Sam Veal wasn’t trying to build one of the biggest music festivals in the country. He just wanted to create an event that paid tribute to the blues in his own backyard. Fast forward 30 years, Springing the Blues is a monument to the blues movement, even if he doesn’t see it that way.
When Veal met with the Beaches Museum about installing a small marker near the SeaWalk Pavilion stage, Executive Director Christine Hoffman suggested they go bigger with a permanent, stone memorial to formally honor the significance and contribution of the festival that welcomes thousands to the city for three days of live music just steps from the beach.
“I just want a small plaque on the side of the stage that people could see walking down the street and say ‘wow, that’s cool,” he says.
For 30 years, Veal has maintained the integrity of Springing the Blues by keeping it simple. It’s the music and the magic that happens when the band is really cooking and there’s a combustible energy that’s palpable. It’s that raw spiritual connection of souls that keeps people coming back.
“They talk about lightning in a bottle,” says Veal. “That’s what it is. You have connected with that great cosmic force and that’s really what underlies everything.”
The 30th annual Springing the Blues Festival celebrates a milestone anniversary April 3-5 in the heart of Jacksonville Beach. Admission is free but VIP packages are available (www.springingtheblues.com). The lineup includes Dawn Tyler Watson, David Julia, Victor Wainright, J.P. Soars Gypsy Blues Revue, Lil Ed & the Imperials, Vanessa Collier, Larry McCray, James Armstrong, Betty Fox Band, AJ Ghent and The Lee Boys.
Talking with Veal, every moment is intimately connected to another. A memory linked to a story, that story conjures up a song which plays out on vinyl, live performances captured on video. The physical archives of STB memorabilia pales in comparison to the one Veal carries with him.
“This music is by its nature, intimate,” says Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer. “The idea is that it’s supposed to be soul to soul communication.”
Alligator Records has served as a feeder for years, stacking the lineup with artists. In the interest of history, Veal and Iglauer likely met at a Blues Foundation event though there’s no official record to support that theory.
“It seems like I’ve known him forever. He may have just cold-called me. Since then, he’s attended a half a dozen times or close to that since I’ve gotten to know Sam,” says Iglauer. “I’m always interested in having our artists appear in front of new audiences. Beyond that, I started this label because I’m a blues fan. And many years after starting it, I’m still very much a blues fan,” says Iglauer. “Anything that exposes this music to new audiences, even if it isn’t Alligator musicians, I wholeheartedly support.”
Both are such similar creatures, seeking the truth in undiscovered talent, fresh, hungry players with something to say. As curators of the blues experience, they share the same aesthetic which is getting as many blues artists as they can in front of the most people.
“We both love the music and we love exposing other people to the music. One thing that I think Springing the Blues has done particularly well is the “being free” part because iof the people are coming and hearing this music who have not experienced it previously,” remarks Iglauer. “So, we love to be converts. We love to have people fall in love with the music that we fell in love with and Springing the Blues is a great opportunity to do that.”
The pair first connected over Tinsley Ellis, who played the very first Springing the Blues. “Bruce and I got to know each other. We were both judges on the International Blues Talent Competition in Memphis and we got to talking and what not,” says Veal, who turned the label impresario on to the late Michael Burks. “I turned him on to Susan Tedeschi too and he passed! Can you believe that? Crazy.”
Iglauer chokes up at the memory of Michael Burks’ final appearance at Springing the Blues, just weeks before his untimely death in 2012. Burks was the festival headliner and standing at the precipice as the next “big thing.” Iglauer knew it and so did Burks.
“It was a triumph for him and he knew it. They had to virtually drag him off the stage. Michael probably would’ve played another hour or two. He was just having so much fun,” he says. “He was just coming into his own and just had a few steps more to go to put his career where we wanted it to be. Michael and I went from being people in a friendly business relationship to being real friends and we miss him all the time.”
Iglauer, in turn, put Birchwood on Veal’s radar. “That very well could be,” recalls Veal. “I seem to remember yes. I call him every year and ask ‘who’re you touting?’ and he said ‘I got this new kid, he’s really good and he has an album coming out’.”
Birchwood was fresh from his 2013 win at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and eager to take the stage even though he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. “I was so shocked at what I came upon with Springing the Blues. It’s just as big and just as exciting as any festival we’ve done anywhere and we’ve performed in 16 countries the past seven years and doing festivals all over the place. Springing the Blues got it going on over there, man, and it’s still free. The stage and the sound and the people are just top notch over there. Actually, one of the times I think I got in the van and started driving away and I forgot to get paid. It’s one of the those, you get done playing the festival and you feel so good that you start driving away and forget to get paid because you felt you got what you needed, you know? Still on that high,” laughs Birchwood.
“Every time I talk to [Sam Veal] he’s always been so down to earth and very supportive. He’s actually shown up at a couple of our other shows in the Jacksonville area so I always have to stop the show a little bit and thank him and talk about STB. I’m pretty sure everybody knows but in case they don’t know what they have in their backyard, I like to make sure that’s known because it’s not like that everywhere, man. The quality of the acts that they get through there is incredible and I think that’s why people continue to come back. They are one of the few festivals that book acts that you may not have necessarily heard of that play every single festival but the programming of the festival is one of those things that I think people trust. They know that whoever it is they book they are going to be pleased by whoever they hear and see because it’s going to be good.”
Through the years, Veal provided platform to up and coming hopefuls, introduced seasoned players to new audiences, helped young artists develop their craft and shepherded many through the blues channels all the way to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Talent Competition
Grant Nielsen was 15 when he first played Springing the Blues. It was part of his formal education into performing live and he was fortunate to join a group of seasoned players with a history at the fetsivalfestival even though he was the band’s oldest member. The drummer 9 and the other members were both 14. Thunder & Lightning was established by teenage wonderkid Ryan Slate, a blues visionary masquerading as a typical teenage boy.
Slate was by all accounts a natural entertainer born for the stage. He had an undeniable presence and musical chops to boot. And he innately understood the soul of the material though he’d yet to have the kind of life experiences that inspired the music he played. Nielsen joined the band shortly before Thunder & Lightning was invited to perform the atat the festival. He was an eager student of the blues, devouring all the content he could in order to deliver an authentic performance.
“Sam Veal had such good taste that he didn’t have to spend an arm and a leg to put on some of the world’s most talented and lesser-known, admittedly, musicians. It was the ultimate weekend for us for so long. I looked forward to it all week and it was so much more important to us than Christmas,” recalls Nielsen, now 37.
Veal served as a spiritual advisor, guiding Thunder & Lightning through the channels that eventually lead to a spot at the annual International Blues Challenge, held in the sacred rooms of Beale Street in Memphis, TN. It was Nielsen’s first year in the band and the fastest he’d ever “gone from nothing to something.”
“He had his operating platform. He had Blues in the Schools he was working with and the festival and various sponsors and businesses and all these blues channels that feed into the International Blues Challenge. He didn’t want to advance people that weren’t ready because there sothere were so many people that were doing what we were all doing. Sam was an equalizer. He honestly wanted to promote artists who were going to advance the form. We knew we were never going to be better than a lot of these seasoned players,” says Nielsen.
“These guys had been doing this since they were our age and they were really good. So, we kept our heads low until he said ‘hey, it’s your time’. When we finally got tapped to participate in the more main stage kind of stuff it was because he’d been paying attention and he thought we were ready. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to pay him back for that. Those were the first breaks I ever got in my life.”
Thunder & Lightning played Hardrock in Memphis where they placed 8th in the world. Bands needed to make it to the top six to enter the finals. “It didn’t matter what we did from that point on. All these years later, I haven’t been in a blues band since like 2000 but I’m still playing the blues. It’s actually simpler than you might expect. It has nothing to do with scales or chords or instruments or any of that stuff. It is just one thing; the spoken truth,” opines Nielsen. “That’s the only thing that matters in the blues. It has to be authentic. It has to be real. It has to be from the heart and if you’re doing that with your deepest truth, you’re playing the blues.”
The 30th anniversary lineup promises to deliver a lineup worthy of such a milestone occasion. “One of the things Sam loves to do is present talent as it’s coming into position as national and international artists so there’s always this discovery aspect to Springing the Blues that a lot of the other festivals don’t do,” Iglauer says.
“I think there will be some nice surprises. Dawn Tyler Watson won the International Blues Challenge. She is an amazing vocalist and has a magnetic stage personality. And mixes a little bit of gospel in with her blues and R&B. And then there’s a young man named Gabe Stillman out of Pennsylvania, who I’ve been watching for a few years and he’s on the way up. AJ Ghent is quite an amazing guitar player who plays slide guitar overhand. He started out playing lap steel because his father Aubrey Ghent is one of the great names in the field of music sacred steel music which The Lee Boys are also a part of. Aubrey Ghent is considered one of the great sacred steel artists of his generation and AAJ has the bloodline and he’sis taking it in new directions.”
Weighing the lineup for the 2020 festival, it’s more than presenting artists who are good at what they do. Springing the Blues measures its weight in moments, that fever pitch when the stars align and the hair stands up on the back of your neck. “The informality and the social atmosphere and the very solid lineups are what sets the festival apart. An event that has stayed active and vibrant for that period of time, I know very few festivals that have lasted that long, and very few clubs for that matter. So, it’s quite an amazing accomplishment.”
Nielsen sees it through a narrower window. “It’s Sam. I think people believe in his vision enough that I don’t think it’ll ever be a question of whether or not it’s around. But will Sam continue to spend energy on his vision because without him, I don’t know if it would go on. He is the lifeforce.”
UPDATE: Due to the Coronavirus crisis, the Springing the Blues Festival was canceled this year. Next years festival is already planned for April 9-12
Jacksonville Beach, FL
Friday: April 9th, 2021
Saturday: April 10th, 2021
Sunday: April 11th, 2021