Durham's musical mascot is in trouble. The once powerful beast that bore the Bull Durham Blues Festival name is now a sickly shadow of its former self. For 27 years, Bull Durham bellowed the blues every September. Between 12,000 and 20,000 fans attended the annual convocation, featuring international R&B and blues acts, as well as local and regional bands.
But with Hopscotch in Raleigh and the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, this weekend's running of the Bull Durham has gotten little notice. There's a reason.
Fans used to camp out by the gates of the old Bull Durham Athletic park the day of the show to get good spots near the stage, where they could sit comfortably in folding chairs or on blankets on the grass of the outfield. They could watch the stars come out, onstage and off. The lineups for the Bull Durham Blues Festival were spectacular, too, a who's who of blues and soul royalty. Wilson Pickett, Irma Thomas, Bobby Womack, Jerry Butler, Otis Clay, Pops Staples, James Cotton, Little Milton, Dr. John and Etta James all played Bull Durham since 1988.
Back in 2003, the Bull was doing so well that St. Joseph's Historic Foundation CEO and executive director V. Dianne Pledger
talked of expanding the fest with a gospel program on Sunday and an acoustic series on Thursday, as well as a kids blues festival in August in downtown's Central Park. Even last year's show, though sparsely attended
, was still spectacular, thanks to Shemekia Copeland's usually bombastic performance and the Campbell Brothers' 25-minute translation of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
This year's attempt, though, reveals a deathly ill Bull. There's no blues on Friday at Hayti. It's a jazz-heavy R&B trilogy of performers more suited to cabarets than blues festivals. Saturday night's show, now free, happens at the Durham Farmer's market bandshell, with last year's mid-level act Grady Champion as the sole headline. Regional bands fill out the program.
The Bull's illness turned critical in 2011 when the Foundation had $60,000 of a $300,000 grant rescinded because of misappropriation of funds. The following year, rain and lightning decimated the crowd and truncated the show, and 2013's festival lasted just one night. But last year's Bull Durham, with Angela Lee at the helm, showed a promising recovery
. Lee hoped to rejuvenate the festival by bringing in new artists, including international blues stars as well as more local and regional artists. She wanted to get the festival completely underwritten by corporate sponsors, too, in order to maintain consistency and keep prices down.
Perhaps the arrival of Greensboro's free National Folk Festival
on the same dates for the foreseeable future—with nine stages and over 30 regional, local, national and international performers—chased the Bull from the ring. There's been no official announcement, but it's a shame that the once-mighty festival seems to have been put out to pasture, especially amid Durham's current growth boom.
BULL DURHAM BLUES FESTIVAL
Friday, Sept. 11, Hayti Heritage Center:
with Kim Waters, Norman Connors, Jean Carne; 8 p.m., $40
Saturday, Sept. 12, Durham Central Park:
with Grady Champion, Jason Damico, Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen, Lawyers Guns And Money, Ebbs and Flow; 5 p.m., free.