The blues festival season is in high gear, with the Hot August Blues Festival at Kenlake, the Blues to the Point Festival in Carrollton, the Blues, Brews & Barbecues Festival at Six Flags, the Bean Blossom Blues Fest in Nashville, IN and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR. All these events are within six weeks of each other and that's just the regional festivals. If the Louisville (formerly Garvin Gate) Blues Festival was still around, it would be right in there, too. I have been to two of these festivals and plan to attend `the Biscuit."
Blues to the Point Festival September 7 & 8
Any outdoor festival is vulnerable to the weather, so when the rains, wind and lightning came Friday night, the music played on with just two rain delays, preceding and during Tanita Gaines' set. Tanita was in good form, wearing a tight sparkling Her band, the Accused, got the small crowd dancing in the rain with "Mustang Sally" and "Ride My Pony."
Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers was the headliner with Rev. Billy Wirtz sitting in for a couple of songs (or sarcastic commentaries). Thackery has had a string of releases on the Blind Pig label going back to 1992 with :empty Arms Hotel." Jimmy's trio includes Wayne Burdette on bass and Mark Stutso drumming. Their intensity and energy held the few blues-drenched fans captive past midnight. Thackery is guitar virtuoso who has master all styles of blues guitar.
Saturday brought out the sun and a larger crowd, even though the grounds were still wet with standing water. I arrived to the Zydeco sounds of Sacre Blue, with dancers slipping and sliding in front of the pavilion. "Hurricane" Harris and Gary "Hot Lips" Hogland brought their Louisiana bayou accordion and rub board sounds to central Kentucky. They finished a lively set with an encore of "Cornbread."
Some of you may recall that Sherman Robertson closed out the last set of the last day of the 1999 Louisville Blues Festival with a climatic ending capping a great legacy of a local festival that endured for twelve years. Robertson has established himself as a consummate Texas singer and guitarist. He was back again for the Carrolton Festival and the Festival at Six Flags the following weekend. Both performances were emotional and personal with a similar playlist. He doesn't leave much room between songs, so it was hard to acknowledge his fine performance with applause. His slow blues are hauntingly beautiful, as in "Make It Rain," where he sings "Not a cloud in the sky, yet you still find a way to make it rain" or in "I'm Looking Up At the Bottom," with the line "How far can you fall, when you are already at the bottom."
Robertson did add a special song at Six Flags that was dedicated to the tragic events that happened the previous week. He got everyone into a call-and-response with "Everybody Loves Somebody (Right Now)." He composed this simple ballad when his son was on military duty overseas during Operation Desert Storm and it had extra special meaning that day.
Robertson's traveling band includes Bruce Barrons on keyboard, Brian Austin on drums and Robert "Freighttrain" Parker on bass. Parker is from St. Pete and frequently performs with the harpist, Rock Bottom. I could listen to Robertson's songs anytime and anywhere and really enjoyed my double dose these two weekends. The finale of the night was the arrival of Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater on the back of a motorcycle, wearing his traditional Indian headdress. He came up from the boat dock and rode around the perimeter of the crowd, finally dismounting in front of the pavilion, playing as he came. Clearwater combines his West Side Chicago licks with an occasional Chuck Berry tune like "Sweet Little Rock and Roller." His left-handed, upside down guitar playing is a trademark, along with his flashy clothes. A showman, the crowd loved it when he played his standards like "Don't Take My Blues" and "That's My Baby."
Clearwater recently opened his own club in Chicago, called Reservation Blues, which is also the title of him most recent CD of the Bullseye label.
Blues, Brews & Barbecues Festival September 15 & 16
On Saturday, Jim Diamond & the Groove Syndicate and Lamont Gillispie & 100 Proof Blues had a chance to stretch out their sets, because Double Trouble got grounded along with everyone else trying to fly somewhere. Carey Bell waited around the Greyhound bus station for four hours before somebody picked him up, so good intentions had bad connections.
Sunday, the festival opened with Blues Kravin, the winner of the recent KBS Unsigned Blues Competition. This young, talented band got a lot of good pointers watching da Mudcats, Sherman Robertson and Marcia Ball later that day. Do Mudcats are still riding the high from performing at the Monterrey Festival in June. In fact, Mike Lynch hasn't taken off his black festival T-shirt since came back.
The band evoked the spirit of Jim Rosen when they did "Got Too Much of Something," "Play In Your Big Backyard" and "Blues Cadillac." It sounded like Jim singing through Mike's vocal cords. Rob Pickett has become quite an accomplished singer to compliment his strong guitar playing. When he sings "Got to Love Her Like a Lady" and "I've Been Cheatin' on You," there is a lot of passion in his voice. Gene Wickliffe continues to keep his steady beat as he has done from the early days of da Mudcats.
Following Sherman Robertson's set, it was time for long, tall Marcia Ball. Ball has built up such an extensive songbook that every song she does is like coming back to an old friend. She seems so at ease in any circumstance: when she looked out over the audience and saw the large image of Porky Pig on the wall outside the amphitheater, she broke the Looney Tunes theme song on the keyboards. I sensed that she had no set list, playing whatever she feels like at the moment. Her boogie-woogie solo in "Crawfishin'" got the moderate-sized crowd up and dancing.
Pat Boyack, her new guitarist, is featured on most of the cuts of her latest CD, Presumed Innocent, on Alligator Records. Boyack already made a name in the mid-Nineties for himself and his band the Prowlers with two CDs, Breakin' In and On the Prowl. His guitar stung and swung to Marcia's ballads and blues. Her two-hour set was the highlight of the festival.
Next month, I'll give you the lowdown on the King Biscuit Festival.