Mid-Atlantic Blues & Music Festival rolls into Atlantic City this weekend
A sepia-toned portrait of bluesman James Cotton hangs on a cluttered wall inside the Ocean City office of Herb "Bubba" Birch. Cotton, with a cap on his curly head and a harmonica clenched in his fist, is captured performing live at the former Bubba Mac Shack over the bridge in Somers Point. He was one of several renowned blues artists that Birch's popular joint brought in during its roughly four years of existence before it closed in the fall of 2004.
"I have hundreds of these photos," says Birch, pointing to cardboard boxes piled on the floor. "I just don't have anywhere to hang them up anymore."
One senses that Birch misses the music, camaraderie, and good times that his five-bar, three-stage Somers Point restaurant and nightspot used to offer the local community. Since it closed -- in part because of city restrictions pertaining to live music after 11pm, which didn't mesh with the indoor/outdoor layout of the former Bay Avenue venue -- Birch says he's hungered for the opportunity to provide some of the nation's heralded blues greats a southern New Jersey stage to play, as well as area audiences a chance to experience them live.
"[At the Shack] we had music all the time," says Birch, whose own Bubba Mac Blues Band is still active in the area. "In the summer, you'd have four or five bands a week from the national blues circuit."
Birch had been itching to throw another big bash too. Although he -- with his son Mac -- recently opened a small Ocean City Boardwalk incarnation of the Bubba Mac Shack, aside from the southern-inspired cuisine, it's a completely different beast.
For example, Birch can't book blues acts or sell booze at the new location in Ocean City, a family-oriented seaside town where he's been vacationing his entire life.
Birch has, however, found a way to satisfy his desire to host a big party -- this weekend's inaugural Mid-Atlantic Blues & Music Festival (Sept. 29 & 30) at Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City is it. (See festival line-up and schedule on p. 60.) The festival will be the largest party Birch has ever thrown and will feature some of the biggest blues names around for two days of what he lovingly describes as "bikers and blues, barbecues and booze." Families are also welcome at the event, which will include children's activities and plenty of picnic spots.
"It should be a hell of a party, man," says Birch. "It's like going to a carnival. It's a blues festival!"
Birch, who before getting into the restaurant business six years ago ran a successful healthcare management firm, says that prior experience helped him in planning this festival and ultimately bringing it to life this weekend.
"We ran conventions and conferences," says Birch of his former firm. "My old company probably put on at least 3,000 events over the years, so I understand how to do this."
Birch, who came up with the idea for the festival this past April, says that he and his small staff "just charged into it," picking up partners and sponsors over the course of the summer. According to Birch, the city of Atlantic City has greeted the endeavor with open arms.
"The police department, the mayor's office, the Convention and Visitor's Authority, they've all been great," he says.
Aside from booking a stellar line-up of artists, Birch also pulled in several national sponsors -- including Gibson guitars, Budweiser and The Blues Foundation. Add to those the key local sponsors -- including WXPN 88.5, The House of Blues at Showboat and Atlantic City Outlets at The Walk -- and Birch had all the help he needed to get the festival off the ground. For help with logistics, Birch brought on board Paul Benjamin, who runs the acclaimed annual North Atlantic Blues Festival each summer in Rockland, Maine.
The Mid-Atlantic Blues & Music Festival also forged an important partnership with the upcoming ChopperXpo, which takes place at the Convention Center over the same two days (see p. 8). "We're cross-promoting with them," says Birch. "We both have similar demographics."
Thousands are expected at the two-day event, which is the biggest indoor custom motorcycle and sport bike show on the East Coast. ChopperXpo ticket holders will get a discount on admission to the blues festival, as well as the Saturday night after-party, which will feature the Radiators and an all-star blues jam at the House of Blues at Showboat in Atlantic City.
The United Way is also playing a big role in the blues festival.
"That's another exciting part of what we're trying to do," says Birch, "give back to the community."
The United Way of Atlantic County, in the midst of its annual fall fund drive, has been helping to sell tickets to the blues festival and will receive a percentage of the ticket sales for their charitable endeavors.
"They came up with the term Blues for Good," says Birch. "That's their concept and it's really nice. Their executive director is John Emgee; I call him 'Johnny M.G.' now because it's more bluesy."
"I guess I'll have to learn how to play the guitar now," says Emgee, speaking from the United Way's Galloway Township offices.
"This really has the potential of being a big annual regional event," he adds. "It will showcase Atlantic City and our region at a time of year when the area would like that."
It's also an opportunity, says Emgee, to get the United Way out there and help the organization raise its goal of $3 million by year's end.
"Another thing about the United Way is that their board of directors is pretty much a who's-who in the community," adds Birch. "So they're all trying to help the community and this is a community-based kind of program."
Along those lines, there will be a family event at The Walk in Atlantic City this Friday (Sept. 28) at noon to kick-off the festival weekend. The pep rally of sorts will feature live blues, dance troupes, a Gibson guitar giveaway as well as bikes from the ChopperXpo. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
According to Birch, tickets have been sold to blues fans from all over the country -- from California to Maine -- and some have stated that they'd never been to Atlantic City before, but are coming just for the festival.
"That's really cool," says Birch, whose small-but-efficient staff has been working tirelessly in recent weeks to prepare for this weekend. "It's really exciting."
The festival, Birch adds, is a great opportunity to pick up some of the early off-season slack that the former Miss America Pageant left behind when it fled Atlantic City a few years ago.
Birch feels he picked the right time, place and venue for his first festival.
"Atlantic City is obviously a great music town, but it doesn't have anything with this type of grass roots feeling," he says. "And it's got a venue that is just perfectly suited for a festival and that's the stadium.
"With the whole tourism aspect," adds Birch, "it's a big deal to have some way to extend the season. We figured that the least we could do was try and place it that way ... and the weather is nicer by far in September."
Another good reason to have the festival at the end of September was simply that all of the bands were available.
"It's right at the end of the blues festival season," says Birch. "And we got all headliners. Most people couldn't get them all together at any other time of the year."
Along with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Shemekia Copeland, Hubert Sumlin and many more, two artists performing at this weekend's festival are acclaimed bluesmen Bobby Rush and Tab Benoit.
"I haven't been to Atlantic City in probably 26 years," says singer, guitarist and harmonica player Bobby Rush, who headlines Saturday's line-up and is scheduled to hit the center-field stage at 6:35pm. Rush, a veteran of both the Chicago and Chitlin' Circuit blues and R&B scenes, didn't make his full-length album debut until 1979 with Rush Hour, on the Philadelphia International label. He had an office in Philly for a spell following the album's release and looks forward to seeing some old friends from the area this weekend.
Rush says he feels a sense of deep obligation to bring his legendary showmanship, which has been a fixture in the south for decades, up north again.
"I've been doing this for 53 years," says Rush. "And I owe it to the public to come to Atlantic City. I haven't worked under 300 shows a year for the last 45 years -- so I've been working all the time, but I owe it to this part of the country and I want to spend some time up that way."
Rush, who'll turn 67 in November, says this weekend's festival appearance will be a prelude to shows around the New York and Philadelphia areas in the near future.
On stage, Rush is in a league of his own.
"Wait until you see his show," says Birch. "He's awesome. I mean it's just fun."
Rush prides himself on his act's authenticity, noting that it's never been sugarcoated for different types of audiences.
"I have the girls with me dancing, and we jump around across the floor, and we play the blues, we play the harp, we play the guitar -- we're blues people," says Rush. "But I think I'm one of the few guys left [who's] really keepin' it real. And when you come to see us, what you see is what you get ... So many guys at my age want to cross over to rock or whatever -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- but you got to be who you are. And be proud of it."
Rush, whose latest album Raw (on his own Deep Rush label) captures the performer's acoustic side -- he calls it "folk funk" -- played with Elmore James, Freddie King and Earl Hooker back in the day and remembers how blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf tried to get him to record and go overseas with them while he was a young successful bandleader in Chicago in the late 1950s to early '60s.
|Big Bill Morganfield|
"I don't know what it would have led to if I would have went with them," says Rush, who picked up the award for Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year at the 2007 Blues Music Awards. "But I wanted to be on my own two feet and do my own thing.
"I could have been recording records, but I got so involved with the band thing," adds Rush. "I just wanted to be who I was, which was a pretty boy in Chicago making some money here and there. I was playing three shows a night sometimes ... going from one place to another."
Rush did do some recording early in his career with VeeJay Records, although his name didn't necessarily appear on the credits.
"I was the guitar player and the harp on a lot of the stuff that was Jimmy Reed's," says Rush. "Because sometimes Jimmy Reed was too drunk to play."
Although Rush, who has been called "Muddy Waters reincarnated as Prince," spent his early music days in Chicago, he has made Mississippi his home since the early 1980s, where he has recorded several albums and bases his blues empire.
Coincidentally, both of Saturday night's headliners -- Tab Benoit and Bobby Rush -- were born in Houma, La., playing as children -- at different times -- on the same bayou.
"I know Tab from way, way back and it's going to be great to see him again," says Rush.
Benoit, another big winner at this year's Blues Music Awards in Memphis, is one of the most acclaimed, emotive and inventive blues guitarists out there today.
He's been busy playing festivals all summer -- along with club dates all over the country -- but says he's looking forward to playing in Atlantic City.
Every night, says Benoit, is an opportunity to see where the music takes him.
"It's a different canvas every night to paint a new picture with," says Benoit. "And they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I take each one and I try to make the best out of it."
Benoit's Cajun blues, aside from taking cues from guitarists like B.B. King, Albert King and Buddy Guy, is an amalgamation of the sounds of New Orleans. And not strictly guitar players either.
"I pick up piano stuff from Professor Longhair that I apply to the guitar," says Benoit, "I pick up accordion stuff from Buckwheat Zydeco. The guitar is versatile enough to be able to take other techniques and sounds and try to re-create them."
Benoit's latest release, Power of the Pontchartrain, on Telarc, features Louisiana's LeRoux and combines swamp-blues, Cajun, country-rock and even an updated cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth," with lyrics related to the ongoing tragedy of Katrina.
Benoit, who also serves as president of the Voice of the Wetlands, an environmental group he founded in 2003, says that things are getting worse, not better, as far as post-Katrina life and rebuilding goes in the affected areas down south.
"It's worse," says Benoit. "I know you get a lot of lies through the media and through the government ... and it's a sad, sad thing."
Benoit says that until there are plans to rebuild the devastated coastline of Louisiana, there's nothing really to talk about.
"[Sonny Boy] drank a lot. And he had his own way of doing things. But he was a nice man and he was very good to me. ... He paid me $3 a day and I got paid every two weeks [for playing at his gigs].”
Regular contributors like the Bay-Atlantic Symphony, presenting five programs, and the Atlantic City Ballet with its Nutcracker and Dracula presentations, are back for the new season.
Among the gems designed to extend the shoulder season beyond Labor Day is an idea from musician, entrepreneur and long-time Ocean City resident Herb “Bubba” Birch — bolstering a 27-year-old fall block party weekend with what is being dubbed the inaugural Ocean City Boardwalk Music Festival.
The success of this past October's Ocean City Fall Block Party, which drew an estimated 30,000 people to the family resort on Oct. 9, has switched on a lightbulb above the head of Ocean City's Herb "Bubba" Birch.
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