By Laura Latzko
Through blues, musicians share their sorrows, hopes, dreams and life experiences.
Each year, the Blues Heritage Festival brings together these musicians and those from other genres for a day filled with tunes.
This year, the event will be held in a new venue, the Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley on Saturday, October 29.
The event is hosted by the nonprofit Southern Arizona Blues Heritage Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting blues music, supporting musicians, and raising awareness about the genre and culture.
The Blues Heritage Festival also serves as a fundraiser. Gary Bagnoche, president of the Southern Arizona Blues Heritage Foundation, says the organization faced financial struggles because of COVID-19. It is supported through grants, donations and fundraisers.
“We need to get financially back on our feet, like a lot of nonprofits,” Bagnoche says.
The festival has a long history in Tucson. Debuting in 1983, it has been held in different venues throughout the years, including Reed Park’s DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center and the Rillito Racetrack.
The organization paused the festival for a year during COVID-19 but held a smaller version in 2021 at the MSA Annex.
The festival this year will be return to a full lineup of musicians.
Festival guests are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs and prepare for a full day of music at the historic ranch, which will also host a farmers market. Barbecue and pizza food trucks will sell food.
The headliners are the wife-and-husband team of blues/soul singer Annika Chambers and blues rocker Paul DesLauriers. Chambers won the Blues Music Awards prize for Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year in 2019 and 2022.
A Houston native, the singer got her start singing in the church and has performed for troops during two U.S. Army tours. DesLauriers is a virtuoso guitar player, vocalist and songwriter who hails from Canada.
He has taken second place in the International Blues Challenge and won many Canadian Maple Blues Awards over the years.
This year’s Blues Heritage Festival lineup also features the Carvin Jones Band, the Sugar Thieves, Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors, and the Coolers.
“We think it’s better for everybody to bring in new talent, to bring in older talent who people haven’t seen in a long time,” he says.
“We try to keep the lineup something that both blues aficionados and other people will want to see,” Bagnoche says.
The festival brings in music listeners of all ages.
Bagnoche says that while they are there to see their favorite bands, audience members often discover other groups.
“There will be also sorts of music played during the day. All six bands are something different,” Bagnoche said.
The event will often have bands from other genres. In the past, the foundation has hosted the Chicano rock group Los Lobos, the cumbia rock group Xixa and “indie mambo” artist Sergio Mendoza.
The organization also tries to expose audiences to the styles of blues, including Delta and Mississippi variations.
An important part of the foundation’s mission is education, which includes its efforts to expand on young people’s knowledge of blues.
The organization invites touring professional artists to lead master classes for high school students.
They also bring in local musicians to teach classes focused on instruments such as the trumpet, guitar, bass or drums.
Each year, the organization offers chances for high school bands to perform at the festival. Z Nora will open this year.
In the past, the foundation has sent contestants to the International Blues Challenge, a competition for blues bands, solo artists and duos. Bagnoche says they hope to do this again in the near future.
Along with its annual festival, the blues foundation hosts Sunday afternoon shows at Hotel Congress. They also an assistance fund, which was used to help artists during the height of COVID-19.
The heritage foundation’s volunteer-run board is made up of full-time musicians as well as longtime blues fans.
Bagnoche said different occupations and personalities are represented on the board. He became interested in blues music while was stationed in Mississippi while in the U.S. Navy.
“Doing an occasion beer run on country roads, I ran across some people playing music. I thought, ‘What is this?’” Bagnoche says.
“Back then — this was in the ’70s — we would flip a coin and either go to New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis or Nashville because they were all close. We would take the music in from all of those. Greensboro, Mississippi, is the center of the blues universe. So, it hit me early, and it hit me hard.”
Through the festival, Bagnoche has gotten to meet artists that he admires, such as Elvin Bishop, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and Pinetop Perkins.
“(Pinetop Perkins) was just an engaging gentleman who shared stories with me that I will never forget,” Bagnoche says.
“I treasure the experience of getting to talk with him. He was a great piano player, and I’m not saying just a great blues piano player. He was just a great piano player and vocalist and knew how to grab an audience and make them his.”
Blues Heritage Festival
WHEN: Gates open 10 a.m.; performances 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, October 29
WHERE: Steam Pump Ranch,
10901 N. Oracle Road, Oro Valley
COST: $30 advanced tickets, $35 at the gate, $5 discount for members, 18 and younger free