Without a 2020 Baton Rouge Blues Festival, Jontavious Willis’ show on Oct. 16 at Beauvoir Park will be the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation’s first in-person event since March.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted cancellation of this year's festival, traditionally happening in April.
The Blues Foundation and Manship Theatre are co-producing next week's concert in the privately-owned green space that borders the Perkins Road overpass.
“We are partnering with local organizations to keep all of us relevant,” said the Manship Theatre’s John Kaufman. “And they are partnering with us to help support Manship Theatre.”
Rising blues singer-guitarist Willis earned a Grammy nomination this year for his second album, "Spectacular Class." Kevin Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, and Taj Mahal served respectively as the album’s producer and executive producer. Willis recorded the project at Moore’s Nashville studio following his opening act slot on the blues stars’ worldwide TajMo tour.
A 24-year-old traditional blues musician from tiny Greenville, Georgia, Willis can count Mahal and Moore among his fans.
“That’s my wonder boy,” Mahal said. “He’s a great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues. He has delightful timing and a real voice for the music, because he was raised in the tradition and the culture.”
Mahal and Willis met in 2015 in Atlanta. The famous elder bluesman expressed his appreciation for Willis by inviting the then 19-year-old musician to join him on stage.
“He had a thunderous response from the audience,” Mahal said. “I’m excited that he has a wonderful future.”
Since the TajMo trek, Willis has joined Moore and Mahal for their solo tours. He toured heavily this year until March 13, when concern about the pandemic prompted the nationwide restrictions on public gatherings, including concerts and festivals.
Willis is making the best of his non-touring time, performing at outdoor venues and online for festivals he’d originally been scheduled to play in person. He’s also paid special attention to the business side of his career, something many musicians, to their misfortune, ignore.
“It’s been different, but I can’t say it’s necessarily worse,” Willis said of a strange year. “There’s so much free time, you can just do whatever. Yesterday, I learned nine songs.”
Willis can write original songs all day long, but he prefers finding and learning vintage and obscure blues songs. Knowing what and who has come before him helps his artistic development.
“Unearthing the old songs that I haven’t heard before, that creates more creativity in the long run,” he said. “Because I might have an idea for how a song goes, but then I hear something that’s way better than what I thought. So, I try to get it on the back end.”
An artist who usually performs solo with an acoustic guitar, Willis created what he calls a supergroup during these coronavirus blues times. Four members of his seven-member group will play Beauvoir Park in Baton Rouge.
“I don’t normally play in a band configuration,” he said. “But this will be a show to showcase something that will come in the future. I can’t say too much about it, but it’s going to be big, way bigger than anything I’ve done.”
Despite keeping his supergroup cards close, Willis revealed that D.K. Harrell, a singer-guitarist from Ruston, is one of his bandmates.
Willis’ other recent activities include the weekly Robert Johnson Challenge on Facebook. Most Wednesdays, Willis or his blues buddies stream their interpretations of Johnson’s classics. Performers so far include Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Selwyn Birchwood, Marquise Knox and the Piedmont Blūz Acoustic Duo. Viewership for the dozen Robert Johnson Challenge performances is approaching 1 million.
In January, first-time Grammy nominee Willis attended the Grammy Awards ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. He and his fellow young nominee for best traditional blues album, Mississippi’s Ingram, entered the venue together and sat beside each other.
The best thing about his nomination, Willis said, is the attention it brings to traditional blues music.
“Anything that can push traditional blues to more listeners, I’m all for that,” he said. “I’m not saying that I’m down on any other kind of blues, but the traditional blues has been seen as kind of an old-timey thing. A lot of my songs were inspired by these people who came before me, by the ones who made the music possible. That's it."
Jontavious Willis and the Blues Assassins
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16
Beauvoir Park, 2834 Greenwood Drive, Baton Rouge
$25 advance, $30 at the door