” I’m gone back down to Florida…where the sun shines damn near everyday” – Muddy Waters
For more than twenty years, the arrival of spring in Northeast Florida is heralded by the Springing the Blues fest on the first weekend in April at this oceanfront venue. The format has all bands save headliners and local openers playing not only the main stage pictured above, but the smaller West stage a block inland, where you don’t have to buy a VIP badge to stand or sit within spittin’ distance of the band. Having thrown in with the hoi polloi eons ago, it was my pleasure to eschew the daily surcharge and dodge Mr. Sun’s rays with the Eighth Avenue sailors, bikini-clad teens, professed former surfers, and Westside Tush Hogs on Budweiser who are all drawn to this open-container deadzone at the end of Beach Boulevard and the start of the Atlantic Ocean at this time every year like keg-seeking lemmings.For one weekend a year, it’s hard to get arrested in Jax Beach!
Friday night was highlighted by the Parker Urban Band, an eight-piece ensemble led by the formidable chops of guitatrist/bandleader John Parkerurban, and fronted by twin lead singers Myrna Stallworth and Juanita Parkerurban. John whipped the band through a string of originals ” Chicken and Rice”, ” Writing a Letter” , and ” Heroes Journey” ( John is ex-USMC and Semper Fi ), as well as funky covers of Tower of Power’s ” What Is Hip?” and The Meters’ ” Just Kissed My Baby”. The sax, keyboards, and blues harp additions to the lineup delivered a broad, forceful sound that melded blues, jazz, and funk to great effect.
Saturday was a gorgeous day in Jax Beach, with high 60s temps, a mild ocean breeze, and a huge turnout of fans who responded with indifference to the recently elected mayor’s cornpone Beaches Welcome sellout to the Chamber of Commerce and pimping of local merchants. Mayor, I know Fland Sharp, and you’re no Fland Sharp! But back to the music.
Perhaps the Saturday crowd favorite was the Austin-based Peterson Brothers Band, featuring the teenaged sibs Alex on bass and Glen Jr. on lead guitar, offering Stevie Ray-style Texas blues with some R and B flavor on tunes like ” If You Love Me Like You Say”. The kids managed to stir both the VIP-ringed Main Stage and the more intimate West Stage with their poise, proficiency, and enthusiasm. Sure, a sixteen-year-old lacks the gravitas to sing most wisened blues lyrics, and you have to chuckle to hear a teenager croon, ” I know the rules; I’m not a fool “, but these kids kids appear to be speaking their minds and playing from their hearts, and I’ll take that at any age. Go see them before it gets expensive!
The West Stage was still cookin’ from the Petersons when the Cedric Burnside Project began laying down the classic Hill Country Blues of Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and Ced’s grandaddy R.L. Burnside. The stripped-down lineup of North Mississippi natives Ced on drums and vocals with Trenton Ayers on guitar evoked memories of the fine sets at STB by Cedric and Lightnin’ Malcom, who was last seen on bass with the North Mississippi Allstars. Cedric’s powerful drumming and choices of crowd-pleasing tunes like ” Po’ Black Maddie” and ” Goin’ Down South”, coupled with deft ringing slide from Trenton, made for a compelling groove in the Florida sun that had young and old shakin’ ’em on down.
A tough act to follow, no doubt, but shredmaster Damon Fowler was undaunted, leading his band through originals and covers on slide, lead, lap steel, and dobro. The Brandon, FL native traffics in roots rock, swamp boogie, and slide blues, and fired off a hot set with originals ” Sugar Shack”, ” You Go Your Way”, and an unexpected inspired cover of Merle Haggard’s ” Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”.
Sunday brought blazing sun and summer-like temps to the fest venue, and the promise of headliners The Lee Boys and the influential late 60s guitarist Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown. But first, some fast, nearly psychedelic trippings from New Yorker Dave Fields, who evoked Hendrix, Trower, and the recently departed Alvin Lee, as well as more jazz-influenced players like Bonamassa and Trucks, in his wildly received sets on the Main and West Stages.
Fields wowed even the hardcore devotees with his tuneful runs and melodic fills, peaking with a choppy version of the Booker T./ William Bell classic, ” Born Under A Bad Sign” and a masterful crescendo on his instrumental, ” Lydia “, from his new ” Detonation ” CD. And later at the merch tent, Fields was so open and unguarded that he admitted to family from Palatka. I begged him not to admit that around Floridians!
Kim Simmonds lead his power trio onstage to welcome applause; many of the boomer dudes in the audience had talked of having Savoy Brown LPs among the stacks in the garage or somewhere of equal irritation to their spouses. Simmonds played a set of 1967- 1970s Savoy tunes on amplified accoustic guitars, noting that the sound of those early rock tunes seems to ring true without electrics, including Charles Brown’s ” Black Night” and my personal fave, ” Shot In the Head”. Simmonds shifted to electric on newer blues-based material in the second half of the set before closing with a spirited uptempo ” Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” that I suspect would have moved McKinley Morganfield himself. That’s the great thing about the blues; anything that’s out there is fair game for anyone to play, or even make Their Own. Heck, Muddy ripped that ” signature tune” from Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ 1928 ” Roll and Tumble Blues”, so there’s no tellin’ how far back some of these songs go.
Having seen the great Lee Boys twice at STB and from the front row opening for the Tedeschi-Trucks band last winter at the Florida Theatre, I felt no remorse in passing on their rollicking set and making one last swing through the food booth midway as I walked to my car for the Ride Back Across the Ditch ( that’s the Intracoastal Waterway for you townies!). The sun was setting on Florida’s largest free outdoor music festival, but never on the blues.
———————– Your humble Northeast Florida correspondent, Nanker ” Next stop, Waneefest ” Phledge