The life of a woman in the blues can be like a double-edged sword. One side shines with plenty of opportunities, like being a leading lady of a band. The other side is a bit darker; sometimes, women are not taken as seriously as their men counterparts. According to blues musician Danielle Nicole, good music shouldn’t be about gender.
“Why do you need five male acts [and only] have one female act?” wonders Nicole, bassist and leader of the Danielle Nicole Band. “Like why can’t it just be about who’s hot right now, who’s coming up right now?”
As a matter of fact, Pat Cohen—known as “Mother Blues” throughout her career in New Orleans—estimated to Music Maker Relief Foundation how women only make up 10% – 20% of blues singers. Cohen refers to the genre as a man’s world, but the Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues and Jazz Festival is flipping the script for its 25th annual festival. 2019 will celebrate women’s contributions to the genre in the “Year of the Woman,” featuring headliners Danielle Nicole Band, Heather Gillis Band and Ana Popovic. Greg Reynolds, president of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, hopes it’s only the beginning of shining a light on women in blues more heavily.
“Through the years of [the fest], I felt women in blues were not being equally represented,” he admits. Reynolds took over his position as president in 2017 after serving as executive director in 2010. He’s served on the chamber’s board since 2006.
“So when it became my turn to book and choose, [I went with] Robin Rogers, Kara Grainger, Shemekia Copeland, Carolyn Wonderland and Samantha Fish,” he says.
Pleasure Island will feature three musicians off of Joe Bonamassa’s 10 Best Modern Female Blues Musicians list from 2018. Bonamassa (one of the world’s greatest guitarists who toured for blues legends like B.B. King as a 12-year-old) created the list to illustrate how women are becoming more prominent on the music scene. Reynolds follows this list and one of its contenders, who he has been trying to land for years: Ana Popovic. She will headline on April 13 at 7 p.m.
“I have been following [her] since the early 2000s,” Reynolds mentions. “[I] really noticed her playing with Buddy Guy and with the Hendrix Experience. [She] more than held her own.”
Opening for Popovic will be multi-instrumentalist Heather Gillis with her Nashville backing band. An up-and-coming Allman Brothers-inspired blues musician, Gillis hails from Tallahassee, Florida. She gained her love for blues and guitar through watching a documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” which features well-known guitarists Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and The Edge (U2). She also surrounded herself in middle school with friends who played guitar. Yet, it was one drummer virtuoso who inspired her career today. Butch Trucks (Allman Brothers Band) regularly jammed at the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, where Gillis’ band also played. She and Trucks jammed together one night and immediately hit it off. Collaborating with Trucks and his band over the next couple of years proved beneficial for Gillis. He eventually asked her to tour with Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band.
“He definitely [started my career],” Gillis confirms. “I was playing under the Heather Gillis Band, but we were playing bars; we weren’t touring. . . . Butch was definitely my first more professional band—my first touring band.”
Trucks taught Gillis to be true to herself and be free in music, to believe in the idea of improvisation, thus, focusing on creativity rather than always having a strict structure. At all her shows, Gillis performs “Be Alright” in dedication to Trucks and the Allman Brothers family.
The Heather Gillis Band will perform new songs at Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues and Jazz Festival, including “Sleep It Off” and another track that could have come from a combination of Nick Drake and Tom Petty. “It’s like those two met at a bar one day and wrote a song,” Gillis remarks. “Just fun stuff.”
Joining the festival lineup on April 14 will be Kansas City blues-soul phenom Danielle Nicole Band, who has a knack for including rock ‘n’ roll into her sets. Nicole blends an edgy sound with raw melodies of soul. An assortment of musicians inspired her, such as Paul McCartney and blues greats like Koko Taylor and Etta James. Bass lines like “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin-inspired Nicole to pick up the instrument. For 13 years, she played with her brothers, Nick and Chris Schnebelen, in Trampled Under Foot (inspired by a Led Zeppelin song). The trio toured worldwide, and once 2015 came around, they decided to focus more on family than being a band.
“During our last year together, I started my [own] project,” Nicole remembers. She released her first album “Wolf Den” (2015). “Thankfully, I released my second album [‘Cry No More,’ in 2018 on the record label] Concord, and it’s getting some pretty awesome feedback and a lot of love. I’m thankful people are relating to my music.”
“Cry No More” proved to be a new experience for Nicole. Jointly with her producer, Tony Braunagel—who is also her drummer on the album—Nicole successfully made the big sound she wanted compared to her Trampled Under Foot days. Through guest artists, such as Mike Finnegan and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, she brought together a dream team of well-known Los Angeles musicians to create music that connects with her fans.
“I think people get real tunnel vision on what their life is supposed to be and what it means to them, [so] they kinda miss out on other people’s experiences,” Nicole offers. “I think the only way to really truly live is to have relationships with other people, understand where other people are coming from and what other people are going through.”
In addition to the three women headliners at the Seafood, Blues and Jazz Festival, 11 other bands will play throughout two days on multiple stages, including local musicians, like Polar Bear Blues Band and Carl Newton’s Jazzy Review. Eleven seafood vendors, five snack vendors and three wine vendors in the Arts & Wine Garden will be on site. Inflatables and other fun activities for children will be on site and available for families.