By Kathy Knotts
Singing the blues is exactly what is called for after Don Hooker’s 24-year Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival sounds its final notes later this month.
In January, Hooker and his daughter Sarah Petska announced the return of the two-day event they created in 1998 after the pandemic canceled it in 2020 and 2021. But in April, we got the news that it would be the final festival.
Petska says the decision to end it has been “an ongoing question mark” for the duo.
“There are a variety of causes that entered into our decision. Rising costs, declining attendance, loss of sponsorship, and other financial factors brought us to the point where profits were so small that our contributions to charity made little or no difference,” the organization stated in their news release.
Petska says trying to keep things at a reasonable rate for fans has been difficult. “We can’t raise our prices even as the rates for artists has increased over the years,” she said. “We felt like we were doing a whole lot and all we ever wanted to do was give back to charities and costs were making that harder to do.”
One thing that didn’t affect their decision was the temperamental weather that has shown up off and on over the decades, from mud to rain to chilly temps. “We were fortunate that our audience always showed up; even in rain, wind, cold, lightning and thunder,” they said.
Perfect weather aligned for one of their biggest crowds in 1999. “I think Jonny Lang was one of our headliners that year, and the weather was perfect, everything fell together and we had great sponsorships and attendance was huge,” says Petska. “I think we estimated around 20,000 over two days.”
The festival has brought approximately 300 bands to Annapolis while raising over $1.4 million for local causes. “We feel we have had a positive impact on many lives, not just the charities that we have supported over the years, but also our audience. People have met their spouses there; Children have grown up with the festival and are, now, bringing their kids; lifelong friendship have been cemented and many, many memories have been made,” says Hooker.
Petska says she sees the impact the festival has had on the lives of her now-grown children. “I started doing this in college and I have kids now looking at college. Both of them are incredibly musical, and maybe it’s because they were raised around the festival,” she says. “My kids pulled the raffle tickets, they got to hold the guitars…they could be starting the next generation of the blues festival?”
The festival has hosted big names over the years such as Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker. “For some of our attendees, this may have been their only chance to see some of these artists. Some of them aren’t with us anymore,” adds Petska.
This year’s headliners are Joss Stone and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. Also on the lineup are The Spinners, Samantha Fish, the North Mississippi Allstars, Bernard Allison, Danielle Nicole, Altered Five Blues Band, Elektric Voodoo, and Ally Venable among others. The festival will also feature local groups such as the Naptown Brass Band and the Chesapeake Bay Blues Band. This year’s sponsors are Bud Light, Katcef Brothers Distribution and Red Hot and Blue.
Petska says although they will be busy throughout the weekend, she hopes to take at least a few minutes to enjoy the magnitude of what she and her father have brought to the region. “I’m trying to put it into perspective, that in just two weeks it will be over. But my dad and I always try to stop and have a glass of wine during the final act. This year, that moment will be even more special to us.”
The father-daughter team says they will still be active in the regional music scene but on a smaller scale. And indoors.
The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival at Sandy Point State Park is May 21 and 22, gates open at 10:30 a.m. Bring lawn seating, but no food/drink or pets. Limited parking is $20 or park for free at the Park and Ride on Harry S. Truman Parkway or Stevensville Park and Ride and catch the shuttle. Parking also available at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Taylor Ave. entrance) for $10. One-day tickets are $100, two-days $180: bayblues.org.