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Blues and BBQ Fest offers both kinds of hot licks
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Asking Tim Coy if he remembers his introduction to the world of the blues, wins you an enthusiastic response.

“Oh, yes... definitely,” says the Savannah native without the slightest hesitation. “I got interested in the blues during my last year in high school or maybe my first year in college.”

You can tell by his slightly hushed and –dare I say it?– reverent tone that he’s been an ardent disciple of this quintessentially American music form ever since.

Ironically, it was the country blues icon John Hammond – whom Coy just recently booked to headline the 2004 Roundhouse Blues & BBQFestival– who introduced him to this emotionally rewarding genre.

“John was the first blues artist I started listening to intently,” Coy recounts. “And then I started looking closely at all his albums to find out who had written the songs he was performing. So, pretty soon thereafter, I discovered Son House, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. From there, the list goes on and on.”

Eventually Coy would parlay this love of roots music into both a stake in the Atlanta indie record label Landslide (home to early albums by such cult phenomenons as Webb Wilder, Tinsley Ellis and Widespread Panic), and Savannah’s legendary Night Flight Café, which –even today, well over a decade after its closing– is still viewed by many as the most impressive and adventurous live music venue this town has ever seen.

In its heyday on River Street, Tim and his partners sought out talented, critically acclaimed artists like Hammond, Taj Mahal, The Swimming Pool Q’s, REM, 10,000 Maniacs, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and countless others. That club was an important link in the chain which would come to be known as the alternative music circuit, and while Coy no longer works in music full-time (he’s now a budding fine art photographer), he still volunteers his time to help secure talent for this laid-back, family-oriented event.

It’s a job he’s treasured for a decade.

“I was a board member of the Coastal Heritage Society for a few years, but now I do nothing but book the bands for this. It’s great fun. I was in the business for so long, this allows me to use the contacts I’ve developed and keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on.”

Initially known as Night in Old Savannah, the Blues & BBQ Fest was started by The Girl Scouts, who eventually turned control over to the Shriners.

“Under them it became more of a country music event,” he explains. “They had Lee Greenwood, and they even had Jerry Lee Lewis one year. And then, when the Shriners decided not to do it anymore, Scott Smith, who’s the Executive Director of The Coastal Heritage Society and a very good guy, made arrangements to continue the event and use that name. The first few years we had more of an eclectic lineup. Then (fellow organizer) Skip Jennings decided that there was a niche for a purely blues-oriented event. I thought that was a great opportunity, and it began to resemble the old format less and less. Ultimately Skip suggested we call it Blues & BBQ. That’s made it easier to market. What we do is right in the name. Night in Old Savannah was sort of nebulous.”

Nowadays, the Roundhouse Blues & BBQ Fest pairs up national headliners with notable local and regional acts to offer two consecutive evenings of great live music, which is free and open to all ages. The setting is downtown’s Historic Roundhouse Railroad Museum near the Visitor’s Center.

The rustic atmosphere and restored train cars perfectly complement the rural and big city blues featured each year.

There are three acts each night beginning at 6:00 pm, and running till 11:00 pm. Coy says that this time around audience members will see a bit more homegrown talent than in years past.

“We’re doing more local and regional bands this year than we normally have. Usually we have two national acts each night with a local opener. But this year, we’re having Jacey Falk, The JoJa Band, and Bobby Hanson & Michael Amburgey, all of whom are local artists.”

Falk is a sassy vocalist who recently returned to Savannah from an extended stint in the New York City jazz scene. The JoJa Band was one of our most popular blues-rock acts in the 1970s, and have recently reunited after years apart. They’re soon to release a live concert DVD of their first comeback gig. The acoustic guitar and mouth-harp duo of Hanson & Amburgey play their own arrangements of swing blues standards and like-minded originals.

But, as always, it’s the main attractions that draw the most interest.

Grammy winner John Hammond is known far and wide as perhaps the finest living exponent of rural folk blues in the world. The son of legendary Columbia Records A & R man John Hammond, Sr., who fought to release the seminal transcription recordings of Robert Johnson (now viewed by many as The Holy Grail of folk blues). Over the years, he’s recorded scores of albums as a solo artist accompanied by nothing more than a bottleneck guitar and harmonica, and as the leader of numerous bands boasting such luminaries as The Band, Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John and Mike Bloomfield.

However, his recent smash album Wicked Grin found him interpreting creepy post-modern blues tunes by songwriter Tom Waits, and a follow-up CD saw him moving farther from his standard fare to even include country tearjerkers by George Jones. It’s some of his most arresting work to date.

“I think we’re going to get to hear some pretty interesting stuff Friday night,” opines Coy, noting, “it’s going to be a trio with a bassist and a drummer.”

Saturday night’s main attraction, Kenny Neal, is also considered one of the finest guitarists and songwriters of his generation. The son of famed harmonica player Raful Neal, this Louisiana native toured for years as Buddy guy’s bassist, before breaking out on his own and signing to Alligator Records. In 1991, he starred as the lead in the Broadway production of the acclaimed musical Mule Bone, and he’s recorded or gigged with everyone from Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker to B.B. King and Aaron Neville.

Also appearing Saturday night will be Geoff Achison, regarded as a top blues guitarist in Australia, he’s currently on his first major U.S. tour. Known by the nickname “Souldigger,” he’s been praised for his distinctive guitar style and gravely voice on originals which draw on soul, blues and funk, as well as slow, deep ballads and fiery roadhouse rockers.

Of course, great food is another key component of this gathering, and according to Karen Anderson, Site Manager for The Roundhouse, there will be plenty to choose from this year.

“The Coastal Heritage Society will be selling barbecued ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage, plus oysters,” she says.

“Barnes Restaurants are making the BBQ sandwiches, and we’ll be cooking corn on our vintage steam engine locomotive. That’s a little trick we stole from some of the festivals they put on up in Iowa! (laughs). We’ll also be selling ice cream from one of our old trailer cars.”

But for many of us, the most important question is, will there be hush puppies?

“I’m very happy to say that this year, the hush puppie man will be back,” Anderson beams, referring to the mysterious fellow who has set up shop in the past and done gangbusters business with the most unlikely of side items.

“He was gone last year and you wouldn’t believe how many people asked about him. He comes all the way from Columbus, Georgia where he grinds his own cornmeal in an antique mill that belonged to his father. I’m telling you, those are some good hush puppies!”

Coy says that if everything goes as planned there should be several thousand people in the crowd for this years festival.

“With good weather, we tend to draw around 3,500 each night,” he offers.

“There have been years however, when it storms, and of course that really does a number on our attendance. I’m sure the Roundhouse could comfortably hold about 5,000, so we have room to grow.”

Coy says booking quality acts for the Blues Fest has never been a problem.

“The artists all like to come here, and we treat them very well. It’s a little more difficult to get word out to the public.”

He believes that in time the Roundhouse Blues & BBQ Fest can become a major tourist attraction.

“I think everyone would like to see the festival continue to grow and become even more well-known throughout the country than it already is,” he explains.

“I’ve noticed a trend over the past few years of an increasingly diverse crowd coming to this event – in almost every aspect, be it ethnicity, age, gender, whatever. I must tell you, that makes me very, very happy.”

Fri. & Sat., 6 pm - 11 pm, Historic Roundhouse Museum (behind Parker’s on MLK, Jr. BLVD by the Visitor’s Center).