For South Florida blues lovers, the beginning of the year offers an embarrassment of riches. The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise departs from Port Everglades in mid-January, carrying a boatload of the genre's top practitioners and their rowdy fans to the Caribbean. Hot on its heels, the International Blues Challenge, which is held in Memphis, Tenn., draws a strong contingent of competing South Florida blues artists and their devotees. And then, there are a spate of winter festivals throughout the Sunshine State, including the Riverwalk Blues and Music Festival. The 26th edition of the event will take place Feb. 26-28 in Fort Lauderdale's Esplanade Park (Friday and Saturday) and at the nearby Downtowner Saloon (Sunday).
Riverwalk Blues Fest organizer Dar Lopez was bowled over by one of this year's headliners, Mississippi soul-blues vet Johnny Rawls, after seeing him perform on the blues cruise a couple of years ago. "I always liked his CDs," says Lopez, who also hosts the long-running radio program "Sunday Blues With Dar" on WKPX-FM. "But on the cruise, it was such a good show that I actually stood up front in the sun to watch it, which I never do. I usually find a shady spot and hide. And I thought, 'Yeah, we gotta bring him.'"
Rawls is no stranger to South Florida. This month, he returned to the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. And a few decades earlier, he toured here with legendary soul singer O.V. Wright. Rawls was in high school when he first played guitar behind Wright. "Me and O.V. came down there when I was a teenager," he recalled during a 2013 interview. "We played in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, in the Everglades, for the migrant workers in Belle Glade, all back up in there, man." Rawls continues to prove his old-school bona fides on his latest album, "Tiger in a Cage," interpreting tunes by touchstones such as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, as well as offering razor-sharp contemporary soul-blues. His raunchy party tune "Lucy" has special significance. "Oh, yeah, that's my baby," he said. "My guitar's name is 'Lucy.' B.B. King's got 'Lucille,' and I got 'Lucy.'"
While this will be Rawls' first Riverwalk appearance, powerhouse vocalist Nikki Hill is a returning champ. The New Orleans-based singer and her husband, guitarist Matt Hill, wowed audiences on a stage outside the Downtowner in 2013. With sensibilities steeped in the R&B of Etta James and Ruth Brown, Hill was a relative unknown when Lopez booked her. "I was still super green, my second tour with a full band, and it was my first time touring in Florida," Hill relates in a Facebook post. "But you all were super cool to us!" Last year, she earned raves for her rockin' soul album "Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists."
This year, Lopez, who runs the festival with her husband, Gerardo Lopez, is excited about premiering Chicago blues vocalist-harmonicist Chris O'Leary, a 2011 Blues Music Award nominee for Best New Artist Debut. And she takes pride in presenting a slate of South Florida blues artists she's championed during her two decades on the air: Joey Gilmore, Albert Castiglia, JP Soars, Joel DaSilva and Josh Rowand. She's known the latter two since they were teenagers.
Lopez is also bringing back former South Florida-based harmonica wiz Jason Ricci, who's staged a remarkable comeback after continued battles with heroin addiction. Last year, Ricci played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Paul Butterfield and won a Grammy for his work on Johnny Winter's final album, "Step Back." "When he fell, he fell hard," Lopez says. "But when he came back, he came back the same way."
The Lopezes' stewardship of the Riverwalk is personal. Before event founder and Musicians Exchange owner Don Cohen died of brain cancer in 2007, he tasked the couple with keeping his signature event going. This year, they'll be honoring a longtime Exchange tradition, the Bluesberry Jam, with area stalwarts such as Captain Reese Singleton, Famous Frank Ward, Motel Mel Seba and Jerry Mascaro.
"We wanted to do something with all the artists that used to play there," Lopez says. "They're a big part of the beginning of the festival."
The Riverwalk Blues and Music Festival will take place Feb. 26-27 at Esplanade Park, 400 SW Second St., and Feb. 28 at the Downtowner Saloon, 10 S. New River Drive E., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $16.37 on Friday and $26.62 on Saturday. Admission to the festival is free on Sunday. Go to RiverwalkBluesFestival.com.