Graham Blues Fest brings the soul

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Chuck Hall rocks the state at the inaugural Graham Blues Fest on Saturday.

By Jon Johnson

GRAHAM COUNTY – While attendance wasn’t what organizers hoped, the inaugural Graham Blues Fest was a success in every other way.

It had all the trappings of a great festival concert; the venue was excellent, the organization and layout was done well – with vendors at the far south end of the field and beer garden and VIP tents lining the east – the lineup was full of the best blues bands in Arizona, and the sound system (done by Reed Richins of Double R Communications) was superb and second to none. The only thing missing from the festival . . . was the people.

If you missed the inaugural Graham Blues Fest on Saturday (and by the looks of those in attendance you likely did) then you missed quite literally one of the greatest outdoor musical presentations the Gila Valley has seen in this generation.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The Bad News Blues Band wows the crowd. Front, from left, are Mike Blommer, Alex Flores, and Steve Grahams; rear, on drums, is Glenn Velardi.

Safford City Manager Horatio Skeete had recently attended a blues festival in Silver City, N.M., and said the setup at the Graham County event was vastly superior.

“The sound system here is unbelievable compared to that,” he said. “I’ve been to Tennessee, Florida, Atlanta, San Diego, and the quality of this is good. We just need to get the people out here to make it worthwhile and we can bring (even) higher name bands. But as far as the sound quality and the quality of the bands we have; these are the best Arizona bands that we have. We just need to make sure to support them and support this event because as we show up for this event we will make it possible to bring other people into the community that otherwise would not come to Safford. And that’s what this is all about. These events, ultimately, when we develop them, will bring people who otherwise would never hear about Safford . . . That’s how you grow a community. You have to start somewhere.”

Graham County Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Tim Linden echoed Skeete’s comments and said the music and sound were as good as any festival he had experienced.

“You can go to Phoenix and Tucson and hear this quality,” Linden said. “I’ve been to some big concerts, and he’s got it dialed in . . . There’s not a bad seat in the house. The vendors that we have here; the sound that we have; the talent that we have, you can’t match it.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Renae and Roy Holladay brought an umbrella for some shade during the earlier acts.

Linden said that instead of driving to Phoenix or Tucson for such an event, the Graham County Chamber of Commerce is bringing just as good or even better an event to benefit the area.

“We’re bringing this to Safford, and we need people to come out and support us,” Linden said. “This was our first year for the Graham County Chamber of Commerce; we’ll continue to grow this event (and) do a great job. But you know what? The quality that we have this year, it’s kind of hard to beat it. I’ve been to a lot of blues festivals, and it’s hard to beat what we have right now.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Children kept cool by staying wet on a large inflatable climbing structure that had a slide into a wading pool.

Sponsors Kim and Matt Clifton of Tierra Antigua Realty made the trip from Tucson to Safford for the event and were blown away by the music.

“It’s been great,” Kim said.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Tierra Antigua owners and one of the sponsors of the Blues Fest, Kim and Matt Clifton made the drive from Tucson for the event.

From the start of the festival, those who were there were awed by how well the local groups kicked off the event, with Heat Stroke and BluesBerry Jam Too rockin’ the stage. They were followed by Cat Daddy and the 12 Barz Blues Band from Bisbee, which is a local favorite over there.

Roy and Renae Holloway “toughed out the heat” and were there for the local bands that kicked off the festival. They said they were surprised at the high level of local talent.

“They were really good,” Renae said.   

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Alex Flores of The Bad News Blues Band gets ready to riff.

The Bad News Blues Band out of Tucson kicked the festival into overdrive with its lineup that alternated the featured lead. The band played an eclectic set that included various forms of blues and even threw in a Mexican polka or corridos.

“Everybody’s a great singer, so why have just one person do it,” said group founder Mike Bloomer. “Everyone can do it, spread it around.”

“A lot of bands have a singer,” said guitarist and singer Steve Grahams. “But we have four singers and a drummer.”

“I like to think of it as The Band of blues where everybody is the band,” said saxophonist and singer Alex Flores. “It’s a unit. It’s not like any one guy or any one woman shines through it all. It’s a band, and everybody does something. There’s something for everyone.

After their set, the group had mostly praise for the event with one exception – “Not enough beer,” they said.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Safford City Manager Horatio Skeete records some of Chuck Hall’s set.

Beyond that, the group said they liked the setup and sound and that the people they had met had been great.    

“It’s a nice venue, beautiful setting,” said drummer Glenn Velardi.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Headliner Chuck Hall displays his guitar skills much to the enjoyment of those in attendance.

Headliner Chuck Hall, of Phoenix, took the stage just as the sun began to disappear on the horizon. For the golden hour and beyond, conditions couldn’t be better as the heat of the day quickly dissipated as the blazing June sun went to bed for the night.

Hall was immediately impressive, plucking and expressing his unique style of blues, wowing the crowd, which began to emerge from the shaded structures and got in the groove.

Hall also had a great rapport with the crowd and said Safford was actually his first stop in Arizona when he moved down from Detroit. He said the U.S. Highway 191’s previous moniker of Highway 666 peaked his interest and he decided he had to travel the devil’s road and see what it was like. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The Bad News Blues Band are, from left, Steve Grahams, Glenn Velardi, Alex Flores, Mike Blommer, and, seated, Hurricane Carla.

The Bad News Blues Band encouraged the festival’s organizers to continue the event next year.

“Keep it going,” Bloomer said. “It will build. And have us back.”