Rails and Wails

Pull up a seat for a front-row look inside the soulful sounds of the long-running Blues Under the Bridge festival. And get details on the 11th annual festival and beyond.

You won’t find many music festivals exhorting concertgoers not to cross the train tracks along the eastern edge of the event, but the iconic Blues Under the Bridge is not your typical summer concert. For the last decade, the festival has uniquely unfolded under the West Colorado Avenue bridge in downtown Colorado Springs, gathering regional blues musicians to play alongside nationally acclaimed acts. This year’s headliner is five-time Grammy Award-winning gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama, who will close down a diverse day filled with blues from across the country.

If you ask devoted attendees, they will tell you that the gathering space under the bridge provides a perfectly nuanced backdrop to enjoy a wide-ranging day of blues styles, protected from both the intense midsummer sun and the not-infrequent summer rainstorms. “I love the gritty, urban feel of watching the blues under a six-lane bridge on a hot summer night with coal trains rumbling past behind the stage,” says repeat attendee and volunteer Laura Long. “It’s so one-of-a-kind—a multigenerational love fest.”

lightning guitar at blues under the bridge
Photo by Jeff Kearney

That sort of community vibe deeply pleases Don Goede, the executive director of the Smokebrush Foundation, who co-founded the festival in 2007 with KRCC’s Jeff Bieri, longtime host of the Blue Plate Special show. Goede tells of looking out from the historic Trestle Building under the bridge: “I could just see an incredible blues festival in that space, something that was a creative way to raise money for a local nonprofit [KRCC], and that was also good for the city.”

The first year of the fest, organizers were hoping to find a couple hundred local blues lovers to come on out. Instead, 800 people showed up that first year, and vendors ran out of everything, including beer. Attendance has consistently grown every year—last summer topped 1,500—a rare feat in an age when the number of music festivals to choose from has also exploded. “There’s a loyal, solid audience for blues in this town, probably moreso than any other genre,” Bieri explains.

Although Colorado Springs may not be the first place that comes to mind for a blues festival, Bieri points out that the festival is only a block away from the location of Fannie Mae Duncan’s famed Cotton Club, which brought legendary jazz and rhythm and blues musicians to Colorado Springs from the mid-1950s until 1975.

As much as possible, Bieri tries to book folks for his festival “who have owned it a little bit and know where the blues come from, who know the roots.” He intentionally tries to paint a broader definition of what kind of blues belongs at a festival with the genre in its name, even blurring genre lines in the booking process. Over the years, the fest has welcomed a wider spectrum of music influenced by and infused with the blues, which has included Cajun-influenced music, R&B, gospel and soul.

Shining local blues talent Grant Sabin is only 26, but he first played Blues Under the Bridge as an 18-year-old, mere weeks out of high school. “I’m a huge student-philosopher of the blues. The festival changes and grows because blues changes and grows—into rock and roll, into hip-hop, into funk music,” he says. “At this point we have learned to accept other genres of music as blues because it has that blues emotion in it. If it’s dirty and it’s soulful, then it’s a continuation of the same blues process.”

train behind stage at blues under the bridge
The rumble of the rails and lightning licks, hallmarks of the wide-ranging Blues Under the Bridge lineup. Photo by Jeff Kearney.

The physical setting of the festival lends itself to the lonesome songs brought to life by the performers, and as the trains roll through behind the stage, sometimes the musicians will start improvising. “That’s been a real joy to see,” Bieri says with a smile. “I have this memory of Charlie Musselwhite with his harmonica as the train roared through, and he got a call and response thing going, back and forth with the train whistle. … It was just beautiful.”

Blues Under the Bridge 2017

The 11th annual rendition happens July 29. The Blind Boys of Alabama headline, and here are highlights from the rest of the lineup.

Find details and tickets at bluesunderthebridge.com.

Mike Clark & the Sugar Sounds: Chameleonic local gem Mike Clark returns with this danceable soul outfit that wails like the room is on fire.

Big Jon Atkinson and Bob Corritore: Legendary harmonica player Corritore joins up with 20-something blues upstart Atkinson.

The Paladins: Expect rootsy blues-rockabilly from the reunited San Diego band.

Erica Brown with Movers & Shakers: Denver’s Queen of the Blues pairs with a new band.

Blues Beyond the Bridge

Looking for more live blues? The local scene is nourished year-round through the efforts of the Pikes Peak Blues Community. The local nonprofit is again presenting the free Paint the Town Blue series in 2017. These popular concerts bring the blues outdoors on Thursday evenings all summer long, June 15 through Aug. 17, at Thorndale Park (2310 W. Uintah St.).

Find the full lineup on the Pikes Peak Blues Community’s Facebook page, @pikespeakblues, along with news of their other blues events, including jam nights and concerts by regional blues talent at Stargazers Theatre.

Q&A: Grant Sabin Interviews The Blind Boys of Alabama

When local bluesman and Blues Under the Bridge veteran Grant Sabin caught wind that we were interviewing The Blind Boys as headliners of this year’s Blues Under the Bridge, he wanted in. Read his conversation with Ricky McKinnie, accomplished Blind Boys drummer and founder of the Ricky McKinnie Singers here

Heather Powell Brownehttp://fuelfriendsblog.com
The writer of the nationally-acclaimed Fuel/Friends music blog for the last decade, Heather Powell Browne curates the acoustic, downloadable Chapel Sessions and helped launch Ivywild Music. When she’s not writing, she enjoys warbling harmonies in friends’ bands, playing drums in her basement and coordinating international educational adventures for students at Colorado College.

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