The blues-band challenge is back for this year’s Black-Eyed & Bluesfest in Bushnell Park

The Black-Eyed & Bluesfest, billed as the largest and longest-running blues festival in the state, returns to the Bushnell Park band pavilion this weekend, featuring some of the state’s best-known blues guitarists and harmonica players. The free public festival happens Saturday from 3 to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 3 to 7 p.m.

Saturday’s line-up is studded with well-known local blues/rock guitarists:

  • Paul Gabriel and his band. Gabriel’s albums include “Fate” and “What’s the Chance,” and he lists Duke Robillard as a major influence.
  • Versatile young rock/blues player Jake Kulak and The Low Down, whose debut album was recognized by The Courant as one of the best local albums of 2018.
  • The D. Smith Blues Band, led by guitarist Don Smith and harmonica player/vocalist Robert Orsi.
  • And “hokum blues” specialist Chris “Bad News” Barnes (who has a separate career as a comic actor) and The Blues Ballers joined by nationally known blues guitarists Gary Hoey and Early Times.

On Sunday the stage is set for this year’s Connecticut Blues Challenge held by the Connecticut Blues Society. Five bands compete, and the winner gets a cash prize and the opportunity to compete at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

The semifinalists playing Sunday in the park are:

  • Down the Alley, based in Amherst, Mass., who nabbed the “wild card” slot in the finals.
  • The Rich Badowski Band, whose harmonica-playing leader hails from New Britain.
  • Carl Ricci & 706 Union Ave., who can be found at another local blues festival next week, in Stafford Springs on Aug. 6.
  • Snake Hill Blues featuring harmonica player Chris DePino, whose former jobs include train conductor and chairman of the state Republican party, guitarist/vocalist Joe Montalto and drummer Mark Zarillo.
  • And The Chicago Dawgs, featuring harmonica player Mark Zaretsky of another fine local blues band, Cobalt Rhythm Kings.

The festival ends Sunday evening with an All-Star Blues Jam led by Phil “Deep Fry” Diiorio (of the Beale Street East band) and the Connecticut Blues Society All-Stars.




Our picks for things to do and places to go this weekend

Last year’s festival was not able to include the blues challenge, so this is the grand return of that element.

Black-Eyed Sally’s restaurant on Asylum Street, which has been organizing the festival for more than 20 years, will once again be selling food and drinks in the park while the bands play.

Black-Eyed Sally’s overcame several obstacles to make sure last year’s festival happened after having to cancel the 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. With the personal encouragement of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and an emergency grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council discretionary fund, the Black-Eyed & Bluesfest was one of a few summer events that were able to rebound quickly after the COVID-19 shutdown.

In the time between last year’s Black-Eyed & Bluesfest and this one, Black-Eyed Sally’s was also able to restart its regular live blues series at the restaurant.

This year, outdoor music festivals are once again a steady summer presence in Bushnell Park and elsewhere in the city. Hartford’s “Summer in the City” promotional campaign is touting three other big festivals in Bushnell Park — the Taste of Caribbean and Jerk Festival on Aug. 6, the West Indian Independence Celebration on Aug. 13 and the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Festival de Coqui on Aug. 21 — as well the Riverfront Dragon Boat & Asian Festival on Aug. 20 at Mortensen Riverfront Plaza and the Hartford Pride Fest and Concert Sept. 10 on Trumbull Street.

More information on the blues fest at

Christopher Arnott can be reached at