Friday, 30 June 2017 13:03

Blues on the Move: How the Kalamazoo Blues Fest is adapting to the times

Written by  Jane Simons
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The Fabulous Thunderbirds headline Saturday night The Fabulous Thunderbirds headline Saturday night

This year, the Kalamazoo Blues Fest is relocating to Wings Event Center, a move that will double the number of musical acts and keep the festival in the black.

However, festival organizers are bracing for some pushback following the decision to move an outdoor festival indoors after 24 years. Since its inception, the festival has been held at the Arcadia Creek Festival site in the city’s downtown.

“The climate around the festival site has changed as well as the requirements to have the festival there,” said Dennis Massingill, festival coordinator and president of the Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association. “We had priced our festival based on walk-in traffic, but there is so much going on in downtown Kalamazoo and we’re not getting that traffic.

“If we had heavy sponsorship like some festivals, it probably wouldn’t make a difference.”

The Blues Fest costs about $100,000 annually to put on. Decreasing attendance and a decline in the popularity of Blues music with younger audiences was casting doubt on the future of the festival, which is the largest of its kind in the Midwest outside of Chicago.

“We needed a deep-pocketed sponsor or partner and Wings Event Center offered to partner with us,” Massingill said. “They’re determined to make that a year-round venue and they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. They are vested in trying to save Blues Festival for Kalamazoo.”

In his role as Wings general manager, Underwood is focused on increasing the number of entertainment and dry-land sporting events at the venue and keeping the dark days to a minimum.

“The Blues Fest is one of those events we thought would fit,” he said. “Anytime you have change, you’re going to have some people wondering.”

Massingill said he hopes people will realize the many advantages to having an indoor festival. Weather and sound won’t be issues, and people will be able to roam around the arena floor while listening to the musicians and also will be able to bring in their own chairs. There also will be free parking and easier access to food and restroom facilities.

Although the festival won’t have any outdoor performances, Underwood said a beer garden will be set up outside, as well as activities like a giant chessboard, Jenga and cornhole games.

Tickets prices for the Blues Fest have been doubled to match the number of musical acts and bring it more in line with what other major festivals charged. A one-day ticket costs between $17 and $32 depending on the day, and a weekend pass is $57.

Massingill said this is a bargain for the nationally known acts that will be performing. He doesn’t think area residents recognize the size and scope of the festival, which enjoyed steady growth early on for a number of reasons.

“There was an interesting alignment of the stars and the geography of Kalamazoo being halfway between Chicago and Detroit, and we had Mr. Wonderful’s (an old blues hotspot), which started bringing in national acts and exposing locals to the blues,” Massingill said. “We had an unusual number of blues bands play the local circuit here. This was a hotbed of blues music and compared to many places, it still is. The agents we book through, they know that.”

There’s no denying that the popularity of the Blues has been declining as the number of Baby Boomers dwindles and younger generations aren’t exposed to it.

“DJs today are playing blues-based music but that’s not what they’re calling it. We have generations out there who know the music, but don’t know that it’s blues,” Massingill said. “We have no shortage of young blues artists. We need them to bring their crowd.”

Underwood and Massingill said they are hoping for an attendance of at least 5,000 people over the course of the three-day event.

“Right now, it’s an economic game. So many festivals have gone under,” Massingill said. “In order for this festival to survive, we needed a partner. We are depending on people just to give it a chance.”

Kalamazoo Blues Festival
Wings Event Center
3600 Vanrick Dr., Kalamazoo
July 14-16, $15-$57

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