In a way, we’ve all been singing the blues the past 18 months. So while area blues fans will be in heaven with the return of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival this weekend, it’s even more meaningful for two of its performers – Toronzo Cannon and Selwyn Birchwood.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

The home page for the revamped website,

The Alligator Records artists, both Blues Fest veterans, had most of their 2020 touring schedules erased due to Covid and are happy to be back at it in 2021. Cannon, 53, of Chicago, is scheduled to perform 8:15 p.m. Friday at LeClaire Park, while Birchwood, 36, of Orlando, Fla., is on the Main Stage at 3:45 p.m. Saturday.

“Just getting back in the swing of it, it’s an exciting time to getting back to it,” Birchwood said recently. “It’s just been difficult, because with this genre of music, you know, people aren’t just jumping online ordering a Selwyn Birchwood record.

It’s been eight years since he’s played the Blues Fest in Davenport. “I’m excited to get the new band back there and get in front of the crowd over there,” Birchwood said.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Birchwood’s 2021 record (produced by an engineer for Buddy Guy) was pushed back from a 2020 release.

Music is meant to be healing and comforting, now today more than ever, he said.

“Some people want to make music a competition and try to pit this guitar player over that guitar player or something. And I think it’s, if you’re doing that, you’re missing the point, missing the mark.”

“I write and sing what I know,” said Birchwood, whose musical innovations are as expansive as his influences are deep. “They say everything is better when it’s made with love. That’s how we play our music and that’s how we made the new album. I want my audience to say, ‘I know exactly what that feels like,’ when a song hits them. Because that’s when it stops just being music and starts being medicine. After all, we are all stricken with the condition of being human.”

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Melody Angel will perform at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Blues Fest.

After over a year of mainly being isolated, hearing music in person, with a crowd, is also very important.

“I definitely believe in that kind of energy that everybody, when you go see a concert, it’s a thing where we’re all in it together and it’s just that shared joy and shared excitement and shared kind of energy with everyone,” Birchwood said. “I think that live music is so cool. You don’t get that from just being online, listening to music.”

Guitar World has said the rising blues star “is the real deal. Birchwood puts his own fresh spin on the blues, taking the tradition and making it into something new.” In 2013, his band won the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

For “Living In A Burning House,” released this past January (but recorded in 2019), he wrote and arranged 13 new songs, and brought in famed Grammy Award-winning musician/producer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Susan Tedeschi) to produce.

From the rocking opener “I’d Climb Mountains” to the sweet soul of “She’s A Dime” and “One More” Time to the hair-raising “Revelation,” “Living In A Burning House” features some of the most vividly striking writing on today’s blues scene, according to his bio. “Birchwood’s voice and vision are clear, his sound is edgy and compelling, and his stories are memorable and lasting.”


Since the 2014 release of his debut, “Don’t Call No Ambulance,” Birchwood has achieved a meteoric rise from playing small Florida clubs to headlining international festival stages. The album earned the Blues Music Award and Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album Of 2014, and Birchwood won the 2015 Blues Blast Rising Star Award.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

36-year-old Florida bluesman Selwyn Birchwood will perform at LeClaire Park Saturday at 3:45 p.m.

Rave reviews ran in publications from Rolling Stone to The Wall Street Journal, from The Chicago Tribune to The San Francisco Chronicle. He followed in 2016 with “Pick Your Poison.” DownBeat said, “There’s a deep-seated power about Birchwood’s singing and six string/lap steel guitar work…and there’s an unmistakable emotion and honesty linking him to forebears like Muddy Waters. Thoughtful, persuasive and rugged.”

“Burning House” was supposed to release in May 2020, and Birchwood was planning a European tour, including a cruise in the Mediterranean, with Joe Bonamassa, that got put to a halt.

“It was really tough to have that album finished and to have to wait till it’s literally over a year to release it,” he said. “It was pretty tough. But I’m glad that it’s out now. It debuted at number 1 on the billboard Blues chart. It’s flying out at the shows. It’s actually re-entered the top 10 of the Billboard Blues chart several times since its release and I’m excited.”

Releasing the record before touring was hard, too. “When it’s just been only electronically, it’s been a little bit more challenging,” Birchwood said. “So I definitely had to do a lot more of social media, marketing and online marketing,

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

The cover of Selwyn Birchwood’s latest album, “Living in a Burning House.”

trying to get it out.”

He has loved performing in Europe. “They’ve been super responsive and supportive of music. You know, I’m just excited that it’s been so widely accepted as we play all original music. And I’m just glad that people have latched onto the music that I’ve written myself.”

Working with a producer for blues legend Buddy Guy was a dream, and Birchwood has played dozens of shows that Buddy’s been on.

“It’s kind of a cool thing, ‘cause I got my first experience of real blues music at a Buddy Guy

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Birchwood won the 2013 International Blues Challenge.

concert when I was 17, and that’s what set me on track to be a performer, and do this music and it feels like it’s gone full circle,” he said. “That was my first experience with it and now it’s like, you fast forward and I’ve done dozens of shows with Buddy Guy in in the U.S. and Europe. And then I’ve even got Buddy Guy’s producer on my record now, so it’s pretty cool.”

“Tom’s a huge asset in the studio. He’s just got such great ideas and thoughts and it just makes recording really a fun, fun sort of a thing,” Birchwood said of Tom Hambridge. “Because he’s in in alignment with me as far as how he wants to get stuff to sound and how he wants to get stuff done.”

Even playing on the same stage as Guy doesn’t faze Birchwood anymore.

“Every time I get on the stage and every show I play, I’m trying to put on the best show that I can for the crowd that that’s there,” he said. “So it’s just business as usual. You know, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the show or where the show is. We’re going to give 100 percent and give the crowd everything we got every night, regardless of who’s on the show.”

A Cannon still explodes

Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon’s latest release was 2019’s “The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp,” and he was last in the Q-C to play in October 2019 at Davenport’s Redstone Room. The songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and recently retired Chicago Transit Authority bus driver blazes his own visionary blues trail, “fusing his original, keenly-detailed tales of everyday life with his fiery guitar playing,” according to

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

The cover of Toronzo Cannon’s latest album, “The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp.”

Cannon’s bio.

Cannon is at the front rank of Chicago bluesmen. He creates wide-screen modern arrangements for wry, thoughtful songs, molding a sound that’s both tempestuous and scrupulously controlled,” according to a MOJO review.

UK tastemaker music magazine MOJO named “The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp” the #2 Best Blues Album Of 2019. In July, 2020, Chicago’s Newcity named Cannon the “Musician Of The Moment,” putting him on the cover of their annual music issue. Additionally, the Chicago Reader recently named him a “Chicagoan Of Note.” Living Blues says, “Cannon bursts with youthful fire in his guitar work and his tough and deep vocals.”

“His broad-shouldered blues guitar work echoes the sounds of the city,” his bio says. “His

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

53-year-old Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon will hit the stage at 8:15 p.m. Friday.

fervent vocals are filled with personality. His original songs are inspired by his deep Chicago roots, the wisdom of his grandparents and his years of observing the public while driving a bus, for 27 years until October 2020.

“It’s not about the solos,” Cannon has said. “It’s about the songs. People get used to everyday life, so it’s easy to miss the things around them. I write about those things. I know the problems of Chicago, the hardship. But I love and respect the city. I’m proud to be carrying the Chicago blues tradition forward and honoring those blues giants who came here from the south and created the city’s blues sound.”

Last week, he traveled to Germany for a one-night show, and came right back home. The last overseas tour he’d done was in Japan in August 2019, for the first time.


“They were very receptive and just very kind of engaged, you know, jumping around and the whole thing,” Cannon said in a recent interview, noting he even used a translator there to convert his lyrics into Japanese. He only really began playing gigs again this past spring, and didn’t do a heavy touring schedule over the summer.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Cannon also was a Chicago city bus driver for 27 years, until last fall.

Cannon writes all the time and said he wasn’t necessarily inspired by the pandemic to write a “2020 blues.”

“I don’t want any artists to write any pandemic songs. We just got out of it. I mean, what can you offer?” he said. “Because basically, the pandemic is still going on. You can make a reference to it, but not a whole song. I’ve heard people trying to say, pandemic blues. And they know that full well, that’s an easy song to write.”

Cannon likes to challenge himself, like writing a song about a woman who loved him too much – not a woman who don’t love him (“There’s enough of that,” he said.).

The downside of being loved too much? “You have to make love all the time. You can’t be by yourself,” Cannon said. “It’s just a playful take – you can’t close the bathroom door; she’s always frisky, just a different take on it.”

He also got to go on a Joe Bonamassa blues cruise around Spain in early 2020, and said a number of his heroes were performing, including Living Colour and Paul Shaffer.

“It was very cool, just a lot of cats,” Cannon said. “Living Color was it for me, a full circle moment.”

The fest takes army of volunteers

Following the pandemic-plagued 2020, when the Blues Fest was cancelled along with so many events, the all-volunteer Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS) is roaring back to life with the new two-day musical extravaganza, Friday and Saturday at Davenport’s LeClaire Park.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Jontavious Willis will perform at 6:45 p.m. Friday for Blues Fest at LeClaire Park.

Bob Clevenstine, board president for the MVBS, is thrilled with the fest mainstage and tent stage lineups. The main performers will be:

Main Stage Friday –

  • 5-6:15 p.m.: John Primer
  • 6:45-7:45 p.m.: Jontavious Willis
  • 8:15-9:30 p.m.: Toronzo Cannon
  • 10-11:30 p.m.: Southern Avenue

Main Stage Saturday –

  • 2-3:15 p.m.: Stephen Hull Expersience
  • 3:45-5 p.m.: Selwyn Birchwood
  • 5:30-6:45 p.m.: Melody Angel
  • 7:15-8:30 p.m.: Danielle Nicole
  • 9-10:30 p.m.: Eric Gales

 “We’ve got an all-star lineup,” Clevenstine said recently. “In fact, what I really like about it is, the new folks. We’re bringing in Jontavious Willis who follows our opener on Friday, and Jontavious is a multi-instrumentalist, but sort of a dobro guy and guitarist out of Georgia. Then Saturday, the Stephen Hull Experience, he’s a 21-year-old from Racine (Wis.), and I think he’s going to really knock some people out, as will Melody Angel, who follows them.”


“There’s going to be a lot of cool new acts and then our closer, Eric Gales is just a phenomenal guitar player,” he said.

The Pedigo-Jones Tent Stage also features great local and regional talent, Clevenstine said, noting he’s especially looking forward to the new Q-C band, Piso’s Cure – comprised of vocalists Frankie Fontagne and Chrissy Boyer, keyboardist Jacob Palmer, guitarist Logan McDaniel and drummer John Sorensen.

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

Bob Clevenstine is board president of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society.

New to the fest this year is a handicapped-accessible riser on the north side near the front of the stage, to give those with special needs a better view, as well as more handicapped-accessible parking near the park.

Due to the fact that MVBS had no revenue last year because of the canceled fest, there are more event sponsors this year, including the Regional Development Authority, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Cobham Mission Systems, Green State Credit Union, Family Credit Union, Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, The Echo, Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors, Doris and Rusty Unterzuber, Zimmerman Honda, MidAmerican Energy and IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union.

“We had to really pull out the stops to support the performer fees this year, because, of course, we didn’t have the festival last year,” Clevenstine said. “We had no way of raising money, like we usually do with the fest. So we had to really go to the mat on fundraising to get a decent budget together for our performers.”

Though MVBS had a quiet year last year (also without its Blues in the Schools education program), it was hardly idle.

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1984, completely revamped its website, – with much more content than before. The website overhaul was led by the Rock Island-based design firm Pixouls. It also was able to get grant money to help pay for the website redesign, Clevenstine said. It’s been a big challenge being completely volunteer-run all these years.

“We’re in crunch time for the festival and that’s the other thing — the festival would absolutely not be possible without the support of the community and all the volunteers that man our ticket booth, that help with traffic control, help us set up all the fencing, sell the beer tokens, hand out the beers,” he said, noting it takes about 140 people working to put on the event. “We’ve got a virtual army of volunteers that we have to pull together for every one of these events. And I can’t say enough about that kind of support.”

For tickets to Blues Fest ($15 for a Sept. 17 one-day pass, $25 for a Sept. 18 pass, or $35 for both days), visit

After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest
Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.
After Pandemic-Plagued Year-Plus, Blues Artists Look Forward to Quad-Cities Blues Fest

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