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A strong showing for Blues & BBQ

17k come out for great food and music
The Grammy Award-winning Fantastic Negrito headlines the UICCU stage of the 12th annual Blues & BBQ Saturday, July 14. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Bigger musical talent, new activities and a strong attendance at an evolving park characterized North Liberty’s 12th annual Blues & BBQ Saturday, July 14. A muggy start tapered off into the evening as the festival played host to an estimated 17,000 people.
“We’re really proud of that number,” said Nick Bergus, Communications Director for the City of North Liberty and member of the 2018 Blues & BBQ committee.
The Pig & Pint Prelude sold out for its second year with 260 guests, up from the inaugural event. The event is expected to return next year as it continues to grow.
The morning of the festival, the North Liberty Community Pantry Turkey Trot saw 255 runners partake in the annual race, generating about $12,000 worth of donations as part of the pantry’s Thanksgiving in July Food Drive.
This year’s Blues & BBQ, sponsored by Veridian Credit Union, took advantage of Centennial Park’s ongoing development with a grassier landscape and its first playground, installed just five days ahead of the summer festival. Loads of kids were eager to try out the brand-new equipment Saturday, running amok over a backdrop of blues guitars. The event also made use of the sidewalk for the upcoming performance boulder playground, which is undergoing installation this week.
The bus shuttle system returned for a second year, using the University of Iowa Community Credit Union (UICCU) and North Bend Elementary School as landing points, with an altered route due a road closure on Kansas Avenue.
“We’re pretty happy with that, and as the festival grows and as that park develops, we know that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to continue to keep an eye on, how we get people to the festival,” Bergus noted.
This year’s championship for Best BBQ went to the new Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, opened on Community Drive, in North Liberty, last fall. Jimmy Jack’s was one of 15 food vendors on site for the event.
“Talking to some of the vendors, they mentioned that this was their best year yet at Blues,” he said. “It’s great to be able to support these local vendors and they do a great job of making great food, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”
The event continued with ambitious refuse efforts of the last few years, accumulating a favorable ratio of nearly two tons of compost, a half-ton of recycling and about a ton of trash.
“We’re pretty proud that we’re able to capture that much compost. This is really only the third year that we’ve really gone all out on this,” Bergus remarked. “Johnson County Refuse does a ton of work to get us set up in a place to do this.”The festival had 15 beers on tap in the Iowa Craft Beer Tent, catering to a steady line of thirsty attendees all throughout the day. And there was no shortage of free activities for kids, thanks to South Slope Cooperative Communications. Programming was extended an extra hour this year, laser tag and other events catering to a broader age range of kids. Grace Community Church also provided a Diaper Depot for parents.
Hitting the UICCU stage this year were The Diplomats of Solid Sound; Iowa Rock and Roll and Iowa Blues Hall of Famers, The Avey/Grouws Band and The Tanya English Band; as well as the returning Kevin “B.F.” Burt and the Corridors. The Iowa native has performed at every Blues & BBQ with the exception of last year, and was hot off sweeping the solo categories at the 34th annual International Blues Challenge Awards in Memphis, Tenn.
“It’s good to be home!” Burt told his home-state crowd.
The 12th annual event marked a new benchmark in caliber for the Blues & BBQ stage, with the 2017 Grammy-winning Fantastic Negrito as its headliner. The booking even prompted a visit from CBS National News, which came out to North Liberty to document Negrito’s performance. The Oakland, Calif. artist tackled cultural issues in his performance and teased the Midwestern audience with chants of “I-o-what?”
Bergus feels the event succeeded at the challenge of pleasing traditional versus contemporary blues music tastes.
“We try to strike a balance there and have exciting, up-and-coming acts that are contemporary but blues-inspired. I think it’s a hard line to walk, and I think we’ve walked it pretty well,” he said. “Folks who were there saw an energized crowd who were getting into good music, in a park on a gorgeous evening.”
While last year’s festival revenues went towards the purchase of a stone entrance monument at Centennial Park, the Blues & BBQ committee plans to soon discuss how best to use this year’s funds. With another successful summer event for North Liberty in the books, the 13th annual festival is already scheduled for Saturday, July 13, 2019.
“It was a great year,” Bergus said. “We’re really happy that folks come out and enjoy the free festival. We’re really appreciative of all the folks that make that happen, all the volunteers, all of the city staff, all of our sponsors.”
“It takes an entire community to put on a community event of that size,” he added. “And it’s great to see folks come out and do that.”