Kenny Neal

By Susan L. Pena, Reading Eagle

The Berks Arts Council, which has presented the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest for 27 years, has announced that it will be bringing a new festival to downtown Reading.

The inaugural Reading Blues Fest will provide three days of national, regional and local blues musicians from Oct. 6 to Oct. 8. The new festival, like the Jazz Fest, will be managed by John Ernesto, along with the BAC staff and many volunteers.

Tickets go on sale to the general public today.

Reading Blues Fest is partnering with the GoggleWorks, which is simultaneously holding its sixth annual Arts Festival Reading on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., to present a concert by blues vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton at 1 p.m. on Oct. 8. Tickets to that concert will be free with the purchase of an Arts Festival ticket.

The Blues Fest will launch with a kickoff luncheon at the Peanut Bar Restaurant and a performance by The Bluesmasters, featuring local favorites Bennie Sims, Cliff Starkey and Erich Cawalla.

That night, the Deb Callahan Duo (at 5 p.m.) and Kenny Neal and Samantha Fish (at 7 p.m.) will perform at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, followed by an After-Party Blues Jam hosted by the Alexis P. Suter Band, with the Berks Horns, harmonica wizard and vocalist Mikey Junior, and Callahan.

The Oct. 7 lineup will include Teeny Tucker’s “Women in the Blues” presentation, with an interactive talk and then a full concert by Tucker and her guitarist, Robert Hughes, at the DoubleTree; a free concert by the Philadelphia All-Stars (Junior, Callahan, Kevin McCann and Dave Holtzman) at Abe’s by Chef Alan; and the Robert Cray Band, with Paxton as opening act, at the Santander Performing Arts Center.

That day will also include the Dave Mell Blues Band at the Peanut Bar and another After-Party Blues Jam at the DoubleTree.On Oct. 6 and 7, there will be blues performances at the Speckled Hen, and on Oct. 8 Sofrito Gastro Pub will have a noon brunch with Josh Taylor’s Next Gen Blues.

VIP ticket holders can start off the Sunday of the festival with the Slam Allen Blues Band at the DoubleTree, with a 10 a.m. buffet.

Bill Wax, original host of Sirius XM Radio’s “B.B. King’s Bluesville” and current host of the “Roots and Fruits” blues show on WPFW in Washington, D.C., will give a keynote address at the DoubleTree at 1:30 p.m., followed by the final concert at 4 p.m. by Jonny Lang with the Dana Fuchs Duo, featuring Jon Diamond.

The idea for the festival, Ernesto said during a recent interview, came from the late Albert Boscov, CEO of Boscov’s Department Stores and well-known philanthropist.

“Al brought up the idea of another festival, and asked me what I thought would work,” Ernesto said. “I suggested blues, since that’s an underserved genre. We always presented blues during Jazz Fest, and people have said we should do a blues festival.
“We met with Berks Arts Council, and the board looked into it. By the time we had a plan in place, Al had passed away, so we never got to show him the plan.”

He said finding a date was a bit of a challenge, and depended on having the venues available. They targeted the fall, after all the big summer outdoor festivals were over, and the DoubleTree came on board as the main venue. They settled on the dates, and decided to integrate the Blues Fest with the GoggleWorks event.

“The synergy with the Arts Festival Reading allows people to see how much is going on in Reading,” said Karen Haver, the arts council’s executive director. “We want to keep people aware of everything great that Reading has to offer, including the restaurants.”

“There’s only a handful of festivals like that in the country,” said Levi Landis, executive director of the GoggleWorks, who was formerly the executive director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which mounts the venerable Philadelphia Folk Festival. “I’m very excited by the idea of taking over the city and reaching into every corner. It’s a rich concept to work with.”

The Arts Festival Reading, as always, will have working artists, demos and fine and craft art vendors throughout the building, along with food, beverages and music. Visitors will be able to enjoy the GoggleWorks’ new bistro, featuring locally sourced food and craft beverages as well, Landis said.

The Reading Blues Fest lineup of musicians will represent a variety of styles within the genre.

Kenny Neal, whose father Raful Neal was a famous blues harp player, played bass for Buddy Guy at 17, and formed a band with his brothers. Known for his Baton Rouge “swamp blues,” he plays guitar and harp and sings; his latest album is last year’s “Bloodline.”

Samantha Fish, born in Kansas City, won the 2012 Blues Music Award for Best Artist Debut. While she plays plenty of blues, her latest album, “Chills and Fever,” released in March, explores the Detroit punk/blues style with members of the Detroit Cobras. She is a self-confessed fan of “raw, scrappy rock ‘n’ roll.”

Teeny Tucker, the daughter of the late blues musician Tommy Tucker (“High-Heeled Sneakers”), was the 2012 and 2014 winner of the Blues Music Award for Artist of the Year. She sings classic blues in her own soulful style, and also writes her own blues songs.

Robert Cray, the winner of five Grammy awards with more than 20 albums to his name, blends blues, soul and R&B. He has played concerts with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and many more.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, blind from the age of 16, was heavily influenced by early blues and Cajun music through his grandparents. He plays fiddle, banjo, piano, harmonica, Cajun accordion, ukulele, guitar and the bones. In addition to blues from the 1920s and ’30s, including country blues, he plays Cajun music and ragtime. And when he sings, he’s the reincarnation of blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, even though he was born in 1989.

Alexis P. Suter blends gospel and blues as a singer/songwriter. She and her band have released six albums.

“We’re happy to honor Al Boscov’s legacy with this new festival,” Ernesto said.