Well, last weekend I had the very good fortune to photograph the Pittsburgh Blues & Roots Festival once again and had a great time doing so. This festival seems to have all things good; it’s at a nice indoor/outdoor venue (Pittsburgh Shrine Center pavilion), a big production but not so big that it’s inconvenient; organizers, staff, and associated entities are all fantastically friendly; the lineup is a perfect balance of local and national, novice and veteran, and even neurotypical and otherwise; there’s an easy camaraderie among those of us behind our cameras; and the fans in attendance become friends just a few songs in and feel like family by the time the last act walks off of the stage on Sunday night. In addition, unique to this blues fest, some performers and crew—all of whom held their own and brought their talents to the table—are people on the autism spectrum and the fest itself is a fundraiser for Band Together Pittsburgh, which is an organization that makes it possible for them to do so. As a former special educator, behavior specialist, and current teacher educator, my experience with people on the spectrum consists mostly of helping them adapt to places and activities—like school, for example—that don’t often match their strengths, to say the least. At the Pittsburgh Blues & Roots Fest, though, they were fully in their element; on stage, behind the mic, with their instruments, at the sound board, or selling their wares as vendors, their strengths and artistry shone like Saturday's sunny skies.
That day, up-and-coming local (for now) Pierce Dipner & Shades of Blue opened the fest on the inside stage with his bangin’ brand of blues rock; both his tributes to the blues masters and his original tunes are damn near habit-forming. Norman Nardini, veteran rocker and entertainer extraordinaire (and Pittsburgh's Uncrowned King of Rock 'n' Roll) played for and in the crowd, and did so from the heart with both light and heavy musical moments. Kenny Blake & the New Hip jazzed up his blues for us, and the Compadres represented the roots in flawless harmony. The outside stage was well-populated with Dave Granati’s For Those About to Rock Academy, which featured the Band Together Performers covering some timeless favorites to an appreciative and proud crowd, then Miss Freddye (whose voice will kick your ass, in a good way) Blues Band and also the Nighthawks with legendary Billy Price played their blues under the blue skies. Headliner Mike Zito’s vibrant rockin’ blues took us through the setting sun, with Mike sitting at the edge of the stage for the last song, surrounded by as much of the crowd that would fit up there, all of us hanging on and cheering on every note.
On Sunday, the Rodger L. Montgomery Blues Band’s fun and heartfelt classic blues rock took the stage first, right before a little rain fell. The Band Together Pittsburgh Performers did their respective things that ranged from Americana to solo acoustic, old soul, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, to another proud and appreciative crowd. Lori Russo & the Uppercuts packed some swampy-style blues rock punches next on the inside stage and then the skies cleared and the Country Strings and Buffalo Rose both represented the roots on the outside stage; the former did so traditionally and the latter infused the roots with a contemporary vibe. By the time the clouds fully cleared and the bright sun was low in the sky, Sunday’s headliner Tinsley Ellis took the stage and played his way through a brilliant sunset from a hollow-body Gibson to a Fender Strat to a steel guitar to a Gibson Moderne, for a dancin’, clappin’ crowd. Once his set ended and the fest was over, we were all left with the sounds of some spectacular blues rock in our ears and the overall feeling of all things good, at least a little, in our hearts and minds. That’s what the Pittsburgh Blues & Roots Festival will do for you! Please check it out next year, if you can.