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A History of The Garvin Gate Blues Festival
Courtesy of the KYANA Blues Society
Story and photos by John Paul (Garvin Gate Blues Festival) except as otherwise noted.
1988 In The Beginning.
It all started in 1988 with an idea to have a blues jam in the parking lot of the Rudyard Kipling.
At that time the Garvin Place Association was expanding its boundaries to become the Garvin Neighborhood Association and they wanted to initiate an annual event. Because the parking lot was so limited, it was decided to have it on Garvin Place by the gate at Oak St. The chair of the association was enthusiastic about the location and got a good response from the neighbors. Within a few weeks it all came together with the sponsorship of the County Judge Executive Harvey Sloan's Jefferson Discovery Program. The performers were all local bands. Unfortunately, it rained that Sunday in October and only five hundred people showed up.
1989 — Expansion to 2 Days.
In 1989 the festival expanded to two days with beautiful weather and ten thousand people attending. Henry Woodruff received the first Sylvester Weaver Award from the Kentuckiana Blues Society. H-Bomb Ferguson and Eddy Clearwater were the headliners. Clearwater jammed in the Rudyard Kipling following the festival.
Music coordination in the early years was handled by Scott Mullins, Rocky Adcock/Amaretto and The Kentuckiana Blues Society.
1990 Officially Arrived.
Because the large crowd had been hard to contain on Garvin Place, Oak Street was closed between Fourth and Sixth and the stage was set up in the intersection for 1990. Scott Mullins, host of the WFPK Saturday Night Blues Party, was the music coordinator. He pulled some strings and there were several exceptional acts that included Fenton Robinson, James ‘Thunderbird' Davis, Roosevelt ‘Booba‘ Barnes, Phil Guy, Lefty Dizz, Paul Black & the flip Kings, plus the Jelly Roll Kings. Twenty thousand people came and the festival had officially arrived.
1991 — The Gate and the Rud Host.
The 4th Annual Garvin Gate Festival brought Professor's Blues Review (Eddie Lusk) and Maurice John Vaughn from Chicago to be the headliners on Saturday. The KBS hosted a blues jam that night at the Rud with Rocky Amaretto and Winston Hardy. The Garvin Gate Association produced a slick souvenir program and the cool ‘saxy’ cat appeared at the gate as the new logo.
1992 — Expansion to 3 Days.
The festival expanded to three days in 1992 with Willie Little as the music coordinator. There was a diverse assortment of local talent with a Gazebo Stage located at the other end of Garvin Place for acoustical acts. James "Yank" Rachel at 83 delighted the audience with his mandolin and Lamont Gillispie and the Home Wreckers featured Sam Myers.
1993 — Party Hardy.
The lineup for the 1993 festival was mostly local bands with Kent Duchaine, the Louisiana guitarist, headlining the first two nights. Winston Hardy, Mr. Mumbo Jumbo, received the 5th Sylvester Weaver Award. This festival initiated supporting the Kentucky Harvest by encouraging people to bring canned goods.
1994 Mississippi Meets Chicago.
The 1994 festival featured Junior Kimbrough on Friday and Willie Kent & The Gents with Bonnie Lee on Saturday. The Walnut Street Blues Band also performed Saturday night. There was a benefit afterward for local bluesman Henry Woodruff at The Rudyard Kipling with the Dennis Ervin Band.
1995 Louisville's 11th Largest Event.
In 1995 the festival was in its 8th year and had become Louisville's 11th largest event drawing 30,000 to 40,000 people over three days. Three headliners were recruited from Chicago including Magic Slim & The Teardrops, Mississippi Heat with Dietra Farr, and Byther Smith and The Nightriders.
1996 — Stage Full of Stars.
The 1996 festival had a second Gazebo Stage near Ormsby and there was another fund raiser following the festival in the Rud for Lorene Wells, wife of Foree Wells, with music provided by the Metropolitan Blues All Stars.
The main attractions were Deborah Coleman, Chubby Carrier & The Bayou Swamp Band and Jimmy Dawkins. Dawkins brought Eddie Shaw's band as his backup so there was a stage full of stars. It was a moving moment when an ailing Jim Rosen sat in to blow his harp with Dawkins. Mary Ann Fisher was honored with the Sylvester Weaver Award.
1997 – Ran Out of Gas.
In 1997 Howard Rosenberg was transferred out of town and the Garvin Gate Neighborhood Association volunteers had run out of steam after nine years. It is significant to note that da Mudcats performed every year at the Gate and Foree Wells played at all but two festivals. The event was briefly revived as a franchise known as the Louisville Blues Festival and was relocated downtown to 4th St. at Theater Square.
1997-1998 Theater Square.
The event continued for two years as the Louisville Blues Festival after it was moved downtown to Fourth Street at Theater Square. Though the talent was just as great, it just wasn't the same after they put a chain-link fence around it and tried to charge admission.
2007 — Resurrection of the Gate.
With the return of Howard Rosenberg, financial support from Metro Councilman George Unseld, and Mike Suttles booking great acts on a lean budget, the Gate was once again alive and well. Chicago guitarists Lurrie Bell and Jimmy Burns headlined Friday and Saturday night with a tribute to Jim Rosen that reunited da Mudcats with Sue O’Neil. Sonny Sitgraves, a local drummer who played with several Chicago bands, received the "Weaver." It was a deja vu experience after an absence of eleven years.
Garvin Gate neighbor John Paul began branding and modernizing the festival's image from the pre-internet days with an online presence and slick-willy marketing collateral.
2008 — Ready for Eddy.
This festival was lucky thirteen for Garvin Gate with more sponsors and larger crowds. Chicago blues ruled again with Nick Moss & The flip Tops and Eddy ‘The Chief’ Cleawvater headlining each night. Clearwater, now a 73 year old legend, closed his set with “West Side Strut" which hit a groove that got the whole crowd in sync. When Joe DeBow finished his set with Pure Gravel he was presented with “The Weaver” award.
2009 — Harp Heaven.
The theme for 2009's festival was harmonica blues featuring Lil’ Dave Thompson on Friday night, and internationally recognized Sugar Blue on Saturday night. The Friday night show ended 45 minutes early because of rain.
Thank you to Keith S. Clements, Blues Curmudgeon Emeritus, for his background on the early years of Garvin Gate.
2010 — Divas and Dames.
James “Super Chikan" Johnson headlined Friday night. Saturday night's theme was Blues Dames and Divas Night with Cheryl Renee and Them Bones from Cincinnati, followed by headliner Deitra Farr, former singer for Mississippi Heat from Chicago. When Robbie Bartlett finished her set on Saturday she was presented with the Weaver Award. Perfect warm, dry weather brought out a huge crowd which helped to make this the finest GGBF to date.
2011 Sweet Sixteen.
Perfect weather again for our sixteenth GGBF! The Walnut Street Blues Band was followed by Karen Lovely on Friday created an evening of blues that will never be forgotten for those in attendance. Tullie Brae & The Medicine Man Revue was followed by Grady Champion on Saturday and were both first class acts. Jimmy Brown received the highly coveted Sylvester Weaver Award which the Kentuckiana Blues Society has awarded annually since 1989.
2012 Schedule Change.
We had a first as Sugar Ray and the Bluetones canceled two weeks before the show and Toronzo Cannon came to town at the last minute for Friday's show. Cannon showed us why he is considered to be one of Chicago’s finest guitarists. Local bands SMOBLUES, The Predators, and Lamont Gillispie and 100 Proof set the stage for Cannon and offered the very best blues from our area. Saturday was day two of perfect weather, and despite battling a terrible cold, Nora Jean Wallace tore the place down and had the crowd crying out for more at the end of the night. Tee Dee Young from Lexington, KY turned in one of his best sets ever as he lived up to his nickname, “King of Beale Street". G Miles and the Hitmen from northern Kentucky delighted the crowd with their horn-based blues. Local stalwarts Dog House Kitchen, Little T & A, da Mudcats, and The KingBees rounded out the bill.
2013 — Stage Moves to Oak Street.
Perfect weather, and great luck, brought out huge crowds, the biggest since the reemergence of the fest in ‘O7. The main stage was moved to a new location which made a big difference for audio and sight lines. The GGBF has become the major go-to festival for the blues in the region.
Friday night brought us Billy Flynn's Chicago Blues Party featuring Elmo James, Jr. (Elmore James’ son) and Milwaukee Slim who put on an outstanding show reminiscent of the heyday of the Chicago blues. Ray Fuller and the Bluesrockers were the biggest surprise; the Ohio-based band featured Fuller on slide guitar accompanied by his top-notch band. Saturday featured international blues favorites Lil’ Ed and the Blues lmperials; they showed us why they've won so many major blues awards over the years.
Maurice John Vaughn with Holle Thee Maxwell opened for Lil‘ Ed.
The multi-instrumentalist and their fiery singer gave the crowd a rousing show. Nine other local bands and musicians rounded out the weekend on the two stages, including another first, the Soul Center Church's Choir performing two rousing sets of gospel music.
2014 — Spring Like Weather.
The 2014 festival, in spite of the inclement weather, was a large success. Friday saw intermittent rain that kept the crowds away. Big Poppa Stampley started things off with a solo performance that captured his take on the blues.
With his deep voice and excellent guitar picking, Stampley set the stage for the night. At the end of his set, the Kentuckiana Blues Society awarded the coveted Sylvester Weaver Award to Stampley. (His two sets were canceled because of the weather on the Better Days Records acoustic stage, which this year had a new location closer to Ormsby Ave. Pen Bogert and Billy Bird performed four sets on the stage on Saturday.) Up next was Indianapolis guitar wizard, Zakk Knight. Knights trio delivered a strong performance highlighting his virtuosity with his Fender. The set was a blues rock heaven. Following Knight were local favorites, da Mudcats featuring Susan O’Neil and Doug Lamb. The band has for the last few years gathered at the festival for their yearly show. The band soared through the set featuring O’Neil’s vocals and the excellent musical offerings from the other band members. Headlining Friday was Homemade Jamz Blues Band. This young family trio from Mississippi proved that the future of the blues is in good hands. They rewarded the small crowd that braved the rain with one of the best performances in recent years. The group delivered their own brand of blues steeped in Hill Country with a touch of Chicago thrown in.
The rain moved out leaving overcast, chilly weather for Saturday's lineup. The Mississippi Adam Riggle Band started things off with an excellent set of originals and covers evoking juke joints and big city clubs. Riggle’s guitar playing was at times eerie and others smooth as honey. Laurie Jane & the 45s took the stage next and turned it up a bit. Laurie Jane’s vocals and Cort Duggins’ guitar work are the features of the group. She can belt out a Big Mama song or a ballad equally well. Duggins stamped himself as a force with his 50's influenced playing.
Both of these local bands are in the forefront of the blues future around town. Tanita Gaines took the stage next. Absent from the fest for way too long, it was like she never left. Her booming voice and brassy personality recalled blues queens from the past. The Stella Vees gave an outstanding performance. Led by Jason Lockwood‘s tasty guitar work and a tight rhythm section the band roared through blues from Chicago, the West Coast and down South.
The planned Harmonica Showdown was dealt a blow when local blues harp man Lamont Gillispie was unable to play due to his battle with cancer. Rick Cain, Denny Thornbury and Andrea Tanaro took over and led the Showdown in honor of Gillispie. It was a raucous set as each of the three harpists played a couple songs and then came together for a finale that would make Gillispie proud. (Lamont was listening to the festival stream live on ARTXFM.) The Ten Foot Polecats from Massachusetts took the stage next. The trio gave the festival crowd a different set than they were used to. Their music took delta blues, Hill Country with a taste of punk and turned it into a set that had the crowd shouting for more. Saturday's headliner was Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. Since it was announced in March that Funderburgh would be the headliner, blues fans around town let it be known that this was a show they were looking forward to. He and his band didn't let them down. Funderburgh’s understated guitar playing led the quintet through a set that let all of them showcase their skills. The crowd showered the band with such a response that Funderburgh asked if he could do an encore instead of judging the responses after his set. The Rockets brought the festival to the kind of close that had the crowd eager for more in 2015.
2015 Tribute to Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues.
The 2015 Garvin Gate Blues Festival was a tribute to Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues. Friday night started the festival off with a bang! Locals Laurie Jane and the 45s showcased their unique sound with a rollicking set of originals and covers some of which are featured on their self-entitled debut CD. Up next was Steady Rollin Bob Margolin, longtime guitar player and bandleader for Muddy Waters. Margolin teamed with Tad Walters and Da Mudcat drummer Gene Wickcliffe for a blistering set of Chicago influenced blues and great stories about his time with Muddy. Finishing out the evenings music was Muddy’s son Big Bill Morganfield backed by Levee Town. Morganfield showed why he as a Blues Music Award Winner with a set that had the crowd up dancing in the street.
Saturday was a glorious, sunny day, perfect for the blues. The Stray Cat Blues Band started the day off, showcasing some of the finest R & B Louisville has to offer with singer Bruce Lively recapturing the title of Louisville's finest front man. The Stella Vees were up next, featuring two of the city's best guitar players in Jason Lockwood and James Gaetano. The Blues Had A Baby was up next with shortened sets from Lamont Gillispie's 100 Proof Blues, The Ass Haulers and the 10th Street Blues Band. The set ranged from Chicago blues to hard, loud blues rock. Next was Sheryl Rouse and The Bluezz Brothers putting on a show for the ages. Rouse had the crowd eating out of her hands as she wailed the blues. Local stalwarts Da Mudcats (who have played every Gate) showered blues lovers with a set that had the front of the stage jam-packed as Blues Matriarch Susan O’Neil showed why she has earned the nickname. Chicago Blues were in full bore for the final two bands. The Billy flynn Blues Band featuring veteran piano player Barrelhouse Chuck and Shirley Johnson followed by The Cash Box Kings (also with Barrelhouse Chuck) gave Louisville a taste of why Chicago is the home of The Blues. The festival ended with both bands on stage for a jam session that put an exclamation point on the 2015 fest.
2016 — A Mix of The Old and The New.
2016 was a mix of the old and the new. Old friend Karen Lovely graced us with her second appearance at the festival, and just like the last time she was here in 2011 put on a show that will have folk talking for years. An old Louisville resident, Curtis Marlatt played Saturday afternoon and brought back so many memories of his time playing the blues in his hometown. Sheryl Rouse and the Bluez Brothers played for the second year in a row, and just like the previous year, stamped herself as a force to be reckoned with. The KingBees returned to the stage for the first time in a few years with a set of originals that had the early crowd up dancing. Robbie Bartlett once again graced the festival with her beautiful voice on the lnfo+ stage, as did festival veterans Laurie Jane & the 45s.
The Tyrone Cotton Band got Saturday off to a great start with some tasty blues. The finale of the Old was the yearly appearance of da Mudcats, who released a new record to coincide with the event. 41 years and still playing the blues! The new was as good as it gets. The Mark Telesca Band made a whole lot of new fans at the Gate. As a surprise, he brought along Frank Bang to play guitar. Saturday brought three new young acts to close out the fest. Southern Avenue, with its feisty take on the blues, earned raves from the crowd. The Hector Anchondo Band showed that the midwest is indeed a hot place for blues, and the band killed it with their set. Closing out Saturday night was Mr. Sipp, the Mississippi Blues Child. If Sipp is the future of the blues, then the future is bright. The last new act was local band The Tarnations, with their heavy lean to R & B as well as the blues. In November 2016, lead singer Phillip Phillips passed away. Garvin Gate is saddened by yet another death in our blues community, but happy that Phillip was able to perform at his first Garvin Gate festival.
Editor’s Note: The 2015 Sylvester Weaver Award was presented to KBS Board Member and Blues News Editor, Natalie Carter, and the 2016 Weaver was fittingly bestowed upon none other than the Festival's own Mike Suttles. Lots more pictures and memories can be found at www.garvingatebIuesfestivaI.com