The Hot August Blues and Roots Festival has come a long way since the first show 21 years ago at Brad Selko’s farm in Monkton.
“A friend of mine came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to have a picnic in your backyard with Charlie Musselwhite?’” Selko said. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
A couple months later, almost 400 people showed up to see the legendary blues player. Each year, the number of bands and attendees would grow in size, and the festival moved to various venues until finding a home at Oregon Ridge Park in 2002; it attracts upward of 5,000 each summer.
“Every year the show gets a little bigger, and we improve upon it,” said Selko, who founded the festival and books the music lineup.
While the festival isn’t strictly blues anymore, the Aug. 17 concert boasts a diverse lineup that includes blues-rockers Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, New Orleans funk band Galactic, Brooklyn Afrobeat outfit Antibalas, eclectic bluegrass band Greensky Bluegrass, rootsy singer-songwriter JD McPherson, Chicago bluesman Eddy Clearwater, electro-rock duo Boombox and a long list of diverse local bands.
“It’s the premier Baltimore outdoor music festival, and the artists that Hot August Blues brings to town are incredible musicians,” said Stephen Yasko, general manager at WTMD, a Towson-based independent radio station. “It serves the part of WTMD that connects the artists with the audiences.”
Hot August Blues was recently named “Best Music Festival” by Baltimore magazine. As part of its continuing evolution, the festival added a third stage this year and will also feature a variety of performance artists, drum circles for kids and adults and a harmonica workshop for kids.
“We have more diversification than we probably ever have had in 21 years,” Selko said.
Rich Barnstein, who helps the festival with social media and promotion, said Hot August Blues has been successful because Selko is progressive and listens to what fans want.
“You have to have a fresh lineup,” Barnstein said. “He’s always changing that.”
A lot of attendees said they would like a video screen so they can see performers even when seated far away, so the festival added that this year. Other attendees wanted to see some non-craft beer options, so Selko got National Bohemian for this year’s festival.
“The bottom line is to try to find a way to make Hot August Blues better and better,” Barnstein said.
Selko said other than some 1950s and 1960s jazz, he mostly likes to listen to new music.
“He’s a real music fan,” said Steve Kearns, a volunteer coordinator. “He listens to a lot of music, and when he goes on vacation, he drives to see [people] perform.”
By branching out beyond pure blues, the festival has attracted a larger audience with a wider age range.
“It’s just getting better and better all the time,” said Bobby Dollar, who has been working security for 14 years.
For local artists, playing the festival is a grand opportunity. Performing for thousands of eclectic music lovers just outside of Baltimore gives them a chance to make some serious waves.
Cara Kelly, who will be opening up the main stage with Cara Kelly and the Tell Tale, is “totally excited.”
“You get to play in front of a hometown crowd, and at the same time, [we’re] sharing the stage with some people, some musicians, I really admire,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.”
Kelly’s huge, soulful vocals and her band’s bluesy rock feel make them a good fit for the festival. Some bands, such as electro-rock trio DELTAnine, draw on similar influences but take the music in a new direction.
“We’re definitely bringing something else to the table,” said Ben Kolakowski, the band’s guitarist. “There’s the younger generation, they’re definitely more into this electronic kind of thing … but at the same time, maybe they grew up listening to classic rock and blues from listening to their parents’ music.”
Kolakowski, who draws on blues and rock influences in his guitar playing, said his band fits somewhere in bet-ween the electronic and rock worlds, since they have live drums and guitar as well as a DJ. He is particularly excited to play the festival, having grown up in the Cockeysville/Timonium area.
“That’s my stomping ground,” he said.
Selko’s love of eclectic music not only brings a diverse lineup to the festival each year, but also allows attendees to experience long shows from each band with minimal overlaps between the stages. National acts performing at the festival have set times ranging from one hour to two hours, and some local acts are even getting hour-long sets.
While the lineup may have exp-anded beyond the pure blues and roots music, there’s a touch of these pioneering genres in all of the festival’s performers.
“All this music came out of the roots music,” Selko said. “There’s something everybody’s going to like there.”
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org