Falls Church’s Tinner Hill Blues Festival was launched in 1994 as a music-centered street festival. From those modest beginnings, the event has developed into the weekend-long fête of all things blues that will take over The Little City this weekend, an affair replete with art, film, lectures, and – of course – blues performances, some by acts celebrated on the national level.
Nikki Graves Henderson, executive director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation that organizes the event, says the festival draws blues lovers from across the nation to Falls Church to see the many acts the event brings together at Cherry Hill Park. This year, the Washington City Paper’s Summer Entertainment Guide highlighted the festival as a “must-do” summer event in the D.C. area. But locally, Henderson says, the event is sometimes overlooked by the people right in its backyard.
“I think it bears being reexamined by the local community,” Henderson said. “Every year it’s getting better and better, and each time you miss, you miss something extraordinary.”
The Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation has collaborated with FIRSTfriday, which brings promotions and special events to the City on the first Friday of every month, to infuse its offerings with the blues. In addition to venues which regularly host FIRSTfriday musical acts, like Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Dogwood Tavern, a few additional spots in Falls Church will be opening their doors for free performances Friday night. Lu and the Blues Crew will play at Famous Dave’s BBQ, and Blue Pop and the Plucker will perform at Stifel and Capra. Art and Frame of Falls Church will see not only a performance by Jackwagon that night, but a meet-the-artists reception for the art exhibit “Call it the Blues.” The exhibit, which debuted at the festival last year, is juried by Falls Church artist Irena Chambers and invites artist to interpret “the blues” through their work.
The FIRSTfriday festivities lead up to a concert at The State Theatre Friday evening by blues guitarist John Hammond, which will feature a performance by blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins and a dance presentation by the Smooth and Ez troupe.
The festival gets an early start on Saturday morning, with blues musicians performing at the Falls Church Farmers’ Market starting at 9 a.m. A panel discussion follows, at 10 a.m. in front of the Cherry Hill Farmhouse, called “Virginia’s Blues Voice: Performing, Preserving, and Innovating.” The panel includes accomplished blues musicians, and performers from the younger generation of blues and blues-inspired music, all of whom will discuss the past, present, and future of the genre.
Events that morning with the younger set in mind are a free blues-themed singing story time at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and the “instrument petting zoo” by Foxes Music that will give kids the chance to try out different musical instruments.
“We’re still trying to pull the youth in because the music has to go on,” Henderson said. “We’re here for only a limited amount of time, unfortunately, so getting the youth involved is a major push that we’ve continued each year.”
Film screenings at the Falls Church Community Center and the “Old Dominion Songsters: Traditional Blues in Virginia” panel exhibit are two additional free programs intended to entertain and educate, but the main attraction Saturday is the “Blues, Brew and BBQ.”
Starting at noon and stretching into the evening, Cherry Hill Park will be the site of several blues performances and barbecue and beer vendors selling their wares.
Sheryl Warner and the Southside Homewreckers, a Richmond-based acoustic trio, will kick off the performances with their take on old-time blues styles. The Acoustic Blues Women follows, with Eleanor Ellis, Pearl Bailes, Gina DeSimone, and Pat Quinn performing. Blues guitarists Roy Book Binder and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins will each perform a set, followed by the gospel-blues of Sista Monica. Local favorites Daryl Davis, a boogie-woogie pianist, and Mary Ann Redmond, a singer-songwriter whose music calls upon blues and jazz traditions, will play into the evening leading up to the grand finale by Big Bill Morganfield, son of blues legend Muddy Waters and an award-winning blues guitarist in his own right.
The portion of the festivities held at Cherry Hill Park is ticketed. Tickets are $20 ($15 in advance) for general admission and $30 ($25 in advance) for VIP tickets, which allow purchasers to come and go from the festival as they please. The outdoor performances will take place rain or shine, and the weather forecast calls for temperatures in the 70s with a slight chance of rain.
A blues brunch at Mad Fox Brewing Company on Sunday morning will close the weekend’s festivities with a performance by the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation Ensemble.
It was more than a decade ago that Henderson attended her first Tinner Hill Blues Festival, back when the event was located in the Tinner Hill area of Falls Church and was thus limited in its size. She liked it, but she also saw an opportunity for growth, one which she has seized upon since she started coordinating the event in 2005.
The Tinner Hill Blues Festival has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, growing from a community street fair to a full-fledged summer music attraction. For the next 20 years Henderson hopes the festival will continue to thrive, and someday earn its spot as a “must-do” music festival on a national scale.
“I’d like to see it become an integral part of the music scene nationally,” Henderson said. “And that it assumes a position where the festival becomes a destination, not just locally but nationally.”