The wails of guitars, squealing harmonies from harmonicas and rhythmic basses crooning their way through Uptown could be enough to give Greenwood a down-home, classic Southern feel — but it’s paired oh-so-perfectly with the aroma and flavor of smoked and grilled barbecue to top it all off.
The S.C. Festival of Discovery brings Kansas City Barbeque Society-grade cooking to Uptown, but it’s the Blues Cruise that will set the mood with near-nonstop music on the main stage in Uptown and in restaurants each night of the festival. The man behind gathering the talent for the three-day blues festival is Gary Erwin, a Charleston-based singer-songwriter who has performed internationally for more than three decades as Shrimp City Slim.
“I’ve been with this from the very beginning. I had a blues festival in Charleston that ran for 22 years, and that led to a festival I had in Camden,” he said.
It was 19 years ago that then-Uptown Director Paula Brooks attended Erwin’s Camden festival and had the idea to bring something like it to Greenwood. Blues and barbecue seemed a perfect fit, and though Erwin said that first year’s Festival of Discovery and Blues Cruise only had about five cook teams and musicians each, it’s grown each year into the Uptown-flooding festival it is today.
“As the actual cityscape of Uptown has grown and expanded, we’ve found more performers to grow with it,” Erwin said. “We work hard to put together a really diverse program every year.”
This year features 21 artists putting on 30 performances after hours at various Greenwood restaurants and bars, let alone the main stage performances by the Uptown fountain all weekend long.
The first performer to take the stage was Ontario-based Suzie Vinnick, who Erwin met at a blues conference in Canada. She said all it took to convince her to come down to play were the words “South Carolina” — she said she loves to travel and wanted the opportunity to make this her first show in the state.
“Growing up in Saskatchewan, it was mostly country music,” she said. “The only place I could go to jam and be of legal age as a teen was the local blues club.”
She grew up listening to classic rock, which has its roots in traditional blues, so the blues just seemed like a natural fit for her. Erwin said the blues are also a southern tradition, which is what made it the perfect pairing for a barbecue festival. Musicians like the Rev. Gary Davis, Pink Anderson, Josh White, Mac Arnold and Blind Willie Walker each have a history tied to the Upstate and Piedmont of South Carolina, Erwin said.
“This part of the state is what birthed these blues people,” he said. “Barbecue is people’s food, and blues is the people’s music.”