By Orrin Konheim
The 24th annual Tinner Hill Blues Festival kicks off this Friday for a three-day celebration headlined by some of the nation’s top blues musicians including Muddy Waters’ son, Mud Morganfield, and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. The biggest change of this year’s festival comes on Friday where the main performances will be moved from the State Theatre to Mad Fox Brewing Company with a “blues” crawl afterwards.
According to the festival’s organizer Nikki Graves Henderson, the change in venue was partially to save money but also out a need to try out of a new format.
“We’ve been recreating ourselves for the last several years,” Graves Henderson said.
The festival is run by the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation in coordination with the City of Falls Church and the help of local sponsors. It started out in 1994 as a street festival by Nikki’s husband, Edwin Henderson, in the Tinner Hill neighborhood in collaboration with Jim Edmonds of Foxes Music Company. Over the years, the festival has evolved in terms of musical genre and location (it was held for several years at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School) before a revamping in 2008 led to a focusing on the blues, a move to Cherry Hill Park and an expansion to three days.
This is the second year where the festival will return to the Tinner Hill Historic Site on Sunday with performances by gospel groups such as the Carter Singers and Barbour Travelers with special guest Susan Carter.
“This is about bringing attention to the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation,” Henderson said. “It’s a nice and fun thing to do, but we mix in the history and we bring back to Tinner Hill which helps people understand that there is an ongoing preservation effort to preserve the civil rights and social justice efforts in this community.”
Henderson is the executive director and founder of the foundation which honors the site of the first rural chapter of the NAACP in American history. It was co-founded by his grandfather, E.B. Henderson, with grandmother Mary Ellen Henderson playing a key role in the city. He originally did a lot of work organizing the festival but concedes that it’s now more of a group effort.
“There’s a lot of people organizing. It takes more than one person leading this effort,” he said noting that it was former City Council member Lindy Hockenberry who came up with the idea to move the festival to Cherry Hill Park.
Graves Henderson notes that a lot of the festival’s recent decisions have been precipitated by a need to make the festival more of a community-wide thing.
“People love that it’s big blues with a small-town feel,” said Graves Henderson.
As the acts have increased in stature, many of the visitors now come from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to attend.
On Friday, featured artists are Karl Stoll & the Danger Zone along with Bushmaster Blues Featuring Gary Brown at Market Plaza hosted by Mad Fox. On Saturday, the festival features its biggest headliners at Cherry Hill Park. These acts include Mud Morganfield, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Tas Cru and his band of Tortured Souls, local artist “Lil’ Maceo” Kareem Walkes with Slam Allen, the Nighthawks, and Linwood Taylor.
Festival staffer Mary Knieser notes that with the revival of interest in Muddy Waters since his 100th birthday celebration in 2015, the festival will be very popular, featuring many connections to the blues legend. In addition to Morganfield, the Nighthawks regularly toured with Waters and Slam Allan played under the tutelage of Waters contemporary John Cotton. Knieser says 78-year-old studio legend Beverly Watkins is another act to look forward to with her Hendrix-influenced stylings.
“With all this talent, I have a feeling that something magical is going to happen,” she said.
On Saturday morning, Tas Cru, who has been active in the “Blues in the Schools” program, will hold a music workshop for young and old alike at the Falls Church Community Center. There will also be blues-oriented programing at the Mary Riley Styles Library and a blues show accompanying the farmer’s market.
“It’s people who love the music, people who really care about the artists, and they care about the people that come out,” said Rick Steele, who’s performing at the Falls Church Farmer’s Market Saturday morning. “That’s why it’s so successful, probably my fourth or fifth year, it’s a close-knit musical community in the area”
JV’s Restaurant (which is hosting the after-party Saturday), Ireland’s Four Provinces, Dogwood Tavern, Argia’s and Clare and Don’s Beach Shack will all be hosting the blues/pub crawl and could also host other performances on Wednesday. The schedule is still being finalized.
Tickets to the festival’s main event on Saturday at Cherry Hill are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate, with children 12 and under free with a paying adult. More information can be found at TinnerHill.org.