Most of Charlie Wheeler's guitar heroes are dead.
"All my idols are gone — almost. B.B. just died, Stevie died, Jerry died, Jimi died ... they all died. But Buddy's still around," Wheeler says.
This weekend, he'll get to perform with his band, the Charlie Wheeler Trio, just hours before one of his last living inspirations, Buddy Guy, takes the stage at this year's Pittsburgh Blues Festival.
As the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's flagship event, the Pittsburgh Blues Festival bridges the gap between community outreach and top-shelf blues talent at Hartwood Acres. This year's lineup, like most in its 21-year history, includes premier national blues performers like Guy, Bobby Rush and Marcia Ball, along with local artists such as Wheeler, Stevee Wellons Band and Pittsburgh Blues Revival.
Alyssa Jurewicz-Johns, the food bank's director of corporate and community engagement, credits Ron "Moondog" Esser for stringing together successful lineups year after year. Esser, who also owns venerable Blawnox blues bar Moondog's, has been helping to organize Pittsburgh Blues Festival lineups for 20 years, and he must leverage a small bankroll to book artists after they have announced their touring schedules.
"We've got limited funds, and we really have to make them stretch," Jurewicz-Johns says. "I'm here to say that Ron Esser has worked miracles with our small budget over the years."
But despite its budget, the Pittsburgh Blues Festival has raked in a staggering amount of donations. Since launching in 1994, the festival has generated 10 million meals for the food bank. While Saturday and Sunday are ticketed events, Free Friday allows free admission with a bag of non-perishable items — and averages a total of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of food per year.
Jurewicz-Johns credits a vast team of volunteers for making the festival possible, in addition to the internal staff and sponsors responsible for putting it on. She notes that the thematic relationship between the food bank's work and the blues make it more evocative than the average music festival.
"The blues connects with suffering — sad songs about suffering. It just really resonates with our mission," Jurewicz-Johns says.