sets featured a mix of musicians coming in from out of town and those from here – Doug McMinn, Joel Vincent and Bill Stetz played as the Billtown Trio with New York keyboardist Dave Keyes, and Uptown members kept popping up on stage.

“Keyes came here last year and played informally with some local guys,” McMinn said. “He brought his sax player and he liked playing with us enough to have us back him up this year.”

The 25th annual Billtown Blues Festival is June 8, 2014.