Gary Erwin, longtime Charleston musician, bandleader, and blues enthusiast is probably best known in town as the singer and keyboardist with blues group Shrimp City Slim. He also organizes the annual Bonterra Lowcountry Blues Bash festival, held in town every February. He's a busy cat —not too busy to oversee the return of yet another budding music event, though.
Inspired by the success of the Lowcountry Blues Bash and the encouragement from Prof. Bill Blizard (a member of Kiawah Arts Council), Erwin hosted the first "Blues by the Sea" event last June at Kiawah Island. It was a full-day, two-part gig held at Night Heron Park and the Rivercourse Club.
Kiawah Island seemed like an unlikely spot for a big blues music event, but things went so well they're back again. Presented by the Town of Kiawah Accommodations Tax Committee, Bill & Marilyn Blizard (of Kiawah Friends of the Blues), and the Lowcountry Blues Bash, this year's event takes place at the bucolic Mingo Point, located just outside the main gates of Kiawah Island (45 minutes southeast of downtown).
This year's lineup features Erwin and his group, singer-bassist and Lowcountry Blues Bash vet Mac Arnold and his backing band, Plate Full O' Blues, Delta-style blues singer/guitarist Chris Cotton and his San Fran-based group. singer/guitarist/pianist Drink Small (a.k.a. "the Blues Doctor), vocalist Wanda Johnson (a longtime collaborator with Erwin's band), and guitarist Chick Willis. City Paper caught up with Erwin this week:
CITY PAPER: You're heading into the second year of this unique music series. As organizer, what did you hope to change, update, or adjust for this year's event?
GARY ERWIN: We hope to increase our attendance, draw more folks to Kiawah for this event, and more sharply focus our booking to import some really credible and provocative blues acts. It's going to be a good day of blues — and that's for those who already know the music and for those who are getting their first taste. Plus, it's free — can you beat that? Props to Bill and Marilyn Blizard, lifelong blues fanatics who have retired on Kiawah, and the Kiawah ATAX Committee who support this shindig.
CP: City Paper recently joked in our recent "Best Of Charleston" issue about last year's "Blues by the Sea" being a sort of "bourgeoise" event — mainly because of its exclusive location. Tell us, seriously, what effect putting live blues music in the Kiawah setting might have on the audience and those involved.
GARY ERWIN: We all about died laughing at the "Grey Poupon" quip. Nice. People need to know that Kiawah is a beautiful, unspoiled corner of the Lowcountry, and that a lot of the folks who live there, full or part time, have discriminating tastes, have travelled, have experienced a lot. And, for one reason or another, they have chosen to sink some roots here.
CP: Mac Arnold and Miss Wanda make a return performance this year — are they signed on indefinitely?
GARY ERWIN: It seemed like a good idea to bring Mac Arnold & Plate Full O' Blues back. He hasn't performed in Charleston since last June. He received the South Carolina Folk Heritage Award last Wed. in Columbia. So that makes two Folk Heritage Award winners on the same ticket at Kiawah [Arnold and Drink Small]. As for Wanda Johnson, she is probably one of the biggest blues draws in the state. She has a huge following. Her "I'm Through With You" can still be heard as the soundtrack to that Curves For Women TV commercial. And her new album, Natural Resource, is doing great.
CP: Describe what type of blues and soul Johnson and the Shrimp City Slim band aim to make on stage.
GARY ERWIN: Wanda sings and we hold steady behind her. Expect lots of emotion, audience connection, and tons of good music. It's always a pleasure to perform with Wanda.
CP: There are several Carolina cats scheduled to play — but tell us what folks might expect from the visiting acts such as Chick Willis and Chris Cotton's band.
GARY ERWIN: Chick Willis — a.k.a. "The Stoop Down Man" — is a real showboat who walks the floor wailing on his guitar and shouting the blues. His 1972 hit, "Stoop Down Baby (Let Your Daddy See)," is a classic of what we call the "single entrendre blues" — a lengthy and somewhat off-color turn on the old toasting and insulting song "The Dozens," which has its roots in 19th century black folk song. Chick is amazing. He is a real entertainer. Chris Cotton makes his first Lowcountry appearance. He's a roots blues kind of guy, semi-acoustic, semi-traditional, but rockin'. Someone paid him a compliment the other day: "Sounds like an ol' 78 [r.p.m.]."
CP: Describe the facilities at Mingo Point.
GARY ERWIN: We've decided to put the entire event into one venue. It's rain or shine as we have a covered facility big enough to hold a huge crowd. Mingo Point is outside the gates of Kiawah, so you do not have to fret about a pass. It's a gorgeous marsh-side location looking out on the river. We're going to have a full bar and lots of food for sale. No coolers please. And please, leave your pets at home. But bring a lawn chair or blanket. Make yourself at home.
CP: Will the entire cast of "Blues by the Sea 2006" end up settling on Kiawah and living in a sort of beachfront blues commune one day?
GARY ERWIN: No, we'd like to, but no one can afford it! After all, this is the blues. To quote the late, great George "Wild Child" Butler: "You got me lickin' gravy, baby, 'cause your meat's too high to buy!"