Expanded Utah Blues Festival celebrates the ‘uniquely American art form’ this weekend

Lauren Smith is only 14, but she already has the blues — “that perfect mix of rock and rhythm,” she says.

The McGillis School eighth grader is one of five young musicians who will perform in the Utah Blues Society youth band Saturday at the Utah Blues Festival at the Gallivan Center. This is the fifth annual festival, and to celebrate, the society has added Friday night performances to its usual Saturday slate.

The festival will feature several rising blues musicians who are appealing to a younger audience, said spokesman Tripp Hopkins, such as virtuoso guitar player Mike Welch, winner of the instrumentalist category for guitar at the 40th Blues Music Awards in May.

Other headliners include Grammy nominee saxophonist Mindi Abair and her band the Boneshakers, and guitarist-songwriter-vocalist Sue Foley, both known for putting a fresh spin on the blues. Traditionalists will enjoy guitarist Ronnie Earl — a repeat Blues Music Award winner — and the Broadcasters, Hopkins said.

The nonprofit Utah Blues Society aims to draw younger fans to the classic American genre, running the UBS Youth Blues Band and a Blues in the Schools program, offering workshops during the festival, and providing professional instruction, camps and grants to promote the blues. Kids 12 and under can attend the festival free.

“Everything we do at the festival is geared to getting a younger audience,” Hopkins said. “We are family friendly. There are a lot of things for kids to do. They can learn how to play the harmonica or make a cigar box guitar. This is music passed on down.”

(Photo courtesy of Mindi Abair) Mindi Abair photographed in Los Angeles in January 2019. The two-time Grammy nominee and her band The Boneshakers will appear June 15 at the Utah Blues Festival in Salt Lake City.

With Blues in the Schools, educators and musicians tell students the story of how the rhythms of the blues began in Africa, Hopkins said, were imported to America with slavery and first developed on the plantations and farms of the Deep South.

“Virtually all music, other than classical, came from some form of the blues,” he said, citing the blues influence on rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, the Beatles and Eric Clapton. “It’s a uniquely American art form created in this country.”

Evan Altuzarra, a 22-year-old drummer and music major at the University of Utah, became a volunteer with Blues in the Schools when he met Hopkins at the festival two years ago.

“I like the emotion behind the playing in the blues,” Altuzarra said. “There is a certain sort of feel and groove that needs to be there in the blues. It’s not the power playing, heavy hitting in rock. It’s a fine mix between rock and jazz, including the complexities of jazz sort of playing on the rock side.”

He hopes to eventually help coach the youth blues band at the festival.

Veteran blues musician Bobby Joe Holman conducts auditions for the youth band, which receives a grant from the society. He then works with the young musicians as part of the society’s Blues and Kids program.

Smith, who is eager to experience performing at the festival at noon on Saturday, began playing piano and singing when she was 4 years old. Her parents got her into the blues “by playing it all the time when I was young,” she said.

“I definitely come from a music-focused family,” she said. “When it comes to singing, it helps to play things on the piano once you get the basics down. I recommend that people learn basic piano.”

Playing on a big stage is “scary at first,” she said, “but once you do it, it really helps in the long run.”

Smith can see herself turning her music into a career and hopes her work with the band will help her achieve that dream.

Tyler Yentsch, a 15-year-old guitar player from Olympus High School who will also play in the youth band, said a friend introduced him to the blues, along with David Bowie and Led Zeppelin.

“I got curious about the blues rock guys and just found B.B. King and Buddy Guy,” said Yentsch, who also plays the drums and the mandolin. “I enjoyed them. Most of my friends are more into rock ‘n’ roll stuff.”

Through the music of these newest performers and the national headliners, the Utah Blues Festival reflects the popularity of this uniquely American style of music.

Utah Blues Festival

When • Friday 5 to 10 p.m. (Gates open at 4 p.m.) Saturday noon to 10 p.m. (Gates open at 11:30 a.m.)

Where • Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Featured performers • Tab Benoit, Sue Foley, Jason Ricci and the Bad Kind, Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, The Connection: Mike Welch and Friends, Cafe R&B, Backtrack Blues Band, Utah Blues Society youth band.

Food and drink • Food trucks will offer barbecue, smoothies and more. Like other Salt Lake City events this summer, no single-use water bottles will be sold, and guests are encouraged to bring their own containers for water.

Tickets • $35 Friday, $40 Saturday, or $70 for both days.

Details • UtahBluesFest.org

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.