The motto for Old Town BluesFest has always seemed to be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But what’s wrong with a little tweaking? As always, when BluesFest opens on Friday, the intersection of Turner Street and Grand River Avenue will pack a full slate of local and traveling blues artists who will ensnare local eardrums with heartbreaking sax solos and screaming guitar riffs. But just like the whiff of drying leaves you might smell when you step outside, change is in the air in the 19-year-old festival.
In a twist of style that stays true to the blues, the format by which the bands perform has been changed, allowing for more freedom from the artists. Instead of having bands perform one set, the featured bands for each evening will play three one-hour sets, each showcasing a special guest. Jimmy Gleason of Jimmy G and the Capitols is excited for the change as he and the rest of the band prepare to play their third BluesFest.
"This year is trying to capture that spirit of camaraderie that you used to get at an open mic night.” he said. “When I was approached with this format, I was excited to keep that fire going."
The event is sponsored by the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art. Joshua Pugh, spokesman for MICA, said the event brings over 10,000 people to Old Town over its two-night run, but the motivation for his involvement is simple.
“The blues moves people,” he said. But it’s not just the blues doing that moving: The Historical Society of Greater Lansing will give a walking tour of Old Town on Saturday. Featured stops include Elderly Instruments and the recently renovated Comfort Station, a former public restroom that is home to a home furnishings store on the first floor and the Michigan Historical Preservation Network on the second floor. The tour departs from the Cesar Chavez plaza next to the former Chrome Cat building at noon.
But for Gleason, the BluesFest isn’t just about the new format. He said he’s going through a challenging period in his life: his father died about six weeks ago, and all of his equipment was recently destroyed.
“There’ve been a lot of intense feelings to get out,” he said. “The blues have a regenerative power, and I look (at BluesFest) as an opportunity both for myself and for the city of Lansing to experience a little healing.”