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The BluesFamily

August 7, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
For the people who come to BluesFest — this year from 22 states and three countries — it's a weekend of fun, food, great music and meeting fellow blues fans.

For me, it's much more than that.

For one, it's exhausting!

But mainly, it's a great gathering of friends and family, who have come to be called the "BluesFamily."

When my husband, Bruce, started this thing in 2001, it was sparsely attended. Rain poured down on Sunday just about start time, dissuading many from spending the afternoon at the soggy waterfront. It was a financial bust, to say the least.

A glutton for punishment, he pushed forward for year No. 2. Better.

More people. Better weather. More attention.

Should we keep on? Should there be year No. 3?

Well, since it was officially the Year of the Blues, set forth by some higher being, we couldn't turn back now.

A little better. The attendance continued to increase, slow but steady.

Years 4-5-6-7 ... came and went. One year was so hot, I actually had sweat stains, and I don't sweat! And then there was the year the wrist bands were on the UPS truck — SOMEWHERE — and the show started in just a few hours, so I had to track down the truck. And then last year, a scary storm rolled in over the Suspension Bridge and blew tents over during setup the night before. And then there was the Friday storm several years ago that forced a two-hour break. Remarkably, the music-lovers returned for a late-night finish.

While the attendance continues to increase and the T-shirt design changes, there are always constants.

There is always Bruce working practically 24/7 in the weeks prior to BluesFest. Of course, he spends countless hours throughout the year running this one-man show: listening to blues to make the best choices for his hand-picked lineup; creating the Web site; designing and placing the advertisements; selling tickets; answering phone calls; returning phone calls; ordering everything, from wrist bands to cups to T-shirts to portable potties to souvenir chairs to food for backstage to garbage bags; building the second stage; pounding in fence supports and running fence around the venue; arranging media coverage; working through contracts; announcing the show; solving problems; arranging for limo pickups; figuring out hotel rooms; planning the afterjams. It goes on and on. He is amazing.

While the financial success has been feeble, there's always been critical success. The blues world holds Wheeling's Heritage Music BluesFest in high esteem. In fact, the International Blues Challenge winners each year get to perform on the main stage.

There are always first-rate blues acts. Each year, the festival's amazing lineup is its strength.

There is always Ed and Tobi. Ed Clopein, a blues fan from way back, has brought his hand-crafted silver ware jewelry to every single BluesFest, and has talked it up at every other blues festival he attends. Last year, he almost didn't make it, having had a heart attack about five days before. But, he was there, enjoying the music and shining up my rings and bracelets.

There has almost always been Kathy Baier, my friend who used to own the Banyan Tree in Center Market but moved to New Jersey. She brings her hand-made jewelry every year (except I think for one - she does have triplet boys who keep her pretty busy!) We eat Chinese and reminisce and play with jewelry and stay up way too late.

There was always Tom Armbrecht, my white-haired and bearded friend I'd known from Ye Olde Alpha, from college days or before. He always sat in the very last row near the aisle down to the stage. Rest in peace, Tom, and we all know you are at BluesFest in spirit.

There are always the kids' friends. Boyfriends and girlfriends, old friends and new friends. Rebeca is new to the festival this year. There's Meg, who Amanda met on her semester abroad, and has joined us since then. There's Bryent, Leland's buddy since middle school who moved away just before high school.

There is always Jay Stock. Master photographer and all-around-great guy, Jay is there, shooting the scene no matter what the weather.

There are always Mr. White and Dusty the photographer and Marva who lives at the Windsor Manor and Ann Thomas and the Zipps and Billy the Kid and Andy (two Andys, actually) and David and Peter and Marc and Greg and Susan and Harry and Karen and many, many more supporters who have come since the beginning.

And there are always our kids, Amanda and Leland, who pull their weight, often only in exchange for a piece of jewelry and being fed for the weekend. They've been helping since Leland was 13 and Amanda 15. Their responsibilities have grown as they've grown; this is the first summer neither are living in Wheeling, but their support and the tasks they've accomplished from a distance have been invaluable. And it's nice to have them home again for the weekend. We hash out changes and decisions and logistics like a corporate board.

So to my BluesFamily ... here we go again.

Let the BluesFest begin!

And keep your fingers crossed that this is the year — for good weather, good times and good crowds!


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