The much-loved Swanage Blues Festival shuffles into town this weekend with an eclectic mix of musicians and singers – the first blues festival here since March 2020.
As Steve Darrington, founder and organiser, likes to put it:
“The whole concept is that it’s a party, so there is no one topping the bill as such. We always say the star of Swanage Blues is Swanage itself.”
The 34th Festival starts on Thursday 30th September, and runs through to Sunday 3rd October 2021.
Robin Bibi – one of the the artists at the festival – Saturday afternoon at The Grand Hotel
“Nowhere like Swanage Blues Festival”
It’s a smaller event than usual – with only half the normal number of venues – but that shouldn’t dampen the spirits of music lovers and artists who come to be part of the experience. The unique combination of seaside town and blues music has proved a lasting mix.
“People who come back year after year tell me there is nowhere like Swanage Blues Festival. The locals are friendly, warm and welcoming and the pubs are everything they want.
“It’s almost like a pick and mix. You can combine some blues music with a ride on a steam train or a walk by the coast.
“People love seeing great musicians who aren’t famous and there’s a whole choice out there.”
The last festival was in March 2020 before lockdowns began
But getting the festival back after the unwanted interruption of Covid has not been easy.
“It’s been a struggle with this one, mainly because although everyone was keen to do it, as time has gone on more and more things have come along to create little problems.
“Community organisations, for instance, are anxious to put the community first and as they are run by volunteers and they don’t want to risk anyone getting ill, so they have decided they don’t want anything in their venue this time, and then we have lost some because of the shortage of staff. Swanage has really suffered badly this year with a lack of staff.”
Blue Touch – at Herston camping on Saturday night
Started as a one-off birthday party
Steve first came to Swanage just for a few days in August 2000. He liked it so much he extended his stay and ended up getting a job playing piano in the old Gillan Hotel, now The Mulberrys flats, at the corner of Northbrook Road and Victoria Avenue.
It was during his first few months in the town that he met George Crane, a blues fan, who had been a newspaper photographer in the 1970s. He had a leap year birthday and asked Steve to organise a special party in the old Victoria club in the High Street, now Bar One – because his 29th February birthday was so rare.
Over time more venues came on board. The event which settled on March, became an annual fixture with an even more popular festival added in October.
John McClean sings the blues – Friday night at The White Swan
Polio at age six
This year the Swanage Bay View caravan park is back on the list of venues with a Blues Roots Soul Collective. It features one male and four female up-and-coming artists supported by a backing band – so it’s five headliners in one night.
For Steve, who had polio as a child of six and was in hospital for a year, blues music has played a very special part in his life.
Fans come back year after year
“I instantly felt that I could do that”
By the time he was 15 he was still in a wheelchair when he heard a boy at his school in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire playing blues harmonica.
“I just thought ‘this is something else’ and I instantly felt that I could do that, that I had already done it, and it was just a case of remembering how to do it.”
So, he bought a harmonica and practised for six months and got in a band and suddenly he was able to walk again.
“I don’t know what it was, I suppose I had the confidence or something – it woke up everything.”
Keyboard man – Steve Darrington, the festival organiser
“Came up trumps”
From the harmonica he progressed to the Hammond organ. This was the sixties and blues was big on the contemporary music scene.
“Keyboards were very expensive in those days but my Dad, who was only working class and wasn’t rich, came up trumps and used a huge chunk of his wages to get me an organ.”
Steve ended up playing on BBC radio and TV with the stars of the day. Then aged 20 he began touring with a band called Brewer’s Droop across the UK and Europe and backing big American artists when they came over including Arthur Crudup, who wrote That’s All Right, Elvis Presley’s first release.
Connor Selby, Laura Evans, Hollie Rogers – three of the rising stars in one night at Swanage Bay View on Saturday night
“Not motivated by money”
It’s been harder work than usual to get this particular festival off the ground but Steve is not fazed:
“I do it for the love of the music.
“One of the great things about Swanage Blues Festival is that people are willing to come and play because they enjoy playing here. They’re not motivated by money but having a great time in a party atmosphere.
“They may be used to playing in big venues but what they like about here is that they get to play in a smallish gig where they’re up close and personal with the audience.”
The full list of artists, venues and times are on the Swanage Blues Festival website
Georgia Van Etten and Jade Like The Stone make up the ‘five headliners’ on one bill at Swanage Bay View