It takes an army of volunteers and sponsors to make the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival possible, and perhaps no more important than this year.
Following the pandemic-plagued 2020, when the fest was canceled along with so many events, the all-volunteer Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS) is roaring back to life with the new two-day musical extravaganza, Friday, Sept. 17, and Saturday, Sept. 18, at Davenport’s LeClaire Park.
Bob Clevenstine, board president for the MVBS, is thrilled with the fest’s mainstage and tent stage lineups. The main stage performers will be:
Main Stage Friday –
· 5-6:15 p.m.: John Primer
· 6:45-7:45 p.m.: Jontavious Willis
· 8:15-9:30 p.m.: Toronzo Cannon
· 10-11:30 p.m.: Southern Avenue
Main Stage Saturday –
· 2-3:15 p.m.: Stephen Hull Experience
· 3:45-5 p.m.: Selwyn Birchwood
· 5:30-6:45 p.m.: Melody Angel
· 7:15-8:30 p.m.: Danielle Nicole
· 9-10:30 p.m.: Eric Gales
“We’ve got an all-star lineup,” Clevenstine said. “In fact, what I really like about it is the new folks. We’re bringing in Jontavious Willis, who follows our opener on Friday, and Jontavious is a multi-instrumentalist but sort of a dobro guy and guitarist out of Georgia. Then Saturday, the Stephen Hull Experience, he’s a 21-year-old from Racine (Wis.), and I think he’s going to really knock some people out, as will Melody Angel, who follows them.”
“There’s going to be a lot of cool new acts, and then our closer, Eric Gales is just a phenomenal guitar player,” Clevenstine said.
“The Pedigo-Jones Tent Stage also features great local and regional talent,” Clevenstine said, noting he’s especially looking forward to the new Q-C band, Piso’s Cure.
Piso’s Cure lineup includes vocalists Frankie Fontagne and Chrissy Boyer, keyboardist Jacob Palmer, guitarist Logan McDaniel and drummer John Sorensen.
New to the fest this year is a handicapped-accessible riser near the front of the stage, giving those with special needs a better view, as well as more handicapped-accessible parking near the park.
Since MVBS had no revenue last year because of the canceled fest, there are more event sponsors this year. Sponsors include the Regional Development Authority, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Cobham Mission Systems, Green State Credit Union, Family Credit Union, Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, The Echo, Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors, Doris and Rusty Unterzuber, Zimmerman Honda, MidAmerican Energy, and IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union.
“We had to really pull out the stops to support the performer fees this year because, of course, we didn’t have the festival last year,” Clevenstine said. “We had no way of raising money like we usually do with the fest. So we had to go to the mat on fundraising to get a decent budget together for our performers.”
Though MVBS had a quiet year last year (also without its Blues in the Schools education program), it was hardly idle.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1984, completely revamped its website, mvbs.org – with much more content than before. Rock Island-based design firm Pixouls led the website overhaul.
“We’re in crunch time for the festival, and that’s the other thing — the festival would absolutely not be possible without the support of the community and all the volunteers that man our ticket booth, that help with traffic control, help us set up all the fencing, sell the beer tokens, hand out the beers,” he said, noting it takes about 140 people working to put on the event. “We’ve got a virtual army of volunteers that we have to pull together for every one of these events. And I can’t say enough about that kind of support.”
Clevenstine has been an MVBS lifetime member and stepped up his involvement in 2015 when the Society crashed for lack of funding and canceled that year’s Blues Fest.
The MVBS put on its first Blues Festival in LeClaire Park in July 1985 and has been honored by the National Blues Foundation as the Best Blues Society in the country three times – in 1988, 1993, and 2014.
Clevenstine said the website update was vital to improve the social outreach and public awareness in the Quad-Cities.
“Because I’m not sure everybody totally appreciates us for everything we do outside of the festival,” Clevestine said. “That’s what we’re primarily known for, but we have a great education program. During the pandemic, we developed some educational materials to serve online. We’ve had a response from over 30 states, Ireland, England, New Zealand — from educators looking for our video material with Hal Reed, Kedevelopand Robert Jones.”
“We got great feedback from instructors for our educational materials, which are provided free,” Clevenstine said.
The MVBS has “one of the most active Blues Education programs of any Blues society in the United States,” the website says, noting that MVBS plans and coordinates four to nine weeks of Blues in the Schools each year.
A typical week-long residency includes 10-12 performances and workshops in schools, libraries, and/or community centers in the Q-C and surrounding areas. Each artist also provides an open-to-the-public presentation for all ages. All performances are free and expose a wide array of the community to blues music’s rich history, heritage, and sounds.
“We reach several thousand students every year off that program,” Clevenstine said. “And it’s one of those things that like a lot of people, a lot of folks, even our city partners still just kind of refer to us as the Mississippi Valley Blues Fest rather than the Mississippi Valley Blues Society. And we’re always trying to correct that — the fest is a primary annual fundraising event that allows us to do all the other aspects of our mission.”
“Then we don’t have a festival in 2020, so we lose a lot of income, and we lose a lot of opportunities to bring in more access, to bring in more people, to schools, et cetera,” he said. “But we have a pretty good foundation of support, local granting agencies that help us quite a bit.”
Last year, MVBS updated the website to offer several educational videos for schools to use, and this fall, it plans to return to in-person programming, Clevenstine said.
Its last blues fest was in July 2019, at the River Bend Park at The Bend, East Moline.
LeClaire Park has been the primary home of the Blues Fest since its inception. However, in 1994 and 1995, the fest was held in Moline along the Mississippi River, where the Western Illinois University campus is today. Flooding forced the MVBS to move the festival out of LeClaire Park to other spots in Davenport in 1993, 2001, 2008, 2013, and 2014.
The MVBS presented the annual festival around the July 4 weekend every year until 2015, when financial challenges forced the event’s cancellation. Moving the festival weekend to Sept. 5-6, 2015, at LeClaire Park, away from its traditional July dates, helped avoid the possibility of flooding along the river. The festival returned July 1-2, 2016, to LeClaire Park.
In 2014, the Blues Fest earned a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis for Best U.S. Festival. One of the main reasons for the award was the MVBS’s endurance in overcoming many years of relocating the festival due to flooding.
The Society wanted this year’s fest back in LeClaire Park, not only for the beautiful riverfront setting but also to avoid the extra costs every time they move – for things like stage lights, sound systems, etc., Clevenstine said.
“Our typical planning process is we always plan for the Independence Day weekend and then watch the watch the river forecast,” Clevenstine said, noting they wanted to go later this year also to avoid possible flooding.
“We decided to keep it at LeClaire Park because that’s really our anchor. It’s kind of our historic location, with music on there at the bandshell,” Clevenstine said. “It’s just fantastic.”
They planned to move it to September in 2020, after surveying its 300-plus members.
“The river has not been our friend in that July time frame,” Clevenstine said of frequent flooding. “So you define another time or another venue. And those were the base questions we put to the membership and what we got back was the venue seemed to be more important than the date. We started shopping weekends throughout the summer and into fall, and this seemed like the least impactful, given all the other events and festivals.”
The River Bandits will have home games over Blues Fest weekend, Sept. 17-18, so postgame fireworks will be going off behind LeClaire Park then, Clevenstine said.
The Blues Fest will overlap on Saturday, Sept. 18, with the first day of the Quad City Arts Riverssance Festival of Fine Art, at Lindsay Park, Village of East Davenport. Riverssance will end at 5 p.m. that day, while the blues music will go into the evening.
“While we all do our best to not compete with one another, there are only so many weekends in a year that allow for outside events, so these things happen,” Kevin Maynard, executive director of Quad City Arts, said. “I am a firm believer that more arts events draw out more arts supporters, so I look forward to seeing people from Blues Fest at Riverssance and vice versa.”
To become a member of MVBS – which includes 15% off the entire store, complete access to the video vault archive, exclusive discounts with partners, discounts to events, and a member collectible monogram pin – visit www.mvbs.org/become-a-member.
For tickets to Blues Fest ($15 for a Sept. 17 one-day pass, $25 for a Sept. 18 pass, or $35 for both days), visit www.mvbs.org/blues-fest/.
Jonathan Turner loves music and loves writing, so The Echo is a harmonious marriage of his twin passions. A pianist for 50 years, his undergrad and grad degrees are in music from Oberlin and Indiana, and he’s an accompanist for Zion Lutheran Church, Davenport. Turner has covered the Q-C arts and culture scene since 1995, including for the Dispatch-Argus and Quad-City Times, and for QuadCities.com and WVIK since March 2020.