The Right Note
Blues Festival Turns 20 Years Old With Great Music, Committed Soul
The prime mover and shaker behind the most successful blues festival on the East Coast has a loosely professorial air about him. It is evident in the way he speaks: the calm-yet-undeniably enthused tone in his voice when discussing the deeper meanings of the blues and it’s primacy in the lore and lure of America. and his deep love of music and bringing people together to enjoy it.
Carl Disque (pronounced “disc”) is a thoughtful person. He’s also a lawyer, musician, composer, former punk saxophonist, festival organizer, blues proselytizer and the Main Man when it comes to the Western Maryland Blues Fest, to be held this year on May 28-31 in Hagerstown. “Clearly, I love music and love talking about it. Much like the Belushi and Ackroyd characters in The Blues Brothers movie, there is sort of a ‘blues epiphany’ that happens to many of us, where you suddenly ‘get it’ with blues, and then see it and hear it, or its imprint or influence, in almost everything,” he says.
It was at a blues festival in Charlottesville, N.C., in 1994, that Disque had his “come to Jesus” moment about the blues, realizing that Western Maryland could support a festival that celebrated this music that was so deeply rooted in the marrow of America. “I was always into American history and, as I read more about it, I began to see the link between post-Civil War America and the development of the blues, gospel, jazz and all these musical forms that are uniquely American. They’re really our best export,” he says.
Frederick native Disque, his wife, and their young son moved to Hagerstown and Disque began his career as a lawyer. After his campaign for local office imploded because “not from around here, weird last name doesn’t get many votes,” he still had a few friends in high places and as the race concluded he spoke with the winner about the benefits a music festival might bring to the region. Motivated by a desire to win the well-known “blues vote,” or the joy that comes from condescending to one whom one has just beaten in a contest, the council member loved the idea and thumbed it up
“The original planning for the Western Maryland Blues Fest began with a meeting in February 1994. The first Blues Fest was in May 1995. We made a conscious and, in hindsight, a wise … decision to spend another year planning rather than rolling out a festival that had not been planned as intensively.” Robert Junior Lockwood, stepson of Robert Johnson, (the man who made a deal with the devil and became the greatest bluesman the world will ever know) played that first year, along with John Hammond and Otis Rush (“I got to drive Otis to the show… it was pretty amazing,” Disque says.). Since that first show, the Western Maryland Blues Fest has grown every year, morphing and re-shaping itself, and presenting more than 300 bands and musicians to an ever-increasing crowd.
This year’s festival features another lineup designed to make lesser blues festival committees jealous. Rod Piazza, blues harmonicist (is that a thing?) played at the first festival in 1995, and returns this year to smooth move the audience into their favorite bluesy mood. A New Orleans contingent makes an appearance with Bonerama, wahwah tromboning their way into the lexicon, and Chicago legends L’il Ed and The Blues Imperials headline on Saturday, May 30.
One of the musicians appearing this year to melt faces and croon to the lovelies, Paul Pfau is a local agent of the blues who appeared recently on NBC’s The Voice, and worked with hit singer Pharrell. When asked about playing the Western Maryland Blues Fest, Pfau bends his response this way: “Just a few years ago, I was just starting to get out onto the local blues scene. I attended almost every jam in the … area just trying to make a name for myself so that one day I could have my name on the coveted Western Maryland Blues Fest lineup.
This year is the 20th anniversary of this festival and this will be my third year on the lineup. You could say I’m excited, yeah.” Pfau will kick the show off, putting the pedal to the metal on Thursday night, but will be sitting in with others for the rest of the weekend should the blues gods smile in his direction. Pfau defies the too-easy and disparaging definition of “another white boy playing the blues” for the primary reason that he plays the guitar like an early-20s version B.B. King.
Disque loves Pfau, but, bristles when asked if the blues has been co-opted by Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabes. “Look, it would be easy to make this another ‘white guys playing blues riffs on guitar’ festival. Those players are out there, many of them very good. But what we try to do is book male, female, white, black, old, young, traditional blues, nontraditional blues. … I want to enlarge people’s mindset about the blues, and help them to see that this is truly an American music.”
The eternal argument on the subject of Caucasians stealing African American music and making it popular, and in the process leaving the originators of the music languishing for lack of attention and pay is not one that interests Disque. “Look, there’s no doubt that that happened, and happens today. But we pay homage to this music every year. Anyway, cross-pollination is where things get interesting musically. Some people are just uplifted by music and the power it has to bring people of all different stripes together. It’s one of the things we try to do at the festival is present this ‘rainbow of the blues’ for the audience,” Disque says.
A blues didgeridoo a few years back lends serious credence to Disque’s claim. The Western Maryland Blues Festival really is a place where this art form, this truly and uniquely American sound, is honored by all. This year, like every other year leading to this 20th anniversary celebration, everyone is welcome. The only requirements are to be nice, and to love music and its power to bring everyone together under the common banner of wavelength and emotion that is the blues.