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More food, earlier start for Blues & BBQ

Volunteers needed for annual festival July 8 at Centennial Park

NORTH LIBERTY– Things may look and feel a little different this year at North Liberty’s annual blues fest.
It all starts with the event’s new logo, a bright yellow and blue guitar, and a greater emphasis on its mascot, Otis the Pig. There’s also the Pig & Pint Prelude dinner, parking and shuttle services, and earlier start times for food and kids’ activities.
“We’re excited for our new logo to last the next several years,” said Jillian Miller, community engagement coordinator for the City of North Liberty. She also praised the event’s new presenting sponsor, Veridian Credit Union.
Celebrating its 11th year, North Liberty Blues & BBQ takes place Saturday, July 8, at Centennial Park– which may also be a bit unrecognizable for repeat attendees.
A 40-acre green space on the west side of town, Centennial is scheduled for many updates over the next several years, including an amphitheater and splash pad. Since last year’s festival, the park has undergone water soil quality restoration projects and received a permeable-paved parking lot. A nearly mile-long trail now surrounds the park, as well.
“Parking is going to be a whole lot different,” said North Liberty Parks Director Guy Goldsmith.
To preserve the park’s grass and encourage biking and walking, there will be limited parking on-site for food vendors, volunteers and handicapped individuals.
The general public will be directed to three parking areas: the University of Iowa Community Credit Union on Landon Road, North Bend Elementary and Mar Lee Park on Kansas Avenue. Shuttle buses will run to and from the festival 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., leaving approximately every 10 minutes. Bike parking will be available near the pond.
“There’s a whole new flow of what it’s going to take for people to get there,” said Goldsmith. “It’ll be really interesting to see how the transit part works.”
He noted there will be some weather-dependent parking at Centennial, accessible from Jones Boulevard to the east, but drivers should plan on parking at one of the three designated locations and avoid St. Andrews Drive, which will be blocked off. He also asked attendees to be aware of the rain gardens, which have received $150,000 in native plantings.
Parking should be a little easier, however, Friday night for the new Pig & Pint Prelude, a ticketed fundraiser and community barbecue.
Starting at 6 p.m. Friday, July 7, the intimate kickoff event includes a buffet from Mosley’s of Iowa City, drinks from the Iowa Craft Beer Tent, samples from Big Grove Brewery, and music from blues pianist and Johnson County resident Chase Garrett.
“Pig & Pint is one additional way we’re hoping to make some extra revenue,” Miller explained. “We don’t want to stretch our sponsors too thin when they’re already so generous. It really does help us provide all that entertainment the next day.”
She said the total budget for the event fluctuates but is getting closer to six figures every year. And, it’s fully funded by sponsors and some T-shirt sales.
“The headliner is the largest one line of the budget,” she added. “The tents and tables and chairs get real close.”
At $55 ($320 for a table of six), the all-inclusive tickets to Pig & Pint will support Saturday’s festivities as well as help to keep admission free for years to come. While the event is limited to 500 attendees, Miller said spaces are still available with sales ending Monday, June 26.
But if you’re not interested in cashing in on Friday night’s smorgasbord, there will be plenty of food starting at 11 a.m. the next morning.
Sixteen vendors, up from 13 last year, will line the food vendor alley, serving up barbecue, pizza, snow cones and more until it all runs out.
“Everyone’s really excited and still really feeling the high from last year,” Miller said. “They’re coming back prepping to serve the same or more people.”
Carol Cater-Simmons, owner of Sugapeach Chicken & Fish Fry in North Liberty, said as a newcomer it’s been great to brainstorm with all the vendors leading up to the event.
“They gave some great advice to the new folks coming in,” she said.
Sugapeach, open since August 2016, will have fried chicken, fish and sweet potato fries on the menu at the festival, as well as its signatures sauces.
“I’m excited,” said Cater-Simmons. “It just seemed very appropriate to be doing the festival in your own town, where you’re part of the community.”
She also said she hopes it can bring more business to the restaurant, located at Pacha Parkway.
“You can be in the paper, on the news, you can do all of that, but sometimes I think word of mouth does a lot,” she said. “I think when people can see you and kind of get a sense of where you are, I think you do so much better.”
She said they’ll likely offer a limited amount of coupons so customers can visit the restaurant and get a freebie.
“I’m just praying for good weather,” she added.
So is Michael Lipcamon, owner of the brand-new catering company Amos Dean’s, out of Solon. A first-time vendor at Blues & BBQ, Lipcamon said it seemed like a good fit.
“We were lucky enough to get into it,” he added. “It seems like a hard thing to get into around here. I mean, what’s better than blues and barbecue in July?”
Amos Dean’s will be cooking up country-style and five-spice ribs and kielbasa for July 8, in combination with fresh produce picked from a one-acre, onsite garden.
And, what’s a barbecue without roasted pig’s head?
To cook a good pig’s head, Lipcamon explained, you brine it for a week, slow cook it for 48 to 72 hours and then rub it with dry spices or sauce.
“You’ve got the jowl, cheek and meat underneath the eyelid … it’s awesome,” he said. The meat will most likely be served on tacos with another pig’s head on display.
“People are weird with that,” he said. “Some people are intrigued and some people are like oh my gosh that’s gross.”
Other vendors include Honeybadger BBQ, The Wedge Pizza, Kona Ice, Hamburg Inn No. 2, Fat Pat’s Gumbo, and more. Sellers have been encouraged to provide card swipes, but there will be an ATM available.
Starting the food earlier, versus at noon like years before, was a nod toward families, Miller said. With an estimated 15,000 in attendance last year, it takes time to get everyone through the food lines.
“It’s a way to get families and especially young kiddos before lunch and naptime,” said Miller. “Before it gets super hot out, as well.”
The Front Porch Playground and Everyday Arts Pavilion, packed with kids’ activities, like bouncy houses and a petting zoo, will also open earlier, at 10 a.m., and be open until 4 p.m. before the Bernemann Brothers Band of Cedar Rapids kicks off the evening tunes.
They’ll be followed by Aaron Kamm and the One Drops from St. Louis and the headliner Anderson East, who is making a stop in North Liberty during his sold-out tour with Chris Stapleton.
“The fact that he’s coming here is exciting,” said Miller.
Also an official part of Blues & BBQ beginning this year is the North Liberty Community Pantry’s annual Turkey Trot. A component of “Thanksgiving in July,” a county-wide food drive to help stock pantries in the summer, the race will take place Saturday morning at 9 a.m.
“They’ve been happening the same day for multiple years now,” said Miller. “It’s a great partnership.”
Registration is $25 until June 26; it jumps to $35 after.
Miller noted many volunteers are still needed both day-of the event and to help advertise leading up to July 9. It takes 400-plus volunteers to put the festival on, she said.
“It’s really easy to sign up,” she said.
You can do so and learn more about the event at northlibertyblues.org.