Labor Day Festival at Five Years of Blues

Steve Propes

Five years after its founding, the New Blues Festival, created by local musician and promoter William Grisolia, held during the Labor Day weekend, is experiencing steady, if not dramatic growth. This past weekend, both days, the lineup attracted “around 8,000 customers,” said Grisiolia. “We’re growing at about 40 percent, 6,000 last year.” These blues fans are “primarily from Long Beach and surrounding communities,” though some people do travel.

According to Grisolia, “the most important demo of this festival was the influx of younger audience. 20s and 30s versus older demographics. That latter crowd is about constant, the growth is with the youth segment.”

That might have to do with the fact that younger fans are less demanding of original post war blues acts like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, who attracted as many as 40,000 to the Long Beach Blues Festival during its three decade run between 1980 and 2009, shut down a few years after the current private operator of KKJZ took over.

These days, instead of B.B. King, it’s the King Brothers, a local act, hardly in the legendary category, who closed the show on Sunday. Harmonica instructor, Jim Worsham, who attended the New Blues Festival was “kind of disappointed. They played a song, then did an endless vamp.” As this was the last act, “people started leaving.”

Worsham was there with about 25 of his OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) harmonica students and family courtesy the producer as part of the festival’s program to provide blues in the schools, blues for vets, primarily through the VA Hospital and blues for seniors.

Formerly known as War, the Long Beach-based Lowrider Band closed on Saturday. Though they can’t legally use the name War, they performed their hits from the 1970s. “One guy went off with the name, the rest of the guys went off as the Lowrider Band. They were two members of the original band. They do have an incredible following,” said Grisolia.

“Our people appreciated the heck out of it,” said Worsham of Grisolia’s effort to bring the blues to these communities. As to the term new blues, “What he’s trying to do, is take old blues, introduce new strains of it to bring in new people. Time to bring new concepts into the old blues. Local people were part of the draw. Latin and blues as combined by the Lowrider Band.

“I’m using the word evolution,” said Grisolia. “I compare the new blues to a movement, the new blues revolution.” In fact, Grisolia borrowed the term new blues from a Wikipedia article “The idea is to promote the new blues, which blues nazis might not like, promote the future, acts like the Black Keys, the White Stripes and blues guitarist Joe Bonomassa.

“It was a fun,” said Worsham. “The New Blues Revolution was really good. On Sunday, we got there in time to see the James Harman band, he’s a good player, he was on just before Janiva Magness, she really extended her performance. The reason we all started this was “Low Rider,” their most iconic song and Lee Oskar, who developed the Lee Oskar harmonicas. We’ve been learning to play that. Oskar wasn’t there, the harmonica player was a stand-in, Tex Nakamoura. They played all the War hits. There were two stages. We only watched the music on the main stage. On the groove stage, they were pretty good.”

“They had a big food court. We had catfish, which I loved. Vendors were selling CDs, New Blues Revolution tee shirts. The main players had their own CDs for sale. The crowd was mainly people of our generation. Younger people would’ve been in their 30s. We fit in with his target mission. The vets are already fans.”

“I met with a Gerardo Moet, new parks and recreation head, a couple of weeks before the festival,” said Grisolia. “We want to help them rebuild their Golden Grove stage. The Snack Shack in El Dorado Park area three has been dormant for many years and needs to be brought up to code. No one has been interested in it, but we’d be happy to renovate. It would be a great kitchen for Lucille’s,” likely part of his plan to find a festival sponsor. Craig Hofman of Lucille’s was the festival sponsor for years one and two.

“The vibe is what people like,” said Grisolia. “The music is great, the staff and attendees are mellow people. It’s at the top of the list of the new blues vibe. People get it, it’s palpable. That’s why we experience a phenomenal growth. We’re at the top of the food chain. We’re a fledgling festival, but have grown sizably, we can put Long Beach on the map. To get to Grand Prix or Gay Pride Parade numbers we have to execute consistently well. We’d like to build the festival to what it was.”


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