Heritage Blues Festival returns this year

Encouraged by last year’s response to the first Kenny Neal’s Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival, singer-guitarist Kenny Neal is staging the event again this year. Once again, the one-day festival, running noon to 7:30 p.m., takes place at the covered but open-air West Baton Parish Multi-Purpose Arena.

“Considering the rain last year, we still got 800 people,” Neal said this week. “I thought that was a good number for my first time around. I didn’t make any money, but I was pleased and happy that it went well.”

Neal sees the Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival as an annual event that has room to grow.

“I’m into this for a long haul,” he explained. “So I don’t expect to be doing something right off the top. We’ve got to give it a few years.”

Neal met one important goal for the festival last year.

“I wanted to get the word out and the ball rolling,” he said. “Now it’s rolling. More people are offering to help me. Sponsors are coming forward.”

Neal, one of the many musical children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the late Baton Rouge blues singer-harmonica player Raful Neal, sees the festival as a way to perpetuate his father’s legacy.

“I just know that if we keep working hard that it’s going to grow into something big that I can pass on to the next generation,” he said.

Since his youthful days of appearing at the fledgling New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with his dad during that now 44-year-old, internationally known event, Neal’s been performing at festivals throughout the world.

But he was a novice at producing a festival. Nonetheless, he saw the need to make just a few changes to this year’s Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival. They include cutting the hours and making tickets available at his website, kennyneal.net.

This year’s festival presents veteran blues acts sharing the stage with the younger generation acts. Neal will appear with guitarist Rudy Richard. His brother, Lil’ Ray Neal, is performing with singer-guitarist James Johnson. Larry Garner will join 88-year-old singer-pianist Henry Gray.

“The younger generation musicians can do their thing and then, in the middle of their sets, they bring out the legendaries,” Neal said.

Richard was among Neal’s blues guitar teachers. Although illness led Richard to cut his number of performances, he’s enthusiastic about the Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival.

“Rudy used to be calling out notes for me on the guitar,” Neal said. “I wasn’t about to do this and leave Rudy out. I think it’s giving him a little more to hang to, a little more strength. He wants to do it.”

Speaking of blues patriarchs, Neal plans to enter a recording studio immediately after the festival to make an album with Gray. They already have a title: 88 on the 88s. But other than booking studio time and arranging for Neal’s little brothers to be Gray’s rhythm section, there’s not much planning involved.

“I want to make sure I’m there to see that it’s clean, nice and tight,” Neal said. “But I don’t want to change the feel of Henry. He’s the type of artist, you bring him in and turn him loose. As far as trying to produce Henry, he’s already produced. I can’t produce that. You leave that alone, man, and let him be Henry.”