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Blind Willie festival drew many visitors to Thomson

A leading figure in the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival thanked the volunteers for the success of the May 21 festival.

Don Powers, the vice president of the Activities Council of Thomson and one of the musicians, said workers donated their time for the ticket gates, vending booths and in other ways.

He estimated attendance at 1,700 to 1,800 people, which he said is about equal to attendance in 2010.

Powers said attendance has grown since the festival's early days. He said feedback is positive.

"Almost to a person they comment on two things," Powers said. "One is the quality that we present onstage year in and year out, and two, how friendly and accommodating the volunteers are who work the festival in Thomson.

He then gave "a special nod to the volunteers."

"People forget that this is a nonprofit, and the money stays in the Activities Council of Thomson account to help present future shows and to give money to music-related activities, and it wouldn't happen without the volunteers," he said.

Food is also a big part of the event, he said.

"We think the food offering we have is part of what makes the music festival. We don't just sell hot dogs and hamburgers. We want people to get a good sampling of Southern cooking, gumbo, shrimp, catfish po boy, barbecue pork ribs."

A well-known Augusta restaurant, Crum's on Central, and the other vendors keep their festival prices reasonable, Powers said.

"We have a good relationship with Crum's," he said. "The Crosstie Walkers periodically will play at his bar on a Sunday night."

Powers referred to the band in which he performs along with his brother Tommy, Charlie Knox, Greg Purvis and Scott Roberts.

"We've been together 20 years, and we had my son on stage this year, with his band," Powers said.

The Odafe Trio's members are Jacob Powers on bass, Patrick Jones on keyboards and Mason Davis on percussion.

"It gives a good opener," Don Powers said. "We are playing music when people are coming in, and they're not missing any name acts. They hear good, quality music while they're getting set up and getting ready for the afternoon."

Though the festival bears the name of a McDuffie County native and blues legend, Powers said the program has evolved since the early festivals.

"Our mission is to bring music and arts to this area that would never otherwise be here," he said. "Trombone Shorty would never be in Thomson unless we had this festival. Marcia Ball would never be in Thomson; she wouldn't be in Augusta," he said of the four-time Grammy winner.

"We have consciously tried to expand the offerings to make sure that have all areas of American music are represented, and it gives us a better shot of having a broad audience," he said. "But in the early days, when it was just a blues festival, we really had very strict criteria about what we would play. We'd get about the same 600 to 700 people every year."

He said the program now reflects blues, jazz and Americana music. "The line is real blurry between jazz and blues," Powers said.

Powers said visitors swarmed to local motels Friday and Saturday nights.

Tax from that source also helped fund this year's festival. The Activities Council of Thomson received a $5,000 grant from the Thomson/McDuffie Tourism Council. That money supported the extensive advertising program.

Elizabeth Vance, the director of the tourism agency, said the Blind Willie festival is McDuffie County's biggest one-day tourism draw.

"I consider it the biggest event we do in McDuffie County in terms of the number of people who come in," Vance said.

"I think the crowd peaked during Sonny Landreth's set, and I think there were about 2,000 people out there," Vance said.

She said there was a constant flow of people in the vendor area.

"I talked to a gentleman who came here from Des Moines, Iowa, for no other reason than to come to that blues festival," Vance said.

She explained that counting out-of-state plates is not a reliable way to gauge out-of-state attendance.

"That's deceiving because that guy rented a car in Atlanta," Vance said.

"The tourism grant helps us pay for advertising," Powers said. "This year we had great coverage by The Augusta Chronicle and its associated papers. They're one of our main sponsors."

He said Channel 12 also became a sponsor this year, and the Georgia Public Broadcasting network supports Blind Willie.

He said hotels were full.

"They were about full on Friday and I know they were full on Saturday."

He said many people appear to be getting information about the festival on Facebook.

"The Web site is good. But the Facebook page is more back-and-forth between the people."

He said the schedule for next year's blues festival will depend on many competing events, including Relay for Life, Mother's Day and high school graduation.

"May is a busy month," Powers said.

Web posted on Thursday, June 02, 2011

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