Rain didn’t dampen good times at 29th Blues Fest

RALPH WILSON/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Rory Block shares stories and songs during her performance at the Billtown Blues Festival at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds in Hughesville on Sunday, June 10, 2018.

HUGHESVILLE — Rain on Sunday didn’t dampen the crowd’s spirits at the Billtown Blues Festival at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds.

“It’s amazing to me” how energetic and supportive the audience was for the performers, Executive Director Bonnie Tallman said. “We’ve got to do our best for these people who are doing their best for us.”

She said she had expected a dip in will-call ticket sales Saturday night, but orders kept coming in up until the midnight deadline.

“Certainly our audience has grown” in the festival’s 29 years, Tallman said.

She elaborated that in those 29 years, festival organizers try to build on the previous year’s talent. She explained organizers like to bring in local and regional talent, to give them an opportunity to play for a larger audience, as well as finding acts that are up and coming at a national level. She said the festival likes to end each year’s line-up with a “legendary” act or a performer of stature, like John Primer, who played with Muddy Waters and John Dixon.

“I like it to be a body of work,” she said. “From beginning to end — interesting.”

Organizers seek out musical diversity, she said, looking for acts that feature horn sections or accordions or “a really great piano player.” Organizers also try to showcase different varieties of blues, such as West Coast blues, Chicago or Louisiana blues.

“Blues comes in many shades,” Tallman said.

Each year the festival recruits more volunteers, and planning for the next festival begins soon after the current festival ends and the books are balanced. She said organizers try to enhance what they can and “spend most of our time discussing what we can do better.”

“We’re still doing things for the same reasons,” she said — the love of blues music.

This year’s weather presented some last-minute challenges — challenges they didn’t expect Friday, when the forecast led them to be thankful the festival was on Sunday.

“Well, Saturday was perfect, and Sunday we’re having all-day rain,” Tallman said.

Volunteers scattered straw to soak up the muddiest spots, and then had to pick up more straw.

Performers Gabe Stillman and Shane Sager said the rain wasn’t getting them down, and Sager said the festival — his first — was exactly what he thought it would be.

“A lot of people dancing to great blues music,” he said.

Stillman, who has attended the festival for 10 years and performed the last five, said he hasn’t seen it change.

“One of the beautiful things is, it really hasn’t,” Stillman said. He added the crowds “always have a great time.”

Sager, a Boston native, said he’s played in Lycoming County before and the audiences are “a lot more energetic here.”

Stillman and Sager had some advice for aspiring musicians.

“Practice all the time,” Stillman said. “Learn to play the music you enjoy.”

“With the people you enjoy,” Sager added.

“Don’t play by yourself, start a band, play with and for people,” Stillman continued.

Stillman also explained why he gravitated toward playing blues music.

“It’s the music I connected to the most,” he said. “I’m just in love with the sound of it.”

Spectator Ernie Lindley, of Port Matilda, said the Gabe Stillman Band’s performance was his personal highlight of the festival.

“It was great,” Lindley said.

Spectators Frank and Natalie Gephart, of South Williamsport, who have been to every festival except one, said they were happy so many people came despite the weather.

Natalie said her favorite part of the festival is “all the people and the music.”

“We just always like to come,” Jess Snyder, of Selinsgrove, said.

Snyder added she has brought her children past years, and they always had fun playing and listening to music.

The winners of the best solo-duo act and best band categories for the festival will have a chance to play in Memphis in January during the International Blues Challenge. The Gabe Stillman Band won best band, while Chris LaRose won best solo artist.

LaRose, of Lock Haven, recently release his second album, “Chris LaRose: Ain’t Gonna Worry.” A biography in the festival’s program notes he is influenced by the music of his late father, John LaRose Jr.

Stillman, who is a second-time winner of the chance to play at the International Blues Challenge, a Berklee School of Music graduate and teaches at the Uptown Music Collective, said the opportunity to play at the festival and Billtown Blues Association events is “a tremendous honor.”