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Those overcast blues

The Gray Sky Blues Music Festival returns for its 12th year

Hank Shreve and his band will be headlining this year’s festival, bringing with them some fiery harmonica. Photo credit: Blues Boss

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It's wild to step back and consider that the Gray Sky Blues Music Festival has been alive and kicking in Tacoma for 12 years. This Saturday will mark the event's entry into the dozen-timers' club, and that milestone once again shines a light on how infrequently blues music gets mentioned in association with the Pacific Northwest. As residents of Washington state, we can proudly lay claim to more volatile fare like grunge, garage rock (many thanks to bands like the Sonics and the Wailers for sealing the deal on this one), and the Seattle Freeze (a phenomenon that's profoundly inferior to Frisko Freeze).

In the face of this sort of competition, the blues sometimes gets lost in the conversation about music that thrives around these parts. The Gray Sky Blues Music Festival, in addition to a number of passionate boosters, has been working to keep blues vital in Washington, and this Saturday's edition will be helping to further that cause. Despite the genre's origins under the browbeating sun of the American South, the blues feels somehow completely at home in the overcast climes of the Pacific Northwest. To bear one's innermost heartache with the accompaniment of a guitar and a soulful voice almost feels like a requirement around these parts.

As usual, the Gray Sky Blues Music Festival is presented by the South Sound Blues Association, with a full day of great music slated to go down at the Swiss Restaurant and Pub. Starting at 1 p.m., and stretching on into the evening, noteworthy blues outfits will be taking the stage at the Swiss, capped off with a performance from the Gray Sky All Star Jam Band (made up of Billy Stoops on guitar, Pete Marzano on drums, Chuck Trujillo on bass, Rafael Tranquilino on guitar, and Steve Bailey on harmonica).

The day starts off with a bang, with the legendary Little Bill and the Blue Notes opening the festivities. Bill Englehart and his various accompanists have been at it for over 60 years, getting their start in 1956 and not slowing their stride since. Englehart's music harkens back to the time when blues was first working its way into popular music, melding with the burgeoning rock and roll scene, and going electric in the process. From the old guard to the new, we move on the Mark Hurwitz and Gin Creek, a group that folds in elements of soul, funk, R&B, and Chicago blues, with a strong emphasis on toe-tapping catchiness. They even make some nods to new classics, as on their cover of Duffy's Motown-indebted "Mercy."

Local favorites Maia Santell and House Blend take the stage next, joined by Jay Mabin. Santell and company have been serving up an eclectic mix of styles for years now, including forays into Latin music, swing, big band and jazz, always finding some new avenue through which to wow a crowd. Santell's supremely charismatic vocals are matched by the impressive musicianship of her band. Up next, we have Leanne Trevalyan, who will be dipping into the murky waters of Americana, country, folk and blues. Trevalyan's most closely associated with Junkyard Jane, a band which credits its style as "swampabilly." This should be a good opportunity to take in blues of a more down and dirty variety.

Before the Gray Sky All Star Jam band closes things out, the Hank Shreve Band will take the stage for a blistering headlining set. Shreve is a hellcat on the harmonica, and his live shows are suitably fiery affairs. No matter where you land on the blues and Americana spectrum, there's something for you at this show. Kids 12 and younger get in for free, for a first-class lesson in the raw power of the blues.

GRAY SKY BLUES FESTIVAL, 1 p.m., Saturday, The Swiss Restaurant and Pub, all ages until 8:30 p.m., 1904 Jefferson Ave., Tacoma, $10 general admission, $8 for SSBA members, 253.572.2821,

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