PORT TOWNSEND — Surrounded by lovers and players of the blues, Robert Birman started Sunday night at the Wheeler Theater by expressing his feelings.
“You’re catching us on an incredible high right now,” said Birman, executive director of Centrum and host of the Fort Worden State Park party called the Acoustic Blues Festival. Thoroughly warmed by June and July festivals from Voice Works to Fiddle Tunes to Jazz Port Townsend, he’s looked forward to this one “like I can’t even describe.”
Then Birman stepped aside for the woman who runs the show.
Mary Hilts Parry, Acoustic Blues program manager, welcomed the faculty for the workshops happening all week: 36 performers from Georgia, Virginia, Montana, Kentucky, California, New York City, Chicago and New Orleans. Looming over them all in his denim overalls was artistic director Jerron Paxton, the multi-instrumentalist from Queens, N.Y.
He proceeded to introduce each of the players to appear at this week’s Blues Dance, gospel concert, main-stage showcase and two nights of Blues in the Clubs on the fort campus.
“We have been sent here,” he said, “to learn from each other,” in back porch jam sessions, open mic nights and, at last, public performances.
“It’s a beautiful cycle,” said Paxton. “You learn a lot from teaching your friends … y’all grow, in music.”
And one after another, they played a spoonful: Pianists, harmonica men, bassists, guitarists of every persuasion. Jug player Jonathan Piper and Washboard Chaz Leary likewise wowed the crowd with short tastes. Del Rey and Christopher Davis-Shannon played their ukuleles, “the guitar that has been washed in hot water,” as Paxton put it.
Singer Mara Kaye brought further sass: “I came all the way from Brooklyn. I need some love, you know?” she said before dishing up a snippet of a song. She got the love, in the form of loud applause.
This Acoustic Blues Festival, like Centrum’s Jazz Port Townsend event just last week, has changed its routine. The nighttime circuit of shows called Blues in the Clubs will take place not in downtown Port Townsend nightclubs of yore, but at seven all-ages venues at Fort Worden. They’re within walking distance of one another, but for those who like a lift, a blues van will circulate all night long.
Hilts Parry checked out Jazz in the Clubs last weekend. She went in not sure if it would fly; after all, she said, “people don’t like change.”
But the scene was “exactly what we were hoping. I saw the youth not feeling excluded. They were running from club to club, because they can run,” while each spot was lit up and welcoming.
“What pleased me most is that it was a listening environment” at each venue, “and not a drinking environment with a band in the background. Every single club felt like music was the first thing. “We’re honored to present the artists in a format for listening.”
Paxton, for his part, summed up the experience of playing and listening to music together.
“You can get a lot accomplished,” he said, “by pulling in the same direction.”