The Sunnier Side of the Blues

Sarah Petska says every year that it’s her last. And every year her friends remind her that she said that the year before. Yet here she is again, prepping hard for the 16th Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.
    “I literally work up until the Monday after the festival, when the stages are finally gone. I guess I must really love it because I keep coming back.”
    Petska was there from the beginning, when her father Don Hooker hosted the first festival in 1998 — in the pouring rain. “I got my start clearing trailers for the performers. It was not a very pleasant beginning, but we pulled it off.”
    The weather has always been the wild card for the annual Bay Blues Festival. Some years are dry and scorching; others are wet and soggy.
    Whichever, blues fans don’t seem to mind. Petska says she is always surprised by “the amount of people that will come no matter what, in the hot sun, the pouring rain.”
    Hot, wet or fair, fans come to see legends and legends-to-be. Musical giants like Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Brooks, James Cotton, Koko Taylor and more have all paid a visit to the festival on the shores of Sandy Point State Park.

Blues Fest organizer Sarah Petska with Johnny Lang when he played the event 10 years ago. They’ll have another photo op this weekend when the guitarist returns.

    Many of the performers have since passed away, Petska says, “so it was nice to have seen them when we could.” Petska’s favorite was James Brown, who performed in 2000. “I grew up listening to him, so getting to see him was such a treat.”
    This year’s festival lineup includes traditional blues performers as well as other music styles and genres.
    “We try to mix it up so it’s not just straight blues but also varieties of blues-electric, old school, Delta,” Petska says. “We throw in lots of other stuff so everyone stays happy.”
    Returning this year are Jonny Lang and The Mavericks, a neo-country band back due to the huge crowd response the last time they played the festival. Other headliners include Ana Popovic, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Walter Trout, William Bell and Samantha Fish.
    You will also find smaller regional bands, including Sweet Leda, a funky soul-rock group from Pasadena; Swampcandy, a primitive blues duo known for their picking and pounding drums; and the Philadelphia-area’s Polish American String Band, known for its spectacular mummers’ costumes and polka-influenced sound.

The Polish American String Band is known for its spectacular mummers’ costumes and polka-influenced sound, while Swampcandy (below) is known for for its picking and pounding drums.

    “When you bring in large crowds you want to give some attention to local performers, because they are the ones carrying on traditions and promoting our area and our musicians as well,” Petska says.
    “This is our very first time playing the festival. We are so excited to play such a great event,” says Sweet Leda lead singer Julie Cymek. “I also get to open the festival by singing the national anthem, which is quite an honor. I wish Saturday would hurry up and get here!”
    Finding the talent falls to Hooker, Petska says. “That is really my dad’s main job. And he is great at finding amazing bands. He listens to the suggestions of the fans, then looks to see who’s hot or who’s going to be.”

“We are so excited to play such a great event,” says Sweet Leda lead singer Julie Cymek. “I wish Saturday would hurry up and get here.”

    Almost two decades later, Petska is glad to see some of the first performers return to the stage. A hot act snagged early was young guitar sensation Jonny Lang, whom Petska met.
    “I just found this picture of Jonny and me from his first festival with us. We are both so very young,” she says. “I am really looking forward to recreating that photo this year.”
    Even the presence of the biggest blues legends doesn’t shine as bright as the cause does for Petska.
    “Since the beginning, we dedicate all the net proceeds to charity. We pick organizations that directly fund the work we admire. The talent is one thing, but it is also about putting on a festival for the right reasons. We continue to give back, and the fans and the performers come back every year because of that.”
    The charities supported by the 2017 festival are We Care and Friends, which helps the homeless and people with addictions, and Special Love’s Camp Fantastic, a summer camp for children with cancer and their siblings.
    “When we are sitting in the pouring rain and I start to question why I do it,” Petska says, “I remember how many people benefit from this event.”

Saturday May 20 & Sunday May 21: 11am-7pm, Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis, $62-$112 w/discounts, limited parking $20 or Naval Academy Stadium shuttle $10, rsvp: