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The bands will play on in Erie

Erie Times-News logo Erie Times-News 7/31/2020 Jennie Geisler
a group of people posing for the camera: The CEE Brown Experience, shown Tuesday at Dobbins Landing in Erie, blends hip hop, blues and funk and will be performing in the virtual Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival in August. The members are, from left: Eric Brewer, Charles Brown, Ralph Reitinger III, and Ken "Stix" Thompson. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © Provided by Erie Times-News The CEE Brown Experience, shown Tuesday at Dobbins Landing in Erie, blends hip hop, blues and funk and will be performing in the virtual Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival in August. The members are, from left: Eric Brewer, Charles Brown, Ralph Reitinger III, and Ken "Stix" Thompson. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

"Set up your comfiest chair in the backyard, grab a cold drink, and fire up one of our 2020 Jazz Fest playlists — featuring the acts you would have seen," said Topher Balfer, an organizer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, before the virtual event kicked off in April.

It could have been said by any one of the organizers of this weekend's 28th Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival, which opens, all online, Saturday at 4 p.m.

This year's edition will have no live audience. Seven musical acts will play on alternating stages set up at WQLN, from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Anybody can watch it live on WQLN, and hear it at WQLN 91.3 and Edinboro WFSE Now 88.9.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: This is a 2019 file photo of Division Street Machine performing during Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival in Frontier Park. [GREG WOHLFORD/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © Provided by Erie Times-News This is a 2019 file photo of Division Street Machine performing during Erie's Blues & Jazz Festival in Frontier Park. [GREG WOHLFORD/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

Organizers are hoping people re-create the festival atmosphere at their homes, taking the music source outside and enjoying the beauty of an Erie summer day while soaking it all in with a few friends and family.

"Candidly, it's really the antithesis of what we have all come to know and love over the years," said festival board member Rebecca Styn. "But with the pandemic, it obviously wasn't wise to bring thousands of people together.

"However, the board and artistic committee wanted to keep ... the tradition of the festival, so we revised it in a manner that meets the times," she said. "There will still be amazing performances by blues and jazz artists, including two headliners, alongside a number of dance, poetry, theater and visual artists."

a man wearing a hat and holding a guitar: This is an undated contributed image of Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, who will headline the 2020 virtual Erie’s Blues and Jazz Festival. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO] © Provided by Erie Times-News This is an undated contributed image of Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, who will headline the 2020 virtual Erie’s Blues and Jazz Festival. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

She's also hoping people remember that in a year when everything was stacked against them, they made it happen.

"Although we will miss interacting with the attendees and the musicians – and the amazing energy that the event brings – we hope that those that have made the festival a mainstay in their lives, find that camaraderie with their families and friends and participate from afar: pitch a tent in the backyard, listen and watch from their laptops, TVs, or radios outside, support the many businesses that are offering food and drink packages to-go, and just create their own unique experiences and memories," Styn said.

"While we know it won't be the same, we will do our best to make it as memorable as possible for those that will be joining us," she said.

George Burton, of Sunday's headliner George Burton Quartet, said it'll be a first for him.

"I already miss a live audience," he said, but his group is ready to rock out anyway.

"We're going to play it as we always play it and try to get across what we're trying to get across and let people get distracted by some of the other things going on in the world."

Charles Brown, the leader of Saturday's opener, the CEE Brown Experience, is over-the-moon excited for the opportunity to share his R&B-tinged, funky, sometimes even reggae version of hip-hop with such a large audience.

"I'm very excited and honored," Brown said. "I take this with humility and it shows hard work pays off. To be part of something so grand, that I've been going to all my life, it's big."

He said he actually likes the virtual setup this year.

"I know we're doing it because of unprecedented circumstances," he said. "But it's a great way to tap into modern technology. I think it's creative. We don't always have to do the standard way of doing things.

"I'm proud (of my city)," said Brown, 32, the grandson of Erie jazz legend Mary Alice Brown. "We could have easily given up on our traditions. But we took the time out to give the people something.

"It shows that no matter what we're going through, we could make something happen," Brown said.

Brown said the performance will be particularly meaningful to him, as his mother's birthday is Monday. She died in November.

"I will be dedicating my set to her and the importance of life," he said.

The Blues & Jazz Festival is an inextricable part of life in Erie for Burton. The musician, who would not give his age, has many ties to the town, starting with a five-week program he participated in – and eventually taught – at Mercyhurst University.

He said the first jazz festival he ever attended was in Erie, where he saw Jay Watts, whom he considered a "jazz god."

"We would go on to tour together and then on a record together," he said.

On the other side of the spectrum, Saturday's headliner, Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, 32, will be in Erie for the first time, playing his own brand of old-school blues from the 1940s and ragtime from the 1920s. "The good kind," he said with a laugh.

He said while he much prefers to perform for a live audience, Erie having the festival any way at all is a good thing.

"People are lacking for entertainment, so they'll get a bit of it and they'll start craving the real thing when we can finally come together again and see what they're missing," he said.

John Vanco, artistic director of the festival, when asked what the virtual festival would look like, said, "It will look a lot like the normal, in-person festival, if you're watching it on television, but with some dramatic differences."

And how. But he, too, thinks of the event as a balm for pandemic-weary souls.

"While virtually all of us were gobsmacked and befuddled at the beginning of the lockdown, after a few weeks most of us began to respond again to our normal stimuli, including the urge to create and perform," Vanco said. "Artists are going to continue to produce art, and will definitely continue looking for creative ways to share it safely."

Contact Jennie Geisler at jgeisler@timesnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ETNgeisler.

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