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The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival returns for its final show

The lineup at the Annapolis festival, which is folding after 24 years, features several younger acts

Samantha Fish will perform at 5:30 p.m. May 22 at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, just before headliner Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band takes the stage. (Kevin & King)
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When the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival kicks off on May 21, more than a quarter of the acts will be 35 or under: Gabe Stillman, Ally Venable, Samantha Fish and headliner Joss Stone. That young talent is a vital sign for the future of a genre that, for decades, has been written off as dead or dying.

“The blues always seems like a dying genre, but it keeps replenishing itself with younger musicians constantly coming in,” says Don Hooker, who co-founded the Annapolis festival in 1998 and has long nurtured young talent — his first three festivals featured then-teenagers Jonny Lang and Shemekia Copeland and 20-something Susan Tedeschi.

Yet the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival is folding its tents after this year, citing rising costs, declining attendance and loss of sponsorships in a Facebook post announcing the decision. Hooker, who runs the festival as a nonprofit, raising money for local charities, expects crowds this year between 5,000 and 8,000, a steep drop from the 20,000 of two decades ago. Other blues festivals nationally have also folded or, as Hooker notes, followed the Cockeysville, Md.-based Hot August Blues Festival, which is now the Hot August Music Festival, with a lineup that barely includes any blues.

The young musicians playing at Sandy Point State Park this weekend are more optimistic about the future of the blues, with Fish, 33, saying that their presence is reason to believe. “There’s always hope when there’s a younger generation picking up the torch,” she says.

Stillman, 26, says the music will always survive. “It’s a folk music — it’s earthy, rhythmic and expressive, and so many people can relate to the sounds and the subject matter. So I think it’ll always grab people.”

While the blues is the foundation of so much modern music, it was never wildly popular in the mainstream. There was a ’60s burst after White British musicians like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin covered classic tracks, and the Blues Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan drew more attention to the music a decade later. (All except Zeppelin also directly promoted Black blues artists to their audiences.) In the 1980s, Robert Cray broke through with his soul-based blues, and more recently, Gary Clark Jr. became a star, but neither attained the household stature of those earlier White artists, and are more isolated in their success.

Gary Clark Jr. was supposed to save the blues. But the guitarist would rather channel Curtis Mayfield.

Venable, 23, like Stillman and Fish, says she hopes fans will gradually explore the blues legends who inspired her. “I just try to do my small part and educate anyone who listens to my music about where it came from,” she says. “One way I pay homage is by doing a Bessie Smith song on every album.”

Many of these younger artists are friends and play together, including Fish, Venable, Stillman, King Solomon Hicks and the Grammy-winning Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

“Our job is to keep the music going for the next generation,” says Hicks, 27. He points to Fish’s recent collaboration with rapper Tech N9ne as a way to expose younger audiences to the blues. “Imagine if Kanye West and Buddy Guy collaborated. That’s one way to cross over.”

But these musicians also don’t think the blues will die out with older audiences — Fish and Venable say a new generation will simply grow into it. “I just think this is the kind of music people seek out a little later in life,” Fish says, speculating that it takes life experience for people to really appreciate the blues.

Hicks says finding that connection with a crowd, or even one person, makes it all worthwhile. “One thing that keeps me going on the road is playing a song from 60 years ago in some town and you see a person’s foot tapping and their head bopping,” he says. “The blues is a universal language.”

If you go

Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival

Sandy Point State Park, 1100 E. College Pkwy., Annapolis, Md.

Dates: May 21-22.

Price: $100-$130 single-day pass; $180 two-day pass.