Justus League, DB Reilly, the Slide Brothers, and Blues Caravan– Blues Under the Bridge Festival
” I hear that train a-comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend …” – Johnny Cash, ” Folsom Prison Blues”
While DB Reilly sang those words, a conductor hit ” that lonesome whistle” in recognition of the Blues Under The Bridge crowd, as the line of boxcars passed by the makeshift flatbed trailer stage under the Colorado Avenue bridge, marking the return of the summer’s finest moment in the Springs. Throughout the day at this fest, a band blithely plays on while a freight train passes just behind the stage, as if the drummer or a guitar tech might hop on board like the wayward kid in Merle Haggard’s ” Mama Tried”, and roll on to some place unknown. No doubt many stuck in Colorado Springs’ tarpit of evangelical organizations and Paleolithic politicians have entertained similar thoughts! But every summer Blues Under the Bridge brings a cultural oasis to this barren desert, and once again, the festival team and promoter Amy Whitesell of A Music Company had assembled a terrific lineup of up-and-coming acts and deserving veterans of the blues scene at this smooth-running, hardly-known-outta-town event.
The Justus League is a mash-up of local Colorado Springs musicians infused in blues/rock. Despite an all-star lineup including Austin Johnson on guitar, Sean Pyrtle on bass, and Matthew Taylor on keys, they are virtually unknown to the public save their fine guitarist, Jake Loggins, a perennial winner of local blues awards. The guys tackled the opening slot with enthusiasm, leaving many patrons nodding in approval as they roared through their set. I notice that Jake still has shows booked for his eponymous band, so this assemblage may be a side project for all, but it shows promise, particularly Loggins and drummer/vocalist Dean Woodward. Locals can catch their CD release party at Stargazer’s on August 23.
The versatile DB Reilly and his talented band play a blend of country, blues, Cajun, and even Zydeco, ” underwhelming audiences across the country “, as the self-deprecating Reilly cracked onstage. The amiable Reilly kept up a stream of humor throughout the set–” I just heard from Billboard..my CD went plywood “– ” we were named Indy Band of the Year in New York City… by my mother and her friends… they were high at the time ” — and breezed through a set of clever originals and timeless covers like the aforementioned ” Folsom Prison Blues”.
When you are promoted as Robert Randolph’s favorite band, there’s gonna be some pedal steel involved, and I don’t mean some drippy cornpone country tearjerker, but jumpin’ gospel-based ” shoutin’ “, as Calvin Cooke of the Slide Brothers described his introduction to the Sacred Steel tradition in the Church of the Living God. Calvin and Aubrey Ghent whipped the crowd into a dancing frenzy in front of the stage time and again with foot-stompin’ rock that had one foot in the sanctuary and the other in the juke joint. Their twin-pedal steel attack moved smoothly from slow gospel to Elmore James’ blues and the Allmans’ rock, with Cooke’s handling of Gregg’s vocal on ” Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ ” a highlight of the set.
The engaging Cooke kept the crowd involved with tales of church services and good times past, and seemed thrilled with the gig: ” I’ve never been up under the Bridge before. I didn’t know the hobos had it so good!”
The Blues Caravan 2013 brings together outstanding musicians showcasing their own material in mini-sets while backed by their mates. This year, guitarists Joann Shaw Taylor and Bart Walker are joined by guitarist/bassist CJ Wilder and hard-working drummer Austin Curcuruto. The full band opened with John Fogerty’s ” Proud Mary”, with Taylor, Walker, and Wilder trading verses and sharing choruses. To the crowd’s apparent dismay, Taylor stepped offstage, prompting cries of ” Bring back that woman” and ” Where’s Joann?” from the heretofore compliant VIP section, prompting Walker to explain the format and promise that Joann would return. Walker switched to bass for a fine set of originals by Wilder, who is a pleasant singer and competent guitarist in his own right. The return of Bart Walker to guitar kicked the tempo and volume considerably, as he amazed the crowd with blistering runs and tasty licks, eerily resembling the burly Warren Haynes with the current Allmans lineup. His originals ” Took It Like A Man ” and ” Waitin’ On Daylight ” were well-received, and anybody hollerin’ for Joann at that point was truly missing out.
I’d seen Joanne Shaw Taylor and her band twice at Springing The Blues in Jax Beach, where she rocked out the electric blues that went worldwide from England in the late 60s with John Mayall, the Yardbirds, and early Zep, tearing into war horses like ” Killing Floor ” with great enthusiasm and plenty of chops. Seeing her share the stage in the Blues Caravan, you wonder how long Girls With Guitars like Joanne Shaw Taylor, Samantha Fish, Ana Popovic, and ( no relation) Cassie Taylor will have to wait to headline fests like this? Hopefully not until they’re John Hammond’s age! Shaw returned to the stage, tag-teaming Bart Walker like they were in the WWF, and wowed the fans with her striking looks, roaring guitar, and rockstar moves. In contrast to Walker, she eschewed intricate solos for power chords and tornado-level blasts that truly ” sounded like a train ” , as Patterson Hood says, and left the crowd stunned but roaring in her wake. Her vocals are mostly shouted, and the lyrics are barely intelligible below the guitar din, but as Muddy Waters told Mick Jagger of the blues, ” the words don’t matter”. By the time Bart Walker returned, the crowd was nearly spent, though the full-band finale of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ” If the House Is Rockin’, Don’t Bother Knockin’ ” brought the fans to their feet and the dancers down to the front.
With my pockets emptied by the great vendors– chickpea frittata from locals!– and no freight train to hop back to the unit, I bade farewell to the fest, passing on headliners John Hammond and Watermelon Slim for another time. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, my tombstone won’t read, ” I’d rather be in Colorado Springs”, but for one day a year, the Blues make it bearable.
Your erstwhile Mountain correspondent, Nanker Phledge