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Blues On!

Five celebrated blues acts converge on Old Town Park this Saturday

Award-winning artist Dexter Allen headlines a day of blues heavyweights. Photo credit: Facebook

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Over the course of a number of years, Tacoma's Old Town district has been shaping itself into the city's stronghold for the blues. It makes sense for Tacoma's most foundational neighborhood -- the site of the city's first settlement in the 1800s -- to be drawn to such a quintessential American art form. With regular blues concerts held at the Spar Tavern, and a 25-year run for the Old Town Blues Festival, the neighborhood is suffused with the genre. Entering its second year, Blues On is an event that carries on the tradition of the Old Town Blues Festival, featuring a day full of live performances from both local and nationally renowned talent.

The festivities begin in Old Town Park at 1 p.m., with Tacoma blues legends Little Bill and the Blue Notes. Started in the ‘50s, and going strong ever since, the Blue Notes remain led by master bassist Bill Englehart. Joined by Billy Stapleton on guitar, Dick Powell on harmonica, and Billy Barner on drums, Little Bill and the Blue Notes are an almost absurdly decorated band that hasn't lost a step in their over 60-year career.

Yet another veteran takes the stage, next, with Tuck Foster and the Tumbling Dice. While this outfit formed in 2010, Foster has been in the blues game for over 35 years. Unlike the Blue Notes, who've long staked their claim in the Northwest, Foster leans on the Chicago blues form, which incorporates more electric instrumentation and jumpier rhythms. Foster's soulful vocals are the guiding hand for his tight ensemble, but his award-winning harmonica playing serves as the electrifying glue holding everything together.

Moving into a more modern take on blues, with the Rafael Tranquilino Band. Hot guitar licks are the driving force, as the group mixes blues with Latin American rock, funk, and jazz fusion. The trio runs the gamut of subgenres, while always paying respect to their underlying blues DNA. Being just a three-piece, their sound is also much fuller in scope and execution than one might expect, creating an unpredictable web of sonic inventiveness.

The festival's first female-fronted act comes next, with the Lady A Band. Lady A's been in the business since the ‘80s, when she was a backup singer for a Motown revue, and her impassioned, lived-in voice is the perfect mixture of unimpeachable chops and tactile soul. More so than any of the other bands on the bill, the Lady A Band incorporates elements of Southern forms like Gospel, New Orleans blues, and Mississippi funk.

Lastly, the singularly talented and charming Dexter Allen takes the stage. Allen served as the guitarist for a number of high-profile blues bands before striking out on his own. With a voice and performance style that harkens back to the heyday of ‘50s blues, ‘60s R&B, and ‘70s funk, Allen preserves tradition while sounding utterly vital in 2018.

As if seeing some amazing acts weren't enough reason to attend Blues On, the event is part of a nonprofit that managed to give over $2,000 to the Tacoma School District's music program last year; this time around, they aim to double it. Listen to some great music while helping to assure there's more like it in the future? Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, if you ask us.

BLUES ON, all ages, 1 p.m., Saturday, July 14, no cover, Old Town Park, 2350 N. 30th St., Tacoma,

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