The annual music festival in Johnstown has come a long way since its beginnings as a street fair to mark the anniversary of the flood.
The event now known as The AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary, takes place this weekend on four stages with headline performances by Boz Scaggs, Leftover Salmon with Bill Payne, and Lee Fields & the Expressions.
Flood City has its source in the 1989 centennial commemoration of the Johnstown flood. It was a big enough success that the following year the Johnstown Area Heritage Association and city officials raised money to bring the National Folk Festival to Johnstown for a three-year run. Over those years, it featured such acts as the Holmes Brothers, Fairfield Four and Blind Boys of Alabama.
JAHA took over as sole producer in 1993, renaming it the Johnstown FolkFest, and the improvements have continued. In 2004, it moved to a temporary space downtown, in 2009 it evolved into a paid event, the Flood City Music Festival, and in 2012, it found a new home in the Peoples Natural Gas Park. In recent years, it has played host to such artists as Greg Allman, Dr. John, Derek Trucks Band, Los Lobos, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, and Robert Cray.
Todd Wagner, who has run the festival for six years, says, "It was a great street fair, if you will, in town, but it wasn't drawing really from the outside. It was more of a homecoming week. When they asked me to take it over I had an interest in making it a more longtime music festival and draw fans from outside. Our whole motivation was to bring higher tier acts in and get it to sustain itself by growth with ticket sales."
This year organizers are expecting about 15,000 people for the weekend, about 70 percent coming from outside of a 60-mile radius, made easier by the improvements on Route 22 and the free parking.
As for the music, which is booked with Pittsburgh's Grey Area Productions (based at The Rex Theater), he says, "We work hard at doing the best of a roots/Americana festival. Boz Scaggs is the big highlight for us this year. We've had some other Grammy winners, but he is the largest act we've had. We're thrilled that we have a taste of everything, as well as a few that are really breaking stride right now, one of which is Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk band out of New Orleans, really rare, which is peaking right now."
A number of bands from Pittsburgh will be traveling east for the festival, including Bastard Bearded Irishmen, making a return trip.
"You could feel the energy from the crowd on stage," BBI’s Ben Jaber said of the band's last performance there. "We were so pumped up. But we had as much fun off stage, talking to the crew and concertgoers. You could tell that the people of Johnstown and the fans who traveled there for the festival are huge music fans. That and the gobs [chocolate cream cakes] are to die for."
Here are some highlights this year:
Boz Scaggs: The singer-guitarist from Canton, Ohio, got his start as a solo artist in the mid '60s and then hooked up with the Steve Miller Band a few years later, but he's best known for 1976's "Silk Degrees," which provided the smooth soulful hits "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle." Last year, he released "Memphis," an album of mostly covers recorded at Willie Mitchell's legendary Royal Studio in that city. He recently has been seen shuffling with The Dukes of September, his supergroup with Donald Fagan and Michael McDonald.
Leftover Salmon featuring Bill Payne: Leftover Salmon, like the festival, is also celebrating 25 years. The popular jam or "slamgrass" band from Boulder, Co., teams up here with the pianist/singer from one of its key influences, the beloved Little Feat.
Lee Fields & the Expressions: The North Carolina soul man, who released his first singles in 1969, has had a long career with music that ranges from "James Brown-style funk to lo-fi blues to contemporary Southern soul to collaborations with French house DJ/producer Martin Solveig."
Dumpstaphunk: Ivan Neville, the son of Aaron Neville, launched this funk/groove band at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It also features his cousin Ian Neville on guitar.
Hurray for the Riff Raff: Based in New Orleans, the Americana band centered on oldtime-y Bronx singer Alynda Lee Segarra just released an acclaimed fifth album, "Small Town Heroes."
Rubblebucket: The seven-piece genre-bending indie band from Brooklyn was booked for last year's festival, but it had to pull out when frontwoman Kalmia Traver was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer. Now that she's healthy, the band is back on the road.
Turkuaz: Turkuaz, inspired by Sly & The Family Stone, Rick James, Parliament and Talking Heads, was a last-minute fill-in for Rubblebucket last year, and it returns now, supporting its third album, "Future 86."
Nicole Atkins: The dreamy, Brooklyn-based indie-rocker is on tour with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.