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Belleville American Music Festival: Strings attached
Festival goes heavy on guitars
on
Sonny Landreth plays at a peaceful affair.
Sonny Landreth plays at a peaceful affair.

Geoff Wilbourn makes no bones about it. The 3rd annual Belleville American Music Festival, which takes place July 11 and 12, conforms to the personal tastes of its founders.

"We're pretty much a guitar-driven festival," says the full-time arborist, who plans and promotes the blues-heavy BAM Fest with partner Whit Lehnberg under the name Beau Geste Productions. "If my partner and I can't sit and listen to it, we don't have it."

This year, along with the Belleville Chamber of Commerce, they'll welcome Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford, Eric Sardinas & Big Motor, Jeremy Spencer of the original Fleetwood Mac, Larry McCray and seven other local and national acts to BAM Fest's comfortable lakeside site 17 miles southwest of Madison.

Wilbourn and Lehnberg (who also works as a talent buyer for Summerfest) began planning BAM Fest after the suspension of the Madison Blues Festival, which drew tens of thousands of fans to Olin Park before ending its too-brief run in 2004. They started small in 2006, with local and national acts like Lonnie Brooks, Ben Sidran, Chris Duarte, Bernard Allison and the West Side Andy/Mel Ford Band, drawing 2,500 festival-goers. In 2007, Wilbourn says, attendance doubled.

"We lost $30,000 the first year," he says. "The next year we made the $30,000 back plus a small profit, and that went into a [live] album of BAM Fest 2007.

"That first year, Whit was battling bladder cancer, so I was pretty much thrown into the fire," Wilbourn adds after a pause.

The festival is structured so that the Belleville Chamber of Commerce gets 60% of both the gate and food and beverage sales. Wilbourn says that money is directed to local projects and charities.

Cooperation between Beau Geste and Belleville doesn't end there. Parking on streets around the festival site is free. Plus, an agreement with village government allows patrons to buy beer from vendors at the site and consume it throughout the grounds.

"There are no beer jails," Wilbourn says, referencing the Madison Blues Festival's much-derided beer corrals.

Blues festivals have a reputation for rowdiness in places like Madison, but BAM Fest is very much a family-oriented event. Kids under 12 get in free, and even with event-long beer sales, everyone has been very well behaved. Initially, Wilbourn and Lehnberg were required to have a dozen Dane County sheriffs on hand for crowd control, along with officers from the Belleville Police Department. But after the first festival, the village recognized that the sheriffs weren't needed.

Indeed, the event has been a remarkably peaceful affair over the past two years. "We've had no citations written for any problems whatsoever at the festival," says Wilbourn. "Hopefully we can maintain that track record."

That doesn't mean Wilbourn and Lehnberg are content with BAM Fest as it stands now. They'd like to see a 20% growth in ticket sales this year. And as good word of mouth grows, they're hoping to attract as many as 10,000 festival-goers each day.

Of course, bumping the crowds up to that level might be difficult to do with blues alone. But Wilbourn stresses that BAM Fest isn't called a "blues festival" for a reason. "We called it an 'American music' festival so we could have jazz or maybe a jam band," he says. "We definitely have the door open."

Wilbourn admits that, just like bigger profits, some of that growth is a ways down the pike. Major music festivals generally don't spring up overnight, and both Wilbourn and Lehnberg realize that slow, steady expansion is what will keep BAM Fest around for a long time to come.

"It takes four or five years to establish a festival," says Wilbourn before glancing at his very active cell phone. "A lot of people don't break even for eight years. We'd like to reach capacity, but we know we won't reach it for a while."

More information about BAM Fest is available at www.bamfest.net.

Belleville American Music Festival, July 11 & 12, Belleville Community Park in Belleville

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