The blues are coming back to Riverhead.
Three years after the last Riverhead Blues & Music Festival took place downtown, a plan is underway to hold a mini blues series this fall in an effort to eventually get the full music festival back.
The Riverhead Blues Festival may be headed to a new home.
Bob Barta, president of the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in downtown Riverhead, said theater officials are looking into moving the once-annual festival into Southampton Town for 2014.
“We’re working in sort of a rough proposal stage,” Mr. Barta said. “My goal is trying to make the whole thing well-organized enough that the town will be fine with it.”
The festival, which is the non-profit theater’s largest fundraising event, was cancelled this year. In 2012, the Vail-Leavitt lost more than $8,700 on the festival after it was moved from its usual July date into June.
Plans to hold smaller events inside the theater in lieu of the blues festival this fall have also been nixed.
“You don’t have the summer traffic and the summer crowd around,” Mr. Barta said. “I felt like it was too much of a gamble for this year.
“We’re still going to have a bunch of self-produced events and stuff like that, but it’s not going to be on that kind of scale and we can’t afford the risk of bringing in these high-profile acts,” he added.
Holding the Blues Festival inside the historic theater would also not be cost effective, he said, noting that the festival “would have to be charging Westhampton [Performing Arts Center] prices” to break even in the small theater.
Mr. Barta said theater officials are scoping out “a couple of possible locations” within Southampton Town, but declined to name any specifically. He said organizers are most concerned about minimizing the festival’s impact on local traffic and parking.
“You need the space,” he said. “Southampton has a couple of very large public beaches and parks where they hold outdoor events.”
The Vail-Leavitt board is also looking into adding more acts and other forms of entertainment to the festival.
“It’s a new location, there’s an opportunity for a new identity,” he said. “It can be a music festival and event for the benefit of the Vail-Leavitt.”
Mr. Barta said that though other nearby town’s have large outdoor gathering spaces, there were no options left in Riverhead Town; holding the event at the Enterprise Park at Calverton would have raised environmental concerns and having the festival in a municipal park like Stotzky would interrupt sports and other events.
“I don’t want to displace somebody else,” he said.
But though the Blues Festival may head to a nearby town, it wouldn’t move too far from the theater, Mr. Barta said.
“We don’t want to go way out of the way, because then it puts a strain on us,” he said. “We’re all volunteers … You can only lean on people so much.”
The Vail-Leavitt board plans to meet Friday to discuss next year’s festival, though Mr. Barta said board members plan to have a proposal prepared before submitting an application to Southampton Town for a permit.
“Our goal is to show some professionalism by having the whole thing ready,” he said.
Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst could not immediately be reached for comment.
This year’s Riverhead Blues Festival will likely be held in September to avoid conflicting with other events, according to Bob Barta, the president of Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which has held the event as a fundraiser since 2006.
The festival had traditionally been held in July until last year, when it was moved to June and lost $8,720, according to Vail-Leavitt officials.
“We had originally planned to have it at the end of June, but then there were all sorts of conflicting events being planned then, so we decided we were going to reschedule it, and right now, we’re looking at dates in September,” Mr. Barta said. “It will be after Labor Day, and the idea will be to try and do it at a time when there aren’t such a hugh number of events going on at the same time.”
A September festival also figures to have cooler weather, Mr. Barta said.
Last year marked the return of the Blues Festival after a one year hiatus in 2011. The Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District were involved in dispute over who would run the festival in 2010.
“Last year, the big thing was that we unwittingly set ourselves up against the Strawberry Festival,” Mr. Barta said, alluding to the fact that the 2012 Blues Festival took place at the same time as the popular Mattituck festival. “That was really one of the biggest problems on our point.”
He said they are being careful to pick a date that doesn’t conflict with other popular events.
“There have always been issues with trying to not conflict with other big festivals like the Great South Bay Festival in Patchogue, which would limit certain acts from being available,” he said.
While town officials have said the Riverfront parking lot in downtown Riverhead might not be available for big events much longer once the Summerwind apartments open, Mr. Barta says Vail-Leavitt is hoping to have the Blues Festival there this year.
“We’ve been having discussions with representatives from the town about trying to have one last shot back in some version of the back parking lot,” Mr. Barta said. “We’re trying to see if that is workable. We started looking at other locations, but we have a preference for the back parking lot because it allows us to showcase the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, and it allows us to showcase the riverfront. We’d like to have it back there.”
Business Improvement District president Ray Pickersgill said the BID is hoping to hold its concerts in the Riverfront lot as well this summer, with the stage placed along the riverfront, so the audience faces the river. When Summerwind opens, the residents in the 52 apartment units will be permitted to use the riverfront lot as their parking lot.
The Town Board has a public hearing scheduled on a proposal to establish a three-hour parking limit in a section of the lot between Tweed’s and Cody’s BBQ.
Mr. Barta says Vail-Leavitt hasn’t determined exactly where in the back parking lot the festival would be located.
Mr. Barta said holding the event in September will help give them time to dig out of the financial hole.
“We’ve partly dug out already,” he said. “This coming month, we thought we were on a track to be completely dug out by the summer, but as it worked out, our bookings for April were a bit light.”
He said they’ve gotten a little more than halfway out of the hole, and they plan to hold some fundraising events to act as kickoff events for the season and to give them “a boost” as they head toward the Blues Festival.
In past years, the Blues Festival would already have been scheduled by this time, but no application has been submitted to the town for the event yet this year.
Mr. Barta says Vail-Leavitt still plans to make the festival a two-day weekend event and still plans to charge admission, although a price hasn’t been determined.
The BID originally ran the festival as a free event before facing a huge debt in 2005. Vail-Leavitt took over the event in 2006 as a fundraiser for its non-profit organization and began charging an admission fee.
Organizers of the Riverhead Blues & Music Festival are drawing up plans to hold next year’s installment of the popular event in a new location.
The two-day festival will still be held downtown, but because of expected parking problems along the customary riverfront location south of East Main Street, officials with the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which sponsors the event, are eying the north side of the road.
Vince Tria, the treasurer of the Vail-Leavitt nonprofit group, which runs the historic downtown theater of the same name, told the News-Review the Vail’s board of directors has approved moving their chief fundraising event to the new site.
The festival is expected to be held June 29 and June 30, Mr. Tria said.
The plans call to put the main stage behind the former Woolworth building, with it facing northwest out into the parking lot that extends north along East Avenue, Mr. Tria said.
“And right to the west we’ll have as many as 80 parking spots,” he said. “I counted them. People will be able to park right behind Barth’s Pharmacy and Haiku and the new Mexican restaurant there, Blue Agave.
“The town just needs us to file some design layout plans” with a special events permit application, he said.
Vail-Leavitt officials, with Mr. Tria at the helm, have in the past run into political troubles with the town trying to plan the festival, and even suffered from infighting among business owners south of East Main Street.
The 2011 installment was cancelled after the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce tried to takeover control of the festival — then later backed off — in 2010.
This year’s festival had low attendance, which organizers blamed on the hiatus, as well as competing East End events and Father’s Day.
Read more in Thursday’s edition of the Riverhead News-Review newspaper.
At the risk of stirring up some of those old “Troy has South Fork envy” complaints that arose many years ago when I compared downtown Greenport unfavorably to downtown Sag Harbor, this week I wish to discuss the distinct differences between Long Island’s two forks when it comes to presenting live music.
At its most elemental level, it comes down to this: How come the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is so vital but Riverhead’s Suffolk Theatre remains stuck in neutral several decades after it was first proposed as a performing arts center?
Or why does East Hampton’s Stephen Talkhouse nightclub consistently attract nationally acclaimed performers while North Fork venues present mostly local talent.
Call me negative, but when I think of live music here I think mostly of what might have been. Like the several hundred hearty souls who attended the East End Arts Council’s Delbert McClinton concert at the Talmage farm on Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow.
Or the disappointing turnouts (to me, at least) at the first two NOFO Music Festivals at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue — although festival organizer Josh Horton has a more upbeat interpretation of that experience, as expressed in his comments below. Or the suspension for one year of the Riverhead Blues Festival, followed by a 2012 resumption that left the sponsor, Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, thousands of dollars in the red.
There have been some limited successes, of course. Like the short-lived rock and roll shows promoter Preston Powell once brought to the movie theater in Greenport. Or the generally low-key musical performances that have become standard at North Fork vineyards. (Said one wag I surveyed on this question: “It’s just that those bands all work for less than $200.”)
Or the live music offerings of The Arts in Southold Town — although even that volunteer-based organization was forced to disband in part because of the rigors of presenting.
Also on the plus side of the ledger, says East End Arts executive director Pat Snyder, is “the success of Winterfest Jazz on the Vine, which drew an estimated 7,500 people to the North Fork in the dead of winter. Even though vineyards were not built for performance,” she continues, “we make the best of it (along with a really good glass of wine) and enjoy world-class music. Last winter we had at least six Grammy-winning or -nominated musicians. The audience came from well beyond the Suffolk County borders. I believe it’s a matter of knowing who we are as an area and leveraging those qualities.”
What it comes down to — most of the people I’ve spoken to seem to agree — is geography and demographics.
Geographically speaking, Westhampton is much more accessible to the hundreds of thousands of potential customers who live in Brookhaven and Southampton towns. What’s more, as another friend points out, somewhat defensively, “While North Forkers will readily go to the South Side for stuff, those people often feel like they’re taking their lives in their own hands to come north.”
Demographically speaking, there’s significantly more wealth and a younger audience on the South Fork. The kind of wealth, in the form of corporate sponsorships and individual donations, that can help underwrite operating losses at the performing arts center in Westhampton.
And the kind of audience that most likely will sell out upcoming shows for such big name acts as Rufus Wainwright, Joe Walsh, Pat Metheny and k.d. lang. And with ticket prices ranging from just under $100 to just under $150!
Price resistance is definitely a factor here on the North Fork. One-day passes to the NOFO Fest approached $50, and even at that comparatively low level there appeared to be resistance. That’s one of the reasons why NOFO will be reconstituted this summer as a concert series instead of a multiple-day festival.
Still, organizer Josh Horton chooses to place a more upbeat spin on the change of plans, saying it’s “not grounded in the difficulty of producing live music initiatives.” Nor was he discouraged by the response to the first two festivals.
Instead, he says, “There’s a tremendous opportunity and demand for quality live music. That’s what we experienced with the first two NOFO festivals in 2010 and ’11. But this year, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Instead of being all things to all people over the course of two days,” he said, NOFO will become a concert series that presents national acts in a “more intimate setting.” And at a significantly reduced price.
Case in point: the just-announced tribute to Levon Helm, the recently departed founding member of The Band, scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19, on the main lawn at Peconic Bay Winery. It will feature Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm, and the Dirt Farmer Band, which backed up Levon Helm on two award-winning albums. And tickets will be priced at just $20 in advance, $25 at the gate.
So instead of needing to sell 1,000 tickets, as they did with the larger festival, Josh said, they’ll need to sell 200 to 300.
“We want to make sure the focus is on the music,” he said, noting how the “time and focus spent on vendors and additional activities became a large part of the festival and diminished the focus on the music.”
So, North Fork music fans, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Let’s start small, with the purchase of a ticket or two for the Levon Helm show. And if that works out, we can start to think bigger, say the purchase and remodeling of the old Greenport Auditorium into a live contemporary music venue that makes the ghost of Stephen Talkhouse wish his Native American tribe had relocated to the North Fork.
The 2012 Riverhead Blues & Music Festival began yesterday under blue skies and sunshine. The music continues today beginning at noon in downtown Riverhead. Admission is $15 for the day.
Here’s a rundown of the all bands performing today, capped by a performance by Johnny Winter at 4:35:
Noon — 12:50 One Mo’ Time
12:55 — 1:45 Joplin’s Pearl
1:50 — 2:40 Toby Walker
2:45 — 3:35 Frank Latorre
3:40 — 4:30 Who Dat Loungers
4:35 — 6:00 Johnny Winter
Noon — 1:00 Bryan Campbell & Max Feldschuch
1:20 — 2:20 American Primitive String Band
2:40 — 3:40 Ari Eisinger
4:00 — 5:00 Jacks O’Diamonds
Click here to read more about the performers.
The annual Riverhead Blues & Music Festival got off to a good start Saturday afternoon under sunny skies with cool breezes on the historic riverfront in downtown.
By 3 p.m. a few hundred fans were on hand to listen to Patti Betti, bluesman Robert Ross Trio of NYC, the traditional American rock and roll of Josey Wales Outlaw band (in the Vail-leavitt Music Hall) and the rockabilly music of the North Fork’s own Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks, who are based in Greenport.
The Blues & Music Festival continues tonight and tomorrow.[nggallery id=350 template=galleryview]
There will be much more at this year’s Riverhead Blues Festival than good barbecue and awesome tunes. A true musical legend who performed at Woodstock is topping the bill.
That’s none other than Johnny Winter, named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 greatest guitar players of all time, and he’ll perform on Father’s Day, June 17.
To lead up to this interview with Mr. Winter, we spoke with Paul Nelson, bandmate, manager and producer of Mr. Winter’s latest album, “Roots.”
“We came up with the concept of what type of record it was going to be a couple years ago,” Mr. Nelson said. “I knew when Johnny was doing his other records, he could only do one or two traditional songs and there were some shouting matches, so with this one I said, ‘Let’s just do the whole album of everything you wanted to do, all the traditional hits, but let’s pick one song by each artist that influenced you starting out.’ ”
Mr. Nelson said that once Mr. Winter had chosen the artists, including such musicians as Robert Johnson, Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker, he picked out the tracks for the album in 15 minutes.
“Once we had that done, I had a hit list of musicians that I wanted to contact based on who would fit each track best, and nobody said no,” Mr. Nelson said. Of Mr. Winter’s upcoming Riverhead performance, Mr. Nelson said, “You never know who’s going to show up to play with Johnny.”
Q: Mr. Winter, It’s been said that you were born with a guitar in your hands. Is that how you see it?
A: I was about 12 when I started playing.
Q: Did you expect you would reach the level you have as a musician?
A: I always thought I would be successful. I was making records when I was 15. I’ve been up there trying to make it since I was teenager.
Q: What’s been your most valued achievement?
A: Doing the Muddy Waters records. I think that was the coolest thing I ever did. We won three Grammys for four records so I think that’s pretty good.
Q: Talk about slide-guitar music from your point of view.
A: Well, in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s, guys were using pocket knives and cow bones and pieces of metal, all kinds of stuff as slides, guys like Robert Johnson.
Q: When did you first use a slide?
A: I was about 22 when I first used one.
Q: What was it like playing Woodstock?
A: It was a mess. I’m glad I did it, but it was a mess. It was rainy and muddy and nobody knew what was going on.
Q: People say you really commanded attention during your performance. The Grateful Dead say they weren’t happy with their performance. Were you happy with yours?
A: Yeah, I was really happy with it.
Q: You and your brother, Edgar, have a rich history of playing together. What was it like always being with your brother?
A: It was great. We played together for a long time, until the ’70s, when he wanted to do his own thing.
Q: You started leaning into rock and roll at that time with Rick Derringer, his brother and Randy Joe Hobbs. As a bluesman, what was that like for you?
A: I didn’t like it. It was my least favorite time of my life. I’m a bluesman through and through.
Q: Please respond to this quote: “In heaven, there will be many bands. Every band will be asking for Johnny as lead guitarist. Hendrix and Vaughan will need some one to clown around with and have few laughs with. THEN, they will strap up, ask Muddy to sing and burn a brand-new form of hell for all us fans of loud, burning, blistering whip-it-like-you-mean-it rock and roll that all eternity has never seen.”
A: Who wrote that?
Q: Somebody on YouTube.
A: Oh, heh-heh. That’s really cool!
Q: Do you hope that if there’s a heaven you’ll be rockin’ out with Hendrix, Vaughan and Muddy?
A: I sure hope so!
Q: If you hadn’t been a musician, what would you have liked to do?
A: I never wanted to be anything else. This is the only thing I ever wanted to do.
Q: What question do you wish people would ask you that they never seem to?
A: There’s no question I haven’t been asked. I get asked every question imaginable, but it doesn’t matter because if I have something to say, I’ll come right out and say it, whether there’s a question or not.
Q: Do you have a message for your North Fork fans?
A: Come out and enjoy yourselves and have a good time.