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Gray Sky Blues Music Festival

Tacoma's greatest blues event returns with an emphasis on inclusion

This year’s Gray Sky features United by Music North America, a group that promotes musicians with disabilities. Photo credit: United by Music North America

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Blues, by design, has always been the musical genre of the people. In order to make blues music, one needn't own anything more than an acoustic guitar and a story to tell. Its bare bones form and personal lyrics enabled even the poorest of folk to take part, leading to its dissemination through this country, and cementing itself as one of the truest American art forms. Barriers have no place in blues, and even as the form has grown to incorporate more elaborate instrumentation, it remains a fundamentally approachable mode of expression.

Gray Sky Blues Music Festival, a Tacoma-based celebration of the genre, is entering its 11th year. While Washington may not strike you as a hub for the blues, the region has steadily built itself up as a purveyor of music like blues, bluegrass and folk. This Saturday's entrant in the Gray Sky canon will feature two venues (the Harmon Brewery and the Swiss Pub and Restaurant) full of blues performers, running from 12:30-11:30 p.m., most of which will be all-ages. Leaning into the communal nature of the blues is this year's inclusion of United by Music North America (UBMNA), an organization that helps to engender a love of blues, swing and jazz in young people with disabilities. Musicians representing UBMNA will be headlining the show at the Harmon.

"First of all, it's live music, it's blues, it's musicians," says Gray Sky Executive Director Gary Grape. "I had the opportunity to hear (UBMNA), and they are top-notch blues musicians. Unfortunately, they have disabilities -- they may be blind, they may have some mental disabilities, things of that nature. But, they're great musicians. And it's something close to my heart, being able to help disabled people, who may not get a chance to play in a band, or alone, and shine in front of people, at a higher level, and what that does for their self-worth. And to have the opportunity to present this to Tacoma -- this will be the first time that UBMNA has performed in Tacoma. They've performed all around the United States. ... This is not BB King coming to Tacoma; this is United by Music, which is a great organization."

The Gray Sky festival has gone so far as to start a crowd-funding campaign to, yes, help the costs of covering the festival, but 20 percent of what they raise will be going to UBMNA. Bringing in a group like that costs a bit of money, and being able to pay them for coming, plus a little bit more on top, is a wonderful thing to strive for. Anyone interested in helping them out can search for Gray Sky Blues Festival on

Even beside the UBMNA performance, which everyone should go and see, the Gray Sky Festival is packed with amazing talent, such as the headliner at the Swiss show, Howlin' Dogma, which uses dirty blues-rock sounds to dancing ends. The Gray Sky Festival, which was recently nominated by the Washington Blues Society for "Best Community Blues Festival," has no shortage of amazing acts to see. Local favorites like Maia Santell and House Blend, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, and the Tim Hall Band will all be strutting their stuff on the two stages of Gray Sky. If you're a person who's ever suffered a heartbreak, if you've ever been moved by the sound of a guitar, if you've ever wanted to come out on a Saturday night and support a great cause that also creates great music, I'd advise you to keep a certain Gray Sky on your calendar.

GRAY SKY BLUES FESTIVAL, 12:30-6 p.m., The Hub; 1-11:30 p.m., The Swiss, all ages until 8:30 p.m., Harmon Brewery, 1938 Pacific Ave.; Swiss Pub and Restaurant, 1904 Jefferson Ave., details at

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