Columbia Pike Blues Festival returns June 17

This year’s event, with Bettye LaVette as its headliner, strives to show its attendees the many shades of the blues.

Photo courtesy of Krsmanovic/Adobe Stock

Just as the color blue can take many forms, so can the music genre by the same name, and recognizing and appreciating said array of music styles is of extra emphasis during this year’s Columbia Pike Blues Festival.

The free event, which will take place on Saturday, June 17, from 1-8:30 p.m. and will span three blocks at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive, is produced by the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and supported by Arlington Arts, part of the Cultural Affairs division of Arlington County, and Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Music Festival Sponsorship Program.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about internally with the festival is the idea of expanding on the definition of a blues festival, so not going with one strict definition of blues but touching on different music that is blues and blues-influenced so it is more diverse in terms of expression and able to, we hope, reach a wider audience,” says Josh Stoltzfus, director of cultural development at the Arlington Cultural Affairs division. “When you’re talking about blues-influenced music, you’re talking a huge swath of American music; you’re not really boxed in very much there.”

This year’s festival will include a mix of performers bringing funk, R&B and “traditional blues” to life. Some local groups include Rufus Roundtree and Da B’More Brass Factory, D.C.’s Full Power Blues, Jonny Grave and Carly Harvey and Sol Roots of Charlottesville.

Bettye LaVette, a 71-year-old three-time Grammy nominee who once performed “Change is Gonna Come” alongside Bon Jovi for then-President-elect Barack Obama, is this year’s headliner.

When the festival first got started, it was organized solely by the CPRO under the direction of the executive director Conchita Mitchell, with the hope that it would be a “signature event for south Arlington’s main street.”

“We chose a blues festival because The Pike and South Arlington, like the blues, is real,” Mitchell says. “It is earthy and has a soul that is unique and different from the rest of Arlington—it has a beat.”

By the time Amy McWilliams, CPRO associate director, came on board 18 years ago, the festival had been a “fixture,” though six years into her new role, the CPRO decided to move the festival from the field at Patrick Henry Elementary School to the streets.

That expansion has allowed for further involvement from area businesses like the The Salsa Room, Dama Pastry, Bob and Edith’s Diner and the Celtic House Irish Pub and Restaurant. Arlington Arts has also developed an interactive Art Island where last year guests participated in a mural-painting project highlighting Columbia Pike landmarks led by Arlington-based artist David Amoroso. This year guests have the opportunity to silkscreen the Pike logo on tote bags.

A kid’s area will include face paint, a moon bounce and storytime from the Columbia Pike Branch Library. Katherine Young, Arlington’s poet laureate, will also be reading the poem she created about the festival.

“We were organized by a group of citizens, business owners and county personnel to be the support for this neighborhood,” McWilliams says of the CPRO. “Our mission is to promote Columbia Pike as a place to live and work and play, and a large part of what we do to that end are different events to bring people to the Pike, to get people out on the Pike and to support the neighborhoods and businesses that are located here.”
Considering its ongoing evolution, the Columbia Pike Blues Festival serves as a prime example of how the CPRO is doing just that.

(June 2017)