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Washing the Blues away

NL blues festival abbreviated by rain
MORE PHOTOS Ryan and Sue Gingrich came prepared for the weather, and enjoyed the FunkDaddies’ set despite the gloomy skies at North Liberty Blues & BBQ on May 26. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– Steady rains, high winds and intermittent thunderstorms postponed the North Liberty’s blues festival from its original Saturday date.
And even though Mother Nature still wasn’t smiling the next morning, plenty of people put on sunny dispositions and came out for the abbreviated event anyway.
The seventh annual North Liberty Blues & BBQ event, this year presented by South Slope Cooperative Communications, was scheduled for Saturday, May 25, but organizers decided early that morning to delay it in hopes of better weather on Sunday, said Blues & BBQ committee co-chair Nick Bergus.
“On Saturday, there was some concern because we had some thunder and lightning that morning, and the radar didn’t look too hopeful, so we crossed our fingers and hoped we’d catch a break on Sunday,” Bergus said.
Sunday’s forecast was not much better, but there were brief breaks in the clouds that allowed for some afternoon sun to warm up the crowd.
Organizers launched into Plan B on Sunday, delaying the start time until 2 p.m. and scaling back children’s activities due to a reduced volunteer force and potential safety issues with the planned inflatable rides that require electricity.
Still, there was enough to keep kids busy. Several nonprofit organizations honored their commitment to providing games and other fun for children, and the animals from Quail Valley Interactive Petting Zoo had no problem frolicking with families in the on-again, off-again showers.
Also revised was the talent, with bands playing musical chairs on the schedule in an attempt to play the event and still make it to their other commitments. First to take the stage was the FunkDaddies, who put on a high-energy set with smiles on their faces despite the gloom in the skies. FunkDaddies’ percussionist Ken Duncan said his band was grateful for the window of opportunity that allowed them to play.
“We had a wonderful time,” said Duncan. “I know there were a lot of great people who showed up, who despite the elements were having fun and supporting the event. I have to give kudos to all those who organized and worked the event, its never fun to have those elements happen, but the commitment to putting on a great event was still there. I have to say Scott Rexroat and his sound company were fantastic; they did a great job under the conditions. The activity booths, the vendors, the beverage garden were all just great. We appreciated the chance to play for our local area. I think those were there enjoyed it, and we definitely did.”
When heavy rains persisted, event organizers worked to set up a small stage under the beverage tent for the following acts, but that effort was foiled by dangerous winds that blew in just as the drum set was put in place.
North Liberty interim police chief Diane Venenga is the event’s safety and security coordinator, and she was watching the weather radar closely at that point.
It was reported there was a heavy cell approaching with winds in excess of 50 mph, lightening, and heavy rain,” Venenga said. With the storm in Iowa County and predicted to hit North Liberty within 40 minutes, Venega said a large, open tent did not seem to be a safe place for people to ride the storm out. “This cell was bigger, faster, and known to have torrential rainfall. The prediction was correct and it was a wise decision to call the event when we did.”
It was a tough decision, she added, because of all that went into the festival’s preparation.
“Plus all the spectators, vendors, volunteers and musicians were ready to celebrate on that cold and rainy day. It’s too bad the weather did not cooperate, but that was out of our control.” In all, the event officially ran about four hours, from 2 p.m. until it was called at about 6 p.m.
And yet, the band played on; while unable to perform for the crowd gathered at the Blues & BBQ site, Quad Cities-based musician Hal Reed and his back-up musicians packed up and went across town to Red’s Alehouse, where event organizers invited party-goers to dry off and warm up with Reed’s signature Mississippi Delta blues sound.
“We came to play,” Reed said. “We gon’ play.”
And in the brief success of Blues & BBQ 2013, smoking hot barbecue was cooked up and dished out to a crowd of a few hundred people.
Though several food vendors gave up early, seven proprietors stuck it out, serving up delicious fare like jerk chicken, pulled pork sandwiches and twister fried potatoes on a stick.
“Everybody had positive comments for the event and the planning committee,” said Blues & BBQ committee member Kevin Crall. “They were all very understanding of the weather situation and knew there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”  Four of them remained committed to the barbecue contest, and the panel of judges were treated to an abridged selection that was no less delectable than in previous years. The ultimate winner of the barbecue contest was Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon.
While some attendees braved the weather under umbrellas and rain ponchos, most gathered under the tent in the beverage garden, where spirits weren’t dampened, even by the rain.
Matt Swift, owner/operator of Red’s Alehouse– which has sponsored the Blues & BBQ beverage garden the last two years– said those who came to the event made the best of the poor weather.
“I think the people who made it out had a really nice time,” Swift said. “The beer selection was really great, and people got to try some new things. We refined it a bit over last year, and in my opinion we provided a wider selection of beer so there was something for everybody. The darker beer drinker and the light beer drinkers were both happy. Overall, it was fun. The general vibe was positive, people were smiling and laughing and seemed to be enjoying themselves.”
Though the event has experienced at least some precipitation in nearly all of its seven years, the weather has been largely good during the typical 10 hours of food, music and fun, with rain falling either before or afterward. There has only been one year– 2011– that the weather was severe enough to cause a complete cancellation in May after straight-line winds damaged tents and other equipment. That year, the planning committee re-grouped, the City of North Liberty recommitted funding, and the event took place in a July redux that was hot, sunny and dry.
“Blues & BBQ takes months of planning and coordination. We have to make sure vendors and bands are available, we have to have audio production, tents and a stage. We have to book the petting zoo and inflatables ahead of time– all of those things have to be lined up months in advance,” said Bergus. “Once it’s all lined up, it’s a big ordeal to try to reschedule.”
The Blues & BBQ committee– a group of about 15 volunteers who begin the planning process each January– will hold a wrap-up meeting to review this year’s event and discuss possible improvements for future festivals.
“It is obviously important to the community of North Liberty,” Bergus said. “There’s a reason we get a lot of support from the business community and all those volunteers. It’s the reason we still get hundreds of folks to show up even on a postponed, not particularly nice day. Once we put out all that effort, we do owe something to our sponsors and the community, and we want to be able to go forward and put on a great event. And the people who came out said they had a good time.”
And though the weather will always be a question mark, Bergus said the committee will look forward to a better festival next year.
“We are always looking for ways to make the weather less of a factor,” he said. “Obviously its disappointing to put in tons of volunteer hours on something that is so beholden to the weather. It’s the biggest factor, and the one we can’t control.”