Festival takes: Springing the Blues, Jacksonville Beach, FL April 4-6, 2014
The first weekend of April on the First Coast brings Florida’s largest free outdoor festival to the oceanfront stage in Jax Beach with Springing the Blues, three days, 45 hours, and 22 bands worth of live music. Check out this venue:
The surfers like to say that Locals Rule, and on Day Two of the fest, Jacksonville’s Corbitt Brothers and Tampa’s Betty Fox provided the highlights from the inland Blues Lounge stage near Jax Beach City Hall. STB books several bands to play sets not only on the main Seawalk Pavillion stage on the dunes a mere clam’s toss from the waves, but the tiny Blues Lounge a block inland, where you don’t need VIP access to walk right up and cheer the band, shake what your mama gave you, or chat up the artists between sets. The western stage also typically features local and lesser-known artists hoping for the exposure that might be a tipping point, as well as sponsor George’s Music’s Featured Artist chosen from tapes and auditions. A special treat this year was the Blues Brothers-bedecked Fletcher High School band, playing a jumpin’ set of brassy R and B under the stage name Uncle Johnny’s Blues Machine. Props to the STB for giving a spot to these young musicians in front of a spirited crowd!
When we saw the Grateful Dead-themed blanket on the artists’ merch table and the hippies setting up their gear, it could only mean that Jacksonville’s own Corbitt Brothers had won the Featured Artist award and would soon be blasting their unique brand of blues from the unconventional guitar/harp/sax/drums lineup. Newsome and Isaac Corbitt embrace their North Florida musical heritage with Allmans jams, Skynyrd attitude, and straightforward blues philosophies cast in a Southern accent. Isaac’s mastery of the blues harp evokes Ricky Medlocke’s long intro to Blackfoot’s ” Train, Train “, and at times conjures Blues Traveler’s John Popper, but the younger sibling has his own style, moving easily from leads to rhythm to backing fills, such that the bass is not missed. Brother Newsome leads the band on guitar and vocals, with the material ranging from Johnny Cash’s ” Folsom Prison Blues ” to Skynyrd’s ” Ballad of Curtis Lowe “.
With each song, the crowd at the tiny Blues Lounge stage grew larger, until the aisles were packed with standees and fans surrounded the sound booth. Several veterans and STB staffers insisted they’d never seen any band get that kind of response at the venue, prompting the hosts to promise that the Corbitt Brothers would play the main stage next year, after the crowd had insisted on a third encore from the boys!
While camped out on a blanket just outside VIP at the Main Stage enjoying a fine set from local blues rockers Woody and the Peckers, festival veteran Sweet Jane had tipped me off to get to the Blues Lounge by 3pm to see Betty Fox, who had wowed everyone in her Main Stage set earlier. While seeking a tad of shade at the Blues Lounge after the Corbitts, a young woman passed by wearing an aqua sequined dress she’d been poured into, and I wondered if she’d been told to dress for a club. After all, it’s 85 F and we’re in Jax Beach, where many attendees opt for trunks or a bikini and sandals. Silly me, that was Betty Fox! After graciously greeting fans and posing for photos, the sassy chanteuse took the stage to belt out song after song of club-style R and B, backed by a tight 3-piece band of Matt Walker on guitar, Barry Williams on bass, and Sam Farmer on drums that supported her incredible vocals without stepping on her lines. Betty elegantly shifted volume and tempo, all the while charming the crowd with her engaging demeanor and chatter. Highlights of the set included her own ” Goodbye ” and ” Who’s Holdin’ ? ”
As the rain clouds formed, we had to leave due to the only downside of STB; the Saturday night sets always conflict with the Final Four. For one night, March Madness trumps live blues!
Though many in the crowd were drawn out by the closing Lee Boys, who were well known from last year’s fest and for opening at the Florida Theatre for the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, the highlights of the day were clearly the emerging talent of Mama Blue and the return from a 5-year exile of Eric Steckel.
That big voice from Mama Blue evoked Billie Holiday, Etta James, and even Aretha as she rocked out classic blues and R and B, all the while chatting up the crowd and working the VIPs who staggered to the stage for a closer look. Her own ” Breakaway ” ( ” my divorce song… he liked it, though! ” ) and another original, ” Leave the Light On For Me”, showcased her golden pipes and powerful delivery. Hopefully this showcase gig will open doors for Mama Blue; look for her in your town!
At the tender age of 11, Eric Steckel released his first CD, and a year later was being introduced by John Mayall at the Sarasota Blues Fest as the youngest guitarist to ever appear onstage with the Bluesbreakers ( whose alums include Clapton, Page, and Mick Taylor). His apparent influences include Stevie Ray, Hendrix, and Bonamassa, and his set included a lyrically shifted but thinly veiled riff on Jimi’s ” Let the Good Times Roll ” from ” Electric Ladyland “.
The set was breathtaking fast and hard rocking, with little patter between songs and lots of soloing by the agile Steckel. His flying fingers and rockstar moves quickly won over fans new and old, most of the latter recalling that he had blistered the Main Stage four straight years prior to the recent hiatus.
Before ceding the stage to the Legendary JCs, Steckel brought down the house with a long closing solo that evoked Eddie Van Halen’s ” Eruption “, and showcased his quick-reacting band . While the blues reveres old hands and spirits, the next generation of players will be responsible for introducing the genre and carrying it forward. This grinning young man will be part of that!
Many thanks to the STB for another amazing lineup and smoothly run festival!– Nanker ” Not Holdin’ ” Phledge