It was inevitable that Harald Neuweg would become one of South Florida’s leading crusaders for the music of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Koko Taylor, having come of age in the blues hotbed of St. Agatha, Austria.
“And now, I am in the blues capital of the world, Coral Gables,” he says, laughing, during a break from preparations for the 16th annual Coral Gables Blues Festival, which gets rolling Thursday in front of his Fritz and Franz Bierhaus restaurant.
But if a blues event taking place on a palmed plaza in a tony section of South Florida, sponsored by a German beer (Warsteiner) and a Russian vodka (Beluga) and presided over by an Austrian seems at odds with the traditions of the genre, there is plenty of authenticity to be found in the lineup and Neuweg’s musical scholarship.
Among the 28 local and national acts performing for free over 11 days — the longest festival so far — a standout is South Carolina native Mac Arnold (his first band included James Brown on piano) who refined his sound in Chicago, where he played in bands led by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and John Lee Hooker. The guitars he fashions out of gas cans are his other claim to fame. Arnold will perform 3-6 p.m. Jan. 19.
Along with Arnold, Neuweg recommends the rewards of Soulfonic (9-11 p.m. Jan. 17), David Shelley and Bluestone (7-9 p.m. Jan. 18), the Wade Baker Group (5-6:30 p.m. Jan 25) and Sean Chambers (6-8 p.m. Jan. 26).
“David Shelley is one of my favorites,” Neuweg says of the Fort Lauderdale-based guitarist. “He’s an unbelievable performer.”
The Coral Gables Blues Festival was originally a four-day weekend event scheduled the week after the second annual Las Olas Blues Festival, which was to begin Jan. 16 in downtown Fort Lauderdale. But after getting commitments from several acts, Neuweg learned that the site of last year's Las Olas festival was booked. So he moved those acts south and expanded the Coral Gables festival to run Jan. 16-26.
A 2015 edition of the Las Olas Blues Festival is already being planned. “I love Las Olas,” Neuweg says.
Neuweg’s unimpeachable devotion to the music — the free-admission Coral Gables festival is frequently a money loser, he says — began when he was a 12-year-old on the traditional hunt though bins of old vinyl with a blues-savvy cousin. Of course, Neuweg’s first Albert Collins album was scored at a popular Saturday-morning flea market in Hamburg, Germany.
“It’s very famous. They have everything there. Many jazz and blues albums,” he recalls.
Neuweg soon fell under the spell of Austrian bluesman Martin Pyrker, and German boogie-woogie pianists Vince Weber and Axel Zwingenberger. His education continued after he arrived in Miami at age 21 to work as a chef at La Paloma, and found himself hanging out in clubs with local blues rocker Fleet Starbuck.
A self-described history buff, Neuweg recently made a pilgrimage to Clarksdale, Miss., where he stayed in Pinetop Perkins’ shack at the rustic B&B known as the Shack Up Inn.
“It’s the oldest original form of music from America. The blues turned into jazz, and then turned into rock and pop music. There is nothing without the blues,” he says.
CORAL GABLES BLUES FESTIVAL
When: Jan. 16-26; 6-11 p.m. weekdays, noon-11 p.m. Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays
Where: Plaza in front of Fritz and Franz Bierhaus, 60 Merrick Way, Coral Gables
Contact: 305-774-1883 or BierhausBlues.com