An Annual Case of the Blues

An Annual Case of the Blues

Columbia Pike blues fest offers variety of talent, challenges.

For Amy McWilliams, planning a bash for 4,000 people isn’t easy, even when it’s happening for the 12th year.

"I think anybody who’s ever planned something [larger] than a dinner party for 12 people knows that there’s a lot of logistics involved," said McWilliams, the coordinator for the annual Columbia Pike Blues Festival, scheduled for Sunday, July 17 in Arlington.

"Because we close the street, there are a lot of approvals we need to get from Arlington County. In order to put a banner of Columbia Pike, we had to go to the state of Virginia Department of Transportation because it’s a state road and not a county road."

Putting on a blues festival is a state matter?

"Yeah, who knew? I didn’t, until we tried to put the banner up."

McWilliams is the associate director for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO), which presents the neighborhood festival each year. Two blocks of Walter Reed Drive, just north of Columbia Pike, will be closed off from noon to 6 p.m. for a day of fun, music and community. Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King are the headliners for this year’s festival — a free event scheduled to held rain or shine.

Dave Johnson of CPRO is hoping for shine. "Electricity and water don’t mix well," he said.

MCWILLIAMS SAID the blues festival was born out of a desire to have an annual community event in the neighborhood; flea markets had been held, but community leaders sought a more "one-time, in one place" sort of event. "Blues was chosen as a musical genre that would cross over to a lot of people," she said.

The festival was originally held in a large field in back of Patrick Henry High School. "The past four or five years, we’ve had it as a street festival. We wanted it as more of an event than just, ‘Hey, what’s happening there behind Patrick Henry High School?’" she said.

The timing of the festival has also changed. "We’ve shifted the date around to find the right time for it. We used to hold it in May, which was kind of iffy if you wanted to hold it outside. This is the latest we’ve ever had it," said McWilliams, who is also an actress currently appearing in Signature Theatre’s "The Witches of Eastwick."

Last year, the Columbia Pike Blues Festival butted heads with Celebrate Fairfax for the attention of music lovers. McWilliams hopes that since the scheduling conflict has been avoided, big crowds will attend the Arlington blues fest. "We keep trying to get the best acts that we can to attract people. For people who aren’t from the South Arlington area, it’s a chance to give people a chance to get to know Columbia Pike," she said.

ALONG WITH THE headliners, scheduled for 5 p.m., there are also several acts scheduled for the festival. At noon, there will be guitar workshop with Ernie Hawkins; 1 p.m. finds the Curbfeelers on the main stage, followed by Karl Stoll & The Danger Zone (2 p.m.), Hawkins (3 p.m.) and the Memphis Gold Band (4 p.m.).

There will be traditional street fair food available — including "Big Daddy’s Barbeque" — along with beverages and beer. Booths will feature everyone from artisans to civic associations to apartment groups. "We’re going to have some home improvement people, like some basement re-modelers. We’ve got some developers, realtors, too," said Johnson.

There will also be children’s activities, including moon bounces, according to Johnson.

The festival is an opportunity for some neighborhood businesses to interact with potential new customers. "Because of the revitalization, we’ve got a lot of small businesses that are moving around to new locations," said Johnson. He pointed to a business like AA Locksmith, which recently relocated but will have a station at the festival to reintroduce itself. As CPRO President Lander Allin said on the organization’s Web site: "The future for Columbia Pike is very bright."

In addition to the blues festival, the community is hosting an entire day’s worth of events. The Columbia Pike Farmers Market will be going on across the street in Pike Park from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. In the evening, the Arlington Cinema ‘n Drafthouse (2903 Columbia Pike) will feature more live blues with Rory Block and the Straightway Ministries Choir in a ticketed event.

THE FESTIVAL IS a large and lengthy undertaking for CPRO. McWilliams said that while there are a number of hoops to leap through on a civic level while organizing this event, it’s a constructive process.

"You get a chance to talk to people who might have a concern about traffic congestion; you get a chance to talk to the police department, the fire department and the health department. They try to make it as straight-forward as possible," she said. "The other big side of it is [a need] to raise a lot of sponsor money to help pay for the event. We don’t charge admission; the whole point of doing it is so that it’s totally accessible to anyone who wants to come. So we need to knock on a lot of doors and make a lot of phone calls and ask for money."

McWilliams said the Columbia Pike Blues Festival thrives on the efforts of its volunteers.

"We have to rely on a lot of volunteers during the day, because we’re a very small organization. It’s a very community-based event," said McWilliams, adding that volunteers are still being sought on the organization’s Web site,