Can a ‘Mardi Gras’ fill Blues Festival void?

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Blues Festival in 2000 had a Mardi Gras theme.

While the prospects of the Riverhead Blues Festival’s returning to downtown Riverhead remain in doubt, town and business officials are working on bringing a Mardi Gras-themed event to the riverfront this summer, said Riverhead Business Improvement District president Ray Pickersgill.

The date has not been set, but Mr. Pickersgill said the BID is looking to hold a one-day event sometime in August, or possibly late July. It will be held in the downtown riverfront parking lot and feature multiple stages, he said.

“There are three nationally known Mardi Gras bands we’re trying to get and some local bands,” Mr. Pickersgill said.

The national bands he mentioned are the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy-nominated Cajun band from Louisiana, the Hot 8 Brass Band, from New Orleans, and the Jambalaya Brass Band, whose members were originally from New Orleans but now live in Brooklyn.

“We’re also going to have crawfish and all kinds of other things like jugglers, stilt walkers and a fire breather. They’ll be all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s going to be a Mardi Gras,” Mr. Pickerskill said, adding that, if it’s successful, he hopes it becomes an annual event.

While the Mardi Gras may be making its debut in downtown Riverhead, the Riverhead Blues Festival may just have played its swan song there last year after 12 years.

Members of the board of the nonprofit Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which has run the Blues Festival since 2006 as its chief fundraiser, have indicated they may be looking to move the event to a new location this year, citing difficulties they had last year when the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce sought to run the festival.

At one point there were even dueling permit applications in Town Hall from the Chamber and Vail-Leavitt.

The Vail-Leavitt group eventually got the go-ahead to run the 2010 festival, but president Bob Barta said earlier this year he would move the festival if it appeared similar difficulties would happen again in 2011.

Where the Blues Festival will be held this year remains unclear, as Mr. Barta has not returned calls from the News-Review and Vail-Leavitt treasurer Vince Tria declined to comment when reached last Thursday.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said there’s been no application to hold the festival in Riverhead Town, and officials at Suffolk Community College, whose eastern campus had been suggested as a possible festival site, said it will not be held there.
Mattituck’s Strawberry Fields has also been mentioned as a possible event location, and Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said Wednesday he has been in contact with event organizers.

“A few weeks back, Bob Barta inquired about the use of the Strawberry Fields for the Blues Festival,” he told the News-Review. “He was e-mailed an application. We have not received it back.”

The Blues Festival, originally run by the BID as a free, three-day event, was the brainchild of Tom Gahan, who ran it from 1999 to 2003. When the BID, which received town subsidies to run the festival, ran into debt running it, Vail Leavitt eventually stepped in and took over in 2006, charging admission for the first time and making it a two-day event.

Ironically, one of the earliest Blues Festivals, in 2000, had a Mardi Gras theme. Reached for comment, Mr. Gahan was critical of the festival’s recent direction.

“Since 2003 the Riverhead Blues Festival has spiraled downward to a mere glimmer of its former self,” he said. “Actually, it’s now in shambles. Vail Leavitt Music Hall seizing control and copyrighting the name did not insure its continued success. Neither did their business practices.

“The Riverhead Blues Festival should be returned to the vision under which it was created, a free event to promote downtown’s growth and Riverhead’s name in a positive way. Those issues seem to have been long forgotten.”


BID members last week outlined some other events they plan to hold this year, as well as how they plan to spend their $141,818 budget.

The group, which runs a district that collects taxes from downtown business owners for events and promotions, plans to spend $15,600 on the Thursday “Cruise Night” car shows, which will run for 26 weeks over the summer. The money represents about $600 per event for live entertainment, Mr. Pickersgill said.

The second biggest expense is $14,500 for the Fourth of July concert and fireworks, which was also very successful last summer, Mr. Pickersgill said, adding that the BID hopes Brady Rymer and his band will play again this year. The BID is also allocating $2,000 for the cardboard boat race, which drew hundreds of spectators and participants downtown in its first year last summer.
Other events being planned include the country and western concert, which made its debut last year, the annual holiday bonfire, an oldies concert, a jazz concert and an allocation of $3,000 toward the Country Fair, run by Townscape. The BID is also kicking in $5,000 toward the downtown River and Roots Community Garden, proposed for town land on the south side of West Main Street, just north of Grangebel Park.

[email protected]

Looking to comment on this article? Send us a letter to the editor instead.