It's been called the best one day festival - by chefjimi

Posted on 8/04/2010 by Chefjimi

In keeping with my newly adopted strategy of being a Blues Localvore, today I am speaking with Eric Larsen, who, along with a strong core of volunteers, runs The Chenango Blues Festival in Norwich, NY. This festival has been cited as 'possibly the best one-day festival' by many folks who are familiar with it. But what they do doesn't start or stop with the Festival itself; they also put on five free summer shows for area residents and music fans.
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How is it going, Eric? Things looking good for August 20, 21st ?

Eric Larsen:
Pretty good at this point. We have our last organizational meeting tonight, and then one with all the volunteers the week of the event. We have the same core group of amazing volunteers, who've been with us since the beginning, then we add more each year who bring different skills to the effort. So there are always things to tweak but there is a solid overall base of knowledge.

Well to us attendees, it seems to run smooth no matter what the weather or other events bring on us. We shuffle between the Acoustic and Electric stages with ease.

Well that's good to know, means we are getting the job done.

So I have to ask, how did all this start, Chenango is in it's 18th year. Why, how...

It's a bunch of friends that do it together,and it is half social activity and half community spirit, and we all are big fans. Sometimes people ask why don't I get paid to do this, and I always answer the same. If someone paid me to do this it would ruin the whole thing. Because the whole vibe here is that we are just a bunch of friends that are doing something that we enjoy; each other, the challenge, the fans, ya know the more you give the more you get. All of our volunteers get a big kick out of people coming from all over the East Coast and beyond to come to an event that literally started cos we sat down and had a few beers and decided to do this (keep it going).

So you took it over from someone?

The local arts council did the very first one, it was meant to be a fundraiser, and it did very poorly. So this one guy called us May of the next year and said we need to keep this going. We didn't know anything about music festivals, We wouldn't have the slightest idea of how or where to book an artist, we didn't know anything. No money, no artists and no knowledge, and he wanted to do this in August. We needed a back line* and I had no idea of what a back line was ! Clueless as you can possibly be. He called us all up and said let's meet at the bar and discuss it, so we go down and after the first beers we are, like so this isn't going to work, but he just kept nodding and being very clever he kept buying beers and by the fourth or fifth beer, suddenly it looked like we could pull this off and by the end of the night we had left with our assignments and the next thing ya know we pulled off our first one. So we decided that if we got more people to attend then we would keep at it, so they had pulled 150 people, we came in at around 300, and we said well we doubled it. Next year we doubled that, and now today we draw around 2,500 fans for Saturday.

Eric that's a great story, thanks for sharing it ! I saw the New York State Blues Festival sadly got canceled, due to lack of funds from the State, how does that effect what you do with Chenango?

That has been a big issue, as far as I can tell we are the only Blues Festival operating in New York State. I hate to see this, I attended just about every New York State Festival, but they may be back. They are busy trying to organize and see where they stand. But that's one thing we have always done, is had a very diverse funding stream. Never really gotten a lot of money from any one big sponsor, and never really gotten any money from a government entity. Not that we wouldn't take it, but looking at it in retrospect you can see the problem is that you are overly reliant on one thing, and if that one thing doesn't work out you are going to be really thrown off.

That pretty much lead to the New York State Festival's demise.

It's like any business, you want to be diversified, it lets you roll with the blows. We have sponsors coming and going year to year, but the good news is that we have a great many equal value sponsors, so if they can't do it for one year we are somewhat covered and not hung out to dry.

So sponsorships are going fine this year ?

Ya know I'm gonna say it's going well, not easy but we are about where we were last year. We are really grateful so many people have stepped up this year. Besides we do all the Free Summer Music Series, we have The New Riders, Les Dudek and everything is free.

So the sponsorships are for the entire series of shows. Still that's a great deal for sponsors. With the minimum of $300, that's hard to beat. So that's how you keep the price so affordable, $15 pre-sale and $20 at the door. These are great prices. But, believe it or not some people have asked me why they have to pay $15, and I tell them you are paying $15 for a $75 show.

Absolutely, I don't have too many qualms about our ticket price, we are a rural area and it's just nice to be able do this, and the only way is the great sponsors.

Looking at this year's line up, another incredible show on tap. Marcia Ball, Guitar Shorty, John Nemeth, E.G. Kight. Now E.G. is returning to Chenango – which says a lot about how artists view it – they return so it's gotta be good.

Yeh we had her maybe five years ago, also Paul Rishell & Annie Raines are back.

Yeh when I look over the history of who has appeared, man, you had people before they were people !

Well we always try to look around, ya love to give the opportunity to these people when they are first starting. The difference when you are booking these bands whether you are booking a ten-thousand or a one-thousand dollar act is almost never talent, it's whether or not they are known. You have to have those ten-thousand dollar acts because they are the ones people are coming out to see. But the second act may very well be just as good, just lesser known.
One thing we try to do locally, is to try to convince people that these acts are some of the very best artists in the world. They seem to have a hard time coming to grips with the fact of how and why are they coming to Norwich NY. It seems a little incongruous, ya know it's not a big population center and such. They really are here, in your backyard you can go walk right up to the stage within five feet if you like.

You seem to have a lesser known band return every year (from the previous one) as a main act. This year it's the Honey Island Swamp Band.

Yeh well they are a band who has come along way in a short amount of time, and they very well may go farther that that. Plus they are such nice guys, and we've gotten to know them, they are such nice guys. Most of the people in music are so nice anyway, it's always a pleasure to get them in.

That's the one thing that has blown my mind is how nice everyone (OK almost everyone) related to this are so nice. Musicians, fans, managers, promoters...So do you go by promoter, is that what you would put on the business card?

Ahh, I really don't know if that's the right word, especially since we all are volunteers. It's kinda funny when you talk to the agencies, the ones you don't know, well we know most of them now, but they kinda quiz ya to see where you're at. There's not that many groups out there like us, all volunteer, no one gets paid. I think that kinda rubs off on the whole event, whatever glitches we have people just roll with us, cos they understand we are all volunteers, and that's one of the reasons it's $15 and not $50.
The artists are the same way, I think they kinda ya know, give ya a little break on their prices, they understand the nature of the event and we treat them well when here. There is a great interaction between the fans, artists, and organizers, when you work it right it's a great symbiotic thing where everybody kinda enjoys themselves a little more.

That's so true, you can absolutely see it, and feel it when here over the course of the shows. I think also that the entire festival is family friendly. That's gotta be a big boon to it's success.

Yes we really like to put that out there, it is family and kid oriented. We have a kids play area, children under 18 are free, while children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. On Saturday it's during the day and it runs till ten o'clock at night. We have family reunions, extended family, parents, grand-parents are all there. It's really a large family reunion but with really great bands. That's the kind of atmosphere we are going for. The festival is free Friday night, Saturday is $15 (advance), we have both RV and tent camping facilities. Food vendors, including Dinosaur BBQ, and craft and local Chenango County vendors.

Thanks for all you do and we will see you August 20-21st for the Chenango Blues Festival.

Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease

*BACK LINE: Musical slang for 'rhythm section'. Any combo of drums,
bass piano, banjo, guitar. (Early bands would also use a Jug
(glass/clay, gallon size) and washboard.) The expression stems
from the early Jazz bands which often were just 5 - 7 pieces.
The Melody instruments would stand out in the 'front' line while
the Rhythm - piano, drums, banjo, and tuba/bass fiddle - would
be the 'back line'.

The Chenango Blues Festival . . .
this is a great site with a ton of information about the fest including directions, hours, lodging availabilities and more.

The Chenango Blues Association (C.B.A) is a nonprofit 501(C)3 organization whose mission is to foster an appreciation of uniquely American music forms including blues, jazz, zydeco and gospel. We strive to accomplish this by presenting the highest caliber of artists in diverse settings for the lowest possible cost. This strategy is designed to make the music accessible to as many people as possible.

In memory of John Cephus whom I saw at The Chenango Blues Festival in 2008.

If you enjoyed this serving of the Blues, you might want to check out my other articles, as I roam around seeking out the Blues wherever they are happening.

all photos used by permission courtesy of Leslie K. Joseph.
Janiva Magness '07, Bobby Rush '09, Eric Lindell '07, Watermelon Slim '10, Anne Raines '01 & '10, Sam Price (Honey Island Swamp Band '09 & '10), E.G. Kight ('05 & '10) & Chefjimi, Eden Brent ('09).
copyright © 2010 – bluesuitspeaks, all rights reserved.

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