Singin’ the blues

Ellie Lee and Blues Fury Ellie Lee and Blues Fury

The 26th Annual Dayton Blues Festival

By Benjamin Dale

Ellie Lee and Blues Fury

Ellie Lee and Blues Fury

What is “the blues”? Technically: 12 bar chord progressions and blue notes — notes that bend a pitch lower than the major scale. But the blues is much more than that.

Originating from Negro spirituals of the Deep South, the blues laid the bedrock for all the musical forms that would become jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Today few listeners realize the debt owed to the blues by most of their favorite musicians. Despite this, the origins and reasons for the blues are still murky and not yet fully understood.

With the drastic demographic changes facing the South after Emancipation, black musicians began to find their individual voices as musicians, in addition to their increased political and economic freedom. This blend of social influences and a musical heritage derived from Africa created a style of music that has endured for over a century, shaping other forms of music along the way, but never dying, never losing relevance.

As the blues spread across the nation, the Midwest and particularly Chicago became a hub of the musical style. The influence of Chicago most strongly affected the rest of the Midwest, including Dayton.

This year, the City of Dayton and Michelob present the 26th Annual Dayton Blues Festival, celebrating the rich history of the blues right here in Dayton on July 17.

Running a festival for 26 years without running it into the ground is no small feat. The festival began in the ‘80s, as the brainchild of Jim Nichols, who began his foray into festivals with his Women in Jazz jams at the Trolley Stop in the Oregon District. Three years later, Jose Higgins and his now wife, Jill Witherspoon, collaborated with Nichols to turn the jam into a full-blown festival. The festival soon spawned other long-running Dayton music festivals, namely Reggae Fest.

For the first decade or so of the festival’s existence, the focus was on local acts, but about three years ago, the festival gained enough sponsorship to open up the budget to bring in headliners and musicians from across Ohio and the nation.

Headlining this year’s festivities are Sean Carney and his band along with John Richardson. Richardson won the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2005. Carney, based out of Columbus, won the 2007 IBC along with the Albert King Guitar Award for best guitarist. Since then, he’s been touring constantly. He’s making a rare and unexpected appearance at this year’s Blues Fest due in large part to Martin Romie, the man behind the scenes who, in essence, saved the Blues Fest from what looked like inevitable demise a few years ago.

“It was a downhill train until Marty got involved,” said Bill Archer, lead guitarist in his band, called Bluzion, “Marty got a hold of it and now it’s the love train.”

It was Romie who brought Sean Carney onboard for this year’s festival.

“I tried to get Sean Carney last year,” said Romie, “but he was touring in Europe. I saw him in February and that’s when we locked him in for this year.”

This year’s Blues Fest will feature nine hours of music, beginning at 1 p.m. with Tess and the TrueTones, Dayton veterans playing in the festival for the first time. At 2 p.m., Bill Archer’s band, Bluzion will take the stage followed by Ellie Lee and Blues Fury at 3 p.m.

Last year, Lee won the Dayton Blues Challenge and went on to Memphis to compete at the national championship. Mississippi Red, crowd favorites from last year, will go on at 4 p.m., followed by Them Bones at 5 p.m., a staple of the Cincinnati blues scene and one of Martin Romie’s personal favorites.

At 6 p.m. Matt O’Ree will take the stage with his brand of in-your-face blues. O’Ree has worked before with the headliner, Sean Carney, and is making a pit stop in Dayton as he continues his nationwide tour.

Scotty Bratcher Band, from West Elkton, Ohio, will go on at 7 p.m. Bratcher tours the nation regularly and caught the attention of Gibson Guitars, who now endorse him.

At 8 p.m. will be the headliners, Carney and Richardson, and if we’re lucky there might be an encore that features some of the best players from the day’s festivities. Keep it on the hush-hush though; it’s supposed to be a surprise.

The 26th Annual Dayton Blues Festival will be held on Sunday July 17 from 1 to 9 p.m. at Dave Hall Plaza in downtown Dayton, located on East Fourth Street at the corner of Jefferson Street. For more information, visit or call (937) 333-8400.

Reach Poncho’s owner Benjamin Dale at

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