By David Stenklyft for Wausau Pilot and Review

The 21st annual Blues Café lineup is set for March 13 and 14 at the Rothschild Pavilion, a Wausau-area tradition that draws blues enthusiasts from all over the state.

Another superb musical lineup will again take the stage featuring local, regional and national musicians. Great Northern Blues Society President Mike Tatro said the event, now a two-day extravaganza, features blues talent to please a range of ages and tastes.

“We try to present a variety of blues musicians, male and female headliners and different styles of music from traditional blues to some not so traditional,” Tatro said.

Tatro, along with GNBS Vice President Jeff Busha and other dedicated members of the organization, have collaborated for the past 21 years to make the event unforgettable for blues fans in the area.

Over the years, the Blues Café has featured many well-known and respected blues acts, including Joanne Shaw Taylor, Joe Louis Walker, Victor Wainwright and the Train, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Albert Cummings and many others.

Some of Tatro and Busha’s favorites to date include The Ivy Ford Band, a group that “dazzled everyone” last year, along with Samantha Fish and Grady Champion. The Ivy Ford Band played in the 3 p.m. slot, a time that typically gets the entire place dancing.

“The 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. performers usually get the place dancing, and it builds, and follows through to the headliner that night.” Tatro said.

Planning for this year’s event began shortly after the 2019 show ended. The lineup is typically set by August each year so it can be announced at Wausau’s other major blues event, the Big Bull Falls Blues Festival, which is held at the Isle of Ferns Park near downtown Wausau on the third weekend of August each year. Big Bull Falls Blues Fest is the oldest blues festival in the state.

“We narrow our choices to around 10 performers, then to about five or six and begin talking to their agencies for availability and price,” Tatro said.  The group provides hotel accommodations and a hot meal for the headliners and national acts.

Busha said a group of about eight or nine people are responsible for the bulk of the event’s production, which would not be possible without the hundreds of hours provided by volunteers who vend beer, provide concessions, clean, maintain and keep the event running smoothly. Live video screens on stage, with top-flight sound and lights, create an impressive presentation for an event that is always well-attended.

For the second time, this year’s event features a Friday evening kick off party.

The lineup for Friday, March 13:

6:30 p.m.: Soul Symmetry

From Stevens Point, this band has been performing their own brand of Blues, Funk and Rock since 2016.  Their influences include Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Nirvana, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. A band who might appeal to a younger audience with local ties.

8:30 p.m.: Aaron Williams and the Hoodoo

These Madison-area stage veterans have been performing since 2008, growing musically to infuse their blues chops with roots and rock. This trio performs regionally and nationally, often selling out shows in North Dakota, Illinois and Indiana. These showmen provide a sure-fire good time and will certainly rock the house.

On Saturday, expect a full day of solid blues entertainment. Here’s the lineup:

1 p.m.: Boom Boom Stevie V and the Knockouts with Special Guest Bruce McCabe

This Minneapolis-based all-star band features three Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame members in Stevie Vonderharr, Bruce McCabe and John Franken. McCabe has performed in the past with the likes of Lamont Cranston, The Hoopsnakes and Johnny Lang.

3 p.m.: The Bel-Airs

These road warriors perform in clubs from Austin to Boston and carry on the tradition of American Rhythm and Blues. Their dual harmonies have given them the name “Everly Brothers of Blues.” With four acclaimed albums and performances at festivals and nightclubs across USA and Europe, these guys fill the dance floor with rock and roll style blues.

5 p.m.: Vanessa Collier   

This 2019 Blues Music Award winner of “Horn Player of the Year,” this talented woman is a superb entertainer. She received three BMA nominations, a Blues Blast Award nomination, The Jammingest Pro Award and Best of 2014 Blues Breaker award. Collier toured internationally supporting two critically acclaimed albums, 2014’s Heart, Soul and Saxophone and 2017’s Meeting My Shadow. Her third album, Honey Up, spent nine weeks atop the Billboard Blues Music Chart’s top 15. She has a compelling voice to accompany her horn talent and charisma.

7 p.m.: John Nemeth  

John grew up on the hard edged rock and hip hop songs of the early 90s, but his life changed when he heard “Hoodoo Man” by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. John played harp and sang with local bands and released his own CD in 2002, The Jack of Harps. Elvin Bishop recruited John to perform and sing on the Grammy Nominated album The Blues Rolls On. John eventually moved to Memphis, and immersed himself in the rich musical scene. He won the 2014 BMA award for Soul Blues Male Artist and his album Memphis Grease took the prize for Soul Blues Album in 2015. He continues to tour internationally with his Memphis-based band.

9 p.m.: Ana Popovic

Ana is an award winning, hard touring, guitar slinger and singer. She is on the road promoting her new album Like it on Top. It opened at #2 on the iTunes most downloaded blues albums and peaked at #2 of the Billboard Top Selling Blues albums chart. She has been nominated for six BMA awards and has appeared on the cover of Vintage Guitar and Guitar Player magazines. Nearly all of Ana’s albums have reached the top of the Billboard Blues charts. She and her six-piece band tour tirelessly, sharing stages with BB King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa and many others.

If you go

What: 21st Annual Blues Cafe Weekend

When: Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Friday, March 13 and at noon on Saturday, March 14

Where: Rothschild Pavilion, 1104 Park St., Rothschild

Ticket information: Advance tickets are $25. Tickets at the door are $10 for Friday only or $30 for both nights. Purchase tickets at the GNBS website or from Trig’s locations in Wausau and Weston; Inner Sleeve Records and CDs in Wausau; KAOS Radio in Stevens Point and County Market in Wausau

What you need to know: Beer, wine, soda and concessions available on-site for purchase. No carry-ins allowed. Shuttle buses will run to and from Rothschild area motels with limited parking available at the Pavilion. See the GNBS website for a list of participating hotels.

David Stenklyft is a freelance journalist and three-time Wisconsin Newspaper Association Award winner. He can be reached at