The Black-Eyed & Blues Fest is back in Bushnell Park this weekend

Beat the blues with the Black-Eyed & Blues Fest when the 20-year-old outdoor gathering returns to Bushnell Park Pavilion on July 31 and Aug. 1. Last year’s gathering had to be canceled due to the coronavirus crisis.

It’s during times of crisis and uncertainty that we may need blues music the most. “Someone down South somewhere is putting the finishing touches on a great blues song right now,” muses Black-Eyed & Blues founder James Varano, who’s also the owner of the Black-Eyed Sally’s restaurant and blues club on Asylum Street. “There’s been a lot of suffering in the last 18 months.”

In the spirit of the contemporary blues experiences, the Black-Eyed Blues Fest blends in “a little bit of soul, a little bit of gospel” and other genres as well as “straight blues,” Varano says. “We try to mix it up.”

Varano says there are some key differences between this year’s festival and the previous ones. Most of the changes can be said to be improvements.

The 2021 festival lasts for two days instead of one. Admission is free. On Saturday, the festival runs from 3 to 9 p.m., with four bands: Jr. Krauss & The Shakes, Carl Ricci & 706 Union Ave., Neal & The Vipers and The Mighty Soul Drivers. Sunday’s hours are 3 to 7 p.m., with three bands: Balkun Brothers, Ed Peabody & The Big Blue Thang and the Lovelace-Lesiw Blues Review. Dancing is encouraged.

“We’re live and local,” Varano says. The festival is stocked with familiar, top Connecticut talent. Varano knows all the best blues/R&B/soul bands in Connecticut, and rather than risk booking national acts whose ability to tour might be curtailed by COVID, he put together an unbeatable lineup of locals.

“There are so many bands that would fit this bill,” Varano says, “but I only had so many slots.” Each band will have a 50-minute set, with a 15-minute changeover between bands.

  • There’s no Connecticut Blues Challenge this year. At previous festivals, the winning band at the state competition would move on to a national contest in Memphis, but that’s not happening this year. “But frankly,” Varano says, “whoever would have won the Challenge is probably part of this line-up already.”

Besides the music, Black-Eyed Sally’s the restaurant will be represented with a food booth featuring (among other delicacies) its singular “pulled pork sandwich sundae” of meat and mashed potatoes with a cherry on top. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream will also have a booth.

The festival was founded by Black-Eyed Sally’s with the now-defunct alternative weekly newspaper The Hartford Advocate and the Greater Hartford Arts Council. The goal was to bring music-lovers throughout the region to downtown Hartford. Today, Black-Eyed & Blues endures as the longest running free blues festival in the state.

The 2021 festival almost didn’t happen at all. Since the festival takes months of planning and it was hard to determine when COVID regulations might be lifted or when audiences might feel ready to come out again, Varano was prepared to wait until next year to resume. But “at the last minute, I got nudged to do it” by civic leaders including Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who were encouraging the return of outdoor events this summer.

That support was meaningful, but starting the planning later than usual meant Varano couldn’t apply for the usual arts grants or find sponsors. He credits the Greater Hartford Arts Council, Raytheon Technologies and the city of Hartford for stepping up with contributions that helped make the festival happen on short notice. Mostly, Varano says, it was about “tweaking our plans and getting more volunteers so we were able to do this on a shoestring.’

The most important thing, he says, is “we’re back.”

Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].