Sweet home Urbana: Celebration brings good food, music to area

Bernard Allison performs during a set at Blues, Brews and Barbecue on Saturday in downtown Urbana. Steve Contorno

Bernard Allison performs during a set at Blues, Brews and Barbecue on Saturday in downtown Urbana. Steve Contorno

By Jim Shay

“How y’all doing out there?” said Bernard Allison before jumping into the opening licks of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”

“Are you ready out there?” the lead singer and his five fellow band members asked the crowd.

“We’re goin’ to start this party up.”

The fourth of six bands to take the stage at Urbana’s first Blues, Brews and BBQ festival, the Bernard Allison Band, had no trouble bringing the crowd to its feet late Saturday afternoon – most didn’t sit down again until the last note of the festival was struck over six hours later.

Urbana’s newest summertime event attracted an array of locals looking to celebrate the city’s 175th birthday, as well as pockets of blues fans from the surrounding area hoping to enjoy a blues festival that left Allison impressed.

“I think it’s great. First year, they’ve got a great lineup, and the people are ready for it. I think the town is ready for it,” Allison said after his set. “Just blessed that they could do something for the people. You’ve got a lot of blues lovers here.”

Allison, originally from Peoria, Ill., now lives and performs overseas with the band which is in the midst of a summer festival tour before it heads back to Europe.

“It’s special to come back in the area,” Allison said. “I have a lot of family around.”

Crowds were relatively sparse through the first half of the festival, which included a performance by local product The Kilborn Alley Blues Band.

But by the time dusk set in and Allison took to the stage, Lot-H at Lincoln Square Mall was filled with people soaking up the music and keeping the collection of barbecue food vendors busy with orders.

Randy Upton, a self-proclaimed “blues man” from Mattoon, Ill., and an avid fan of blues festivals, arrived in time to see the last two performances of the night – Tab Benoit followed by blues legend Lonnie Brooks, two artists hailing from Louisiana.

“This is a very good, well-planned thing,” Upton said. “$20 admission, but where are you going to see these guys? You’re not. You’ll have to go to the Fox Theater, in St. Louis or Chicago, and you’ll pay $40 a ticket and it isn’t outdoors.

“The only thing is if it rains, everyone is going to run.”

It did rain, but not everyone ran.

When the announcement of Brooks’ set reverberated over the loudspeaker at 9 p.m. the first raindrops began to fall, sending a good number of people to the exit.

The storm passed quickly, however, and those that stuck around crowded the stage and looked on as Benoit and Allison eventually joined Brooks on stage for a finale of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

At the crowd’s prodding, Brooks returned to the stage for one final song.

“If I do something good for you, you do something good for me,” Brooks said encouraging the audience to help him sing his song “Something You Got.”

Upton vouched for the success of the first-year festival, even in terms of more established festivals he had attended in the past.

“If you’re going to compare, this is a fine show,” Upton said. “It’s local, it was a piece of cake, easy to find. We drove right to it, and we didn’t even know it was (at Lincoln Square Mall).

“As far as a mini concert, this is really nice. Some of the shows are much larger.”

Fans kept Brooks on stage over half an hour after the festival was scheduled to end, putting the wraps on Urbana’s 175th birthday present as the celebrated blues musician sang farewell to Blues, Brews and BBQ.

“Bye Bye, I gotta go, I love you so.”