The Ann Arbor Blues Festival is back this year

A closer look at its history and the man behind its revival

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Ann Arbor Blues Festival on Aug. 19, 2017 (Photo: Bryan Mitchell)

ANN ARBOR - The Ann Arbor Blues Festival has an intriguing history, to say the least.

It has been an on-again, off-again event in Tree Town for nearly five decades.

Its first run, in 1969, featured some of the greatest names in American blues music, including B.B. King, Freddie King, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and T-Bone Walker.

Fast forward one year to 1970: Many of those same musicians returned, and some made their debut at the festival, including Buddy Guy, Albert King, John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Turner.

It was a destination for blues -- and jazz -- music, but it has a spotty history. There was no festival in 1971. It came back from 1972-1974, but the event in '74 was held in Windsor, Canada. For nearly two decades, the festival disappeared, then made a comeback from 1992-2006, after which point it evaporated from the music scene once again.

James Partridge, the festival's new director, revived the festival in 2017.


James Partridge at the 2017 A2 Blues Festival (Photo: Bryan Mitchell)

An attorney by trade and an avid music fan, after doing some research about the festival, he felt an personal obligation to bring it back.

"People here in Ann Arbor don’t remember the festival. The town doesn’t remember," said Partridge. "But within the music community, Ann Arbor’s reputation is absolutely amazing. When the word got out that the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was coming back, it sent ripples throughout the music community, and people were calling me asking to play.

"Benny Turner was one of the original musicians who played in 1969, 1970 and 1972, and he’s Freddy King’s brother. Benny (contacted me) and was like, 'I remember this festival. It was one of the greatest times of my life.'"

The more Partridge learned about the festival and the musicians who played here years and years ago, the more committed he became to seeing it through. This month, he left his job at Thomson Reuters and is now working full-time on the festival.

His passion for the event and restoring it to its glory days is what drives him.

"I felt if nobody’s going to do it, it’s way too important from a historical perspective to pass by," said Partridge. "Number one, I think the blues deserve it, I think the festival deserves it. And second of all, this town, Ann Arbor, has done some really damn cool stuff. And the festivals themselves, they had a tremendous impact on not only the people involved in it, but the development of music itself.


The A2 Blues Festival on Aug. 19, 2017 (Photo: Bryan Mitchell)

"The town doesn’t get credit for the role it played in the evolution of music. Everybody knows what Detroit did and Motown and all of that, but Ann Arbor? It’s not even a footnote in history when it comes to that, and I felt that the town deserves some credit and some recognition."

Partridge went on the search for someone to partner with to run the festival, and soon understood it would take a massive budget to pull off. With some help, he launched a GoFundMe campaign in April 2017 and raised over $10,000. Local businesses joined in the effort and became official sponsors of the event.

For another comeback year, Partridge says the 2017 festival was a big success. More than 1,000 people showed up to hear 9 bands play for an 11-hour stretch.

This year, the festival will be held across two days: Aug. 17-18 at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds.


Grammy-nominated vocalist Shemekia Copeland will perform at this year's festival (Photo: Joseph A. Rosen)

2018 Lineup

Friday

6 p.m. - The Bob Margolin Trio
7 p.m. - Carolyn Wonderland
8:15 p.m. - Benny Turner
9:30 p.m. - Shemekia Copeland

Saturday

12 p.m. - Jake Kershaw
1 p.m. - Nora Jean Bruso
2 p.m. - Pete Anderson
3 p.m. - Scott Sharrand
4:15 p.m. - John Sinclair and the Blues Scholars (with special guest Don Was)
5:30 p.m. - Sue Foley
6:45 p.m. - Larry McCray
8 p.m. - Janiva Magness
9:30 p.m. - Ana Popovic

Sunday (The Blind Pig)
2:30 p.m. - Tosha Owens
3:30 p.m. - Erin Coburn
4:45 p.m. - Dany Franchi
6 p.m. - Kara Grainger

"We’ve got no shortage of talent this year at all," said Partridge. "Our lineup is absolutely incredible. Benny Turner is coming back, which is great. Shemekia Copeland is singing for us this year, and she is just a phenomenal talent. She’s Johnny Copeland’s daughter, for one, but (she really stands on her own). Shemekia is just a powerhouse. She’s been nominated for multiple Grammys, she’s done 'Wicked.' She’s just phenomenal. 

Michigan-native Jake Kershaw (Photo: Paul Jendrasiak)

"We’ve got a 17-year-old guitar prodigy, a guy named Jake Kershaw. He’s from Albion, Michigan, so Michigan is well-represented. He's going to be playing with Kenny Wayne Shepherd in a couple of months. He’s sponsored by Heritage Guitar. He’s got his own line of guitar strings. This is a name to look out for – he’s a real up-and-coming talent, so we’re really lucky to have him."

Tickets

Tickets are on sale now.

General admission: $40 per day
VIP tickets: $150 per day
Two-day weekend pass: $75
Two-day VIP weekend pass: $275
Kids under 12 get in for free

Hours

Friday, Aug. 17
6-11 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 18
Noon-11 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 19
2:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.

For more information about the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, visit its website.

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