Gray Sky Blues Music Festival

The quintessential American art form gets celebrated this Saturday

By Rev. Adam McKinney on April 6, 2017

The Pacific Northwest is, justifiably, known for its share of iconic things: copious amounts of rain, grunge, garage rock, a steady stream of alcohol consumption, and an uneasy mix of socially conscious hipsters and stoic, rustic types. What doesn't get much play is the Pacific Northwest's relationship with blues music, although it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Those overcast days that stretch on into infinity, that extended dance with liquor, that striving for individuality and artistic freedom that led to the development of grunge and garage rock - these are all elements that feed into the fundamentally American art form known as the blues.

For 10 straight years - an accomplishment that ought to be celebrated - the Gray Sky Blues Music Festival has set up shop in downtown Tacoma to provide an exhilarating cross-section of a genre that can be much more diverse than the uninitiated might suspect. While the form of blues music remains largely unchanged since its inception around the turn of the 20th century, it's a genre that's been jostled from various sides as innovations in country, rock, swing and bluegrass have made their presence known. It's no longer quite accurate for the image of BB King to be conjured whenever anyone brings up the blues, although that spirit is still very much in place.

With the blues, the guitar is king, expressing as much or more emotion with its tone than the singer does with his lyrics. Though an argument could be made about cultural appropriation, this was still an aspect of the blues that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton understood when they repurposed it for their music.

The Gray Sky Blues Music Festival, for its part, has booked a full day of acts that all bring a little something different to the table, including some of the biggest heavy hitters in the area. The day starts out at 1 p.m., at the Swiss Restaurant & Pub, with the Al Earick Band taking the stage to perform blues that celebrates the traditional structure of the genre. After Earick and company, the audience will be treated to Tacoma legends Little Bill and the Blue Notes, who formed a remarkable 60 years ago, and are still going strong. Following the Blue Notes will be Loose Gravel's booming voice, accompanied by his newish band, New Roads.

Maia Santell and House Blend will then bring an eclectic flavor to the Swiss stage, including elements of jazz, swing, and Latin rhythms. Headlining the whole shindig is Nick Vigarino's Meantown Blues. Vigarino is a renowned guitarist who's won 14 blues awards in three countries. He's gifted with wonderfully nimble fingers and a playful musical spirit, and it's utterly delightful to watch him go.

The night will close out with a performance from the Gray Sky All Star Band, which is comprised of Chester Dennis Jones, Brian Feist, Jay Mabin, Joe Hendershot and Pete Marzano. For blues experts or blues neophytes, the Gray Sky Blues Music Festival has a little something for just about everybody.

Gray Sky Blues Music Festival, 1 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, all Ages until 8:30 p.m., $10, $8 military, The Swiss Restaurant & Pub, 1904 S. Jefferson Ave., Tacoma, 253.572.2821