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Blues Festival Returns for an Encore

Blues returns to Capitol Hill this week, as the Second Annual Congressional Blues Festival takes place Wednesday in the historic lobby of Postal Square, next to Union Station.

The concert is a benefit for the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping low-income, elderly blues artists attain personal necessities like medicine, rent and utilities. Last year, the event raised almost $50,000 for the charity; this year, promoters hope to raise $100,000, according to spokesman Ryan Costello.

“This event has taken off,” Costello said in an interview. “More sponsors, Members, attendees and named artists. … We will have six blues acts from all over the country [and] room for 1,000 Members, staff and Washington professionals. This is truly turning into a ‘national’ event.”

Costello’s employer, the C2 Group, organizes the event for Music Maker free of charge. In addition to co-sponsoring the Congressional Blues Festival, C2 took to the Hill in the past year to lobby Congress for a grant to build a permanent home for Music Maker.

“C2 really has no other pro bono work,” Costello said. “C2 really believes in the work that MMRF does and we wanted to focus on one pro bono client that we can truly make a difference with.” The group worked with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) to secure the MMRF Congressional funding.

Price, whose district is home to the foundation, said he is looking forward to the event and is proud of the work he did to secure the funding. “I will be there as the hometown Congressman for this very worthwhile cause,” he said. “We got them a very modest earmark to serve as seed money to establish a permanent headquarters. … It came through the Economic Development Initiative over at [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] and ended up being $72,000.”

The festival will feature a number of nationally renowned blues acts such as Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who spent last year opening for Eric Clapton and performed at the Grammys.

Another notable act, and fervent supporter of Music Maker, is one of the most renowned young blues artists in the world: Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

“I became aware of the Music Maker Relief Foundation just a few years ago,” Shepherd said in an e-mail, adding that he “was interested in the work Tim and Denise Duffy [co-founders of the foundation] were doing to help out the less fortunate blues players who are the foundation of music that is such a part of my life.”

Shepherd is so impressed by the good work that Music Maker does he is flying to Washington at his own expense to participate. The night after the D.C. benefit he has another show all the way across the country in Ventura, Calif.

Shepherd recently filmed a documentary, “10 Days Out: Blues from the Back Roads,” about the contributions of these artists to both blues and music as a whole. “It wasn’t until I decided to go on the road to film a documentary and album with some of these artists, like Cootie Stark, Neil Pattman and Etta Baker, among others, that I truly understood the debt we owe these legends of blues,” Shepherd wrote.

Remarks by members of the Congressional host committee will be interspersed throughout the evening. The 30-person bipartisan, bicameral host committee co-chaired by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) is incredibly supportive of the program.

Pickering said in an interview that he’s excited to participate because the blues “influenced not only American music but the musicians all over the world who now make pilgrimages to see where the blues started.”

Last year, several Members actually performed at the event, including Rep. Jim Porter (R-Nev.).

Porter said he enjoyed last year’s festival for a number of reasons. “Playing with my friend, a drummer who I’ve known for 50 years … was a great experience,” Porter said, adding that being “part of a blues festival and sharing my passion and helping some of these men that have been such a big part of our culture for a hundred years” was a special thrill.

Another member of the host committee, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., said that the festival is “like having a little bit of my home town, Memphis — home of the blues — come to Washington.”

The festival will run from 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets to the festival are free for Congressional staffers and guests of sponsors, and a limited number are still available. Those interested in attending should contact Ryan Costello by e-mail at blues@bluesonthehill.org.

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