The re-birth of Old Town Tacoma's music festival

By Ron Swarner on July 7, 2014

Bless his gracious heart: Mike Mitchell is bringing back Tacoma's Old Town Rhythm and Blues Festival. He has put Tacoma on the musical map for years, bringing bona fide festivals and concerts here, always attached to a beneficial charity. In his mind, it's charity first; the rest is music to his ears.

Permission To Start Dreaming Foundation has Mitchell's full attention this year. P.T.S.D. Indeed, the foundation's mission is to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury and related issues and to support organizations that provide services for returning soldiers to help them re-adjust to the country they served. As a Vietnam War veteran, Mitchell knows the importance of Permission To Start Dreaming Foundation's mission.

"This wonderful organization works with the young men and women who return from war with trauma to help heal them," explains Mitchell. "It's a grassroots organization and I know the money raised from the Old Town festival will go directly to these men and women."

Mitchell won't produce or lend a hand with any event unless there's a local charity benefitting from the proceeds. It was his number one request 22 years ago when he founded the Tacoma Old Town Blues Festival with Ted Brown.

Mitchell was approached by Brown to create a musical festival after Brown witnessed Mitchell's impressive musical tribute for former Wailers' singer and sax-playing songwriter Ron Gardner who passed away after an accidental fire in 1992. Mitchell was a huge fan of The Wailers, sneaking into the now-legendary teen dances of the time before reaching his teens. Mitchell also relied on music to help heal from the atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam.

Partnering with blues enthusiast Brown, who died last year at age 61, the two created the Tacoma Old Town Blues Festival. The partnership fell apart after the 2012 festival.

This year, Mitchell, with the help of T Town Apparel owners Pat and Gail Ringrose, has taken back the reigns of the festival after several alterations the past two years, including Mitchell's absence last year. Mitchell truly missed bringing music to Old Town, and his introduction to Permission To Start Dreaming was the kicker.

"It's a rebirth, if you will," says Mitchell. "I'm keeping last year's name change - Old Town Rhythm and Blues Festival - and the music will be more than just blues."

The show must go on. The Old Town Rhythm and Blues Festival moniker remains, as does a more eclectic show, staged in Old Town Park as well as The Spar and Slavonian Hall. The Mountaineers building's renovations eliminated its popular garden court space for intimate blues performances, such as those legendary performances by Little Bill and Jerry Miller.

The event kicks off at 9:30 a.m. with the traditional Bluesberry Pancake Breakfast, a flapjack feast that will feature acoustic folk and classic rock musician Rick Gonzales and percussionist Ike Sutton on the Slavonian Hall's first floor. Guitarist Steve Stefanowicz will lead the opening ceremonies at noon at nearby Old Town Park, kicking off an afternoon of free, family-friendly sets there with cheers from the adjacent beer garden. I can't stress enough the importance of being there exactly at noon. This year's opening will be a jaw-dropper.

Following Stefanowicz's set on the main stage in the park are Tacoma blues guitarist legend Little Bill; bushy-bearded, curly-haired ultra-talented singer-songwriter James Coates; B-3 jazz/blues trio ButterBean; blues rockers The Jr Hill Band; and veteran blues musicians James King and the South Siders wrapping up the park shows with Texas roadhouse blues at 6 p.m.

Tacoma's nine-piece R&B band The High Rollers will headline the evening showcase, which will start with an opening set by blues band Burnham Drive (hopefully with guitarist Tim Hall) at 8 p.m. upstairs at Slavonian Hall.

Over at The Spar, That's What She Said will take over at 8 p.m., at least that's what he said.

Tickets are $20 for the night shows, and available at T-Town Apparel, Metropolitan Market, and The Spar and ParkWay taverns. Tickets may also be purchased the day of the event in the Old Town Park, The Spar and Slavonian Hall.

There you have it. Leave it to Mike Mitchell's big heart and love for music to continue the tradition in Old Town Tacoma. There will be vendor areas for food, clothing and a beer garden run by Tacoma's adorable bartenders, who donate their time. It's going to be a memorable event. See you somewhere at the festival. If I miss you, there's always next year.


Here's the full lineup, with more details available at

Bluesberry Pancake Breakfast

9-11 a.m. Lower level of Slavonian Hall, 2306 N. 30th

Rick Gonzales and Ike Sutton

Tacoma Old Town Park, 2305 N. 30th

Noon to 12:45 p.m. Steve Stefanowicz

1-2:45 p.m. Little Bill

3-3:45 p.m. James Coates

4-4:45 p.m. ButterBean

5-5:45 p.m. The Jr Hill Band

6-7 p.m. James King and the South Siders

Evening Performances

>>> Main Stage Upstairs Slavonian Hall, 2306 N. 30th

8 p.m. to midnight The High Rollers

>>> Downstairs Stage Slavonian Hall

8 p.m. to midnight Burnham Drive

>>> The Spar Tavern, 2121 N. 30th

8 p.m. to midnight That's What She Said