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Fans of Heritage Music BluesFest Can Get Their Fix Online This Weekend

Coco Montoya

WHEELING — If it wasn’t for COVID-19, thousands of music fans from across the nation would be flocking to Wheeling’s Heritage Port this weekend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Heritage Music BluesFest.

But as we’ve all come to learn in 2020, the pandemic has led to the cancellation of all major events and public gatherings for the foreseeable future for the sake of public health.

For those feeling blue about missing BluesFest in-person, a virtual celebration will be held this weekend to help hold everyone over until next summer.

Bruce Wheeler, executive director of the Heritage Music BluesFest, will play host to an afternoon of online blues music at its best, complete with featured performances of acts that had been on the three-day festival weekend bill this year before event was canceled — or actually postponed until next year — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lineup that had been booked for 2020 will take the state at Heritage Port during the second weekend of August in 2021. But this weekend, beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday, Wheeler will deliver the next best thing under the current circumstances, and the public is invited to join in the fun … for free.

JP Soars Gypsy Blues Revue

“It’s not going to be an entire ‘Virtual BluesFest,'” Wheeler said this week. “Most of the acts from 2020 will come back for 2021. So I wanted to put a little bit of them out there so people would get a taste of what would be coming down the pike. It’s just a way for BluesFest fans to able to kind of get together.”

Sunday’s virtual celebration will take place on the Heritage Music BluesFest’s official Facebook site and YouTube channel. Wheeler will host the event live and will introduce performances from several BluesFest artists — many of which took place over the past 19 years at Heritage Port. For new acts on the lineup, submissions were made of performances from other venues.

“Because it was the 20th year, I’m going to give some historical vignettes of things that happened over the past 19 years of BluesFest,” Wheeler said.

So instead of doing what he typically would be doing this week — running marathons around Heritage Port preparing to set up the stage, coordinating with vendors, putting up fencing and juggling all of the logistical challenges of presenting one of the most beloved annual music festivals in the Midwest — Wheeler instead has been busy collecting videos, hammering out all of the technical needs and diving into highlights of the festival’s history.

“I think it will be a whole lot of fun,” Wheeler said. “It’s challenging, but one of the things that I enjoy about the festival is introducing the acts and doing all of that sort of thing. This allows me to do that for a few hours on Sunday.”

Ronnie Earl

In years past, people from all of the country and even outside of the United States have traveled to the Friendly City to take part in the Heritage Music BluesFest.

“We have so many people who attend the BluesFest, I always say they come from about 22 states and a few countries,” Wheeler said.

Early during the pandemic, there was still hope that the health crisis would wind down, making it possible to safely have larger gatherings. But like all other events, BluesFest was forced to cancel, and the recent surge in coronavirus cases and re-tightening of restrictions on gatherings underscored the fact that it would be impossible to hold the event this summer.

“It got to the point where there was just no way we could do it,” Wheeler noted. “We have people who come every year from places like Florida that have been deemed ‘hot spots.’ Even with social distancing, there would have been no way to do it safely and keep it fun.”

Among the silver linings this weekend is the fact that the virtual celebration of BluesFest has the potential of reaching a global audience online. Fans can enjoy highlights of the festival at no cost from the comfort of their own homes.

“It’s going to be 90 degrees on Sunday,” Wheeler added. “People can be in their air conditioning and in the comfort of their own home — with a cold one.”

Wheeler said that although most events and activities are shut down, people do venture out for dinner or for outdoor recreation, and if they do, they may likely take part in those activities on a Saturday. Because the virtual BluesFest celebration is an at-home, online event, he thought it would be best to hold it on a Sunday afternoon.

“I want to try to get the excitement built up for the weekend,” Wheeler said, noting that blues fans can still safely gather in small groups on their own to participate in the fun this weekend. “People can hold a watch party and get together with friends or people they would have ordinarily come out with to BluesFest.”

For more information, visit www.heritagemusicfest.com or visit the official Heritage Music BluesFest site on Facebook.

Ronnie Baker Brooks

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