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Festival attracts national acts, highlights local musicians

Some of the top blues musicians from places like Chicago and Mississippi will be in Central Ohio this weekend, as the Columbus Blues Alliance Saturday hosts the 13th annual Traditional Acoustic Blues Festival.

Most people wouldn't consider Worthington, Ohio as a typical destination for the blues elite. The tree-lined sidewalks and quaint shops on High Street don't exactly spark images of B.B. King or the smoky clubs of Chicago's Blues District.

But for the thirteenth straight year, some of the country's premier acoustic blues musicians will converge on the north-Columbus suburb for what many insiders consider the best acoustic blues festivals in the country.

In fact it may be the only acoustic blues festival in the country.

Kevin Gregory is president of the Columbus Blues Alliance, and is directing this year's festival. He says editors at Blues Review Magazine tell him there may be three or four similar festivals, but he can't find others with the staying power of the Worthington jam session.

"I try to keep a watch on all the festivals," Gregory says. "There are hundreds of blues festivals across the country, but I haven't found any others that really focus on acoustic blues, or at the very least traditional blues."

Gregory says the Blues Alliance created the festival to preserve many of the fading traditions and styles of the early 20th century. The festival is relatively young by blues standards, but in its twelve years has hosted some of the genre's most accomplished performers. Headliners include Paul Oscher, the first white musician to play with the legendary Muddy Waters.

And there's Robert Lockwood Jr., stepson and contemporary of Robert Johnson, considered by many to be the greatest blues musician who ever lived.

This year's headliner also has a Robert Johnson connection.

David Honeyboy Edwards is considered by most music scholars to be the last of the original delta blues guitarists. He'll be 93 years old this year, and has played every major blues club and festival in the country. He was with Robert Johnson, and filled in for him at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi the night Johnson was poisoned with tainted whiskey after purportedly flirting with a married woman.

Gregory says it took the Blues Alliance months to put together this year's lineup. After weeding out hundreds of performers, they invited a group talented and diverse enough to put on a world-class festival. He admits the big-name acts like Edwards get people in the door and help attract sponsors, but just as important, he says, are local musicians.

This year's event features four artists from Ohio, including Al Smyth. He's lived in Columbus for about ten years since relocating from upstate New York. The self-described ex-hippie wears a cowboy hat and plays his guitar loud. He's says he's here to take back every riff Keith Richards stole from the country blues players.

Smyth usually plays with his band, the Free Beer and Chicken Coalition, or FBnCC. He says he prefers smoke machines and special effects to the acoustic scene. Even with the unique name and new-fangled theatrics, Smyth considers himself in the tradition of the old blues greats. He says he learned to play guitar from listening to Johnny Winter records. But he says some traditionalists misunderstand his music.

"As recent as a couple weeks, someone came up to my drummer and said 'what you guys play is good, but it's not blues,'" Smyth says. "It doesn't necessarily have to be not-for-note one-four-five, it can be a variation on a theme. But it has to have that gutteral feel to it. So yes, I think what I play is blues, but I think I don't have to worry about adhearing to certain guidelines about musical composition."

Smyth says despite those occasional hard-liners, most of his performances around Columbus are well-received. Festival director Gregory says that can be credited to the strong local base of blues clubs and dedicated fans.

"The Columbus Blues Alliance is hear not just to bring in national acts," Gregory says. "We try our best to help local bands too by advertising their gigs and helping them make contacts. This is one way to doing that. Lets get some of the local guys up there, because I'm here to tell you we've got some talent in this town."