Festival Takes- Springing the Blues, Jacksonville Beach, FL April 1-3, 2016
Blues fans across the South know that the first weekend in April brings the nation’s only free oceanfront blues festival to Northeast Florida. STB has managed to cobble together a fine lineup of talented bands every year to the perpetually blighted end of Beach Boulevard, where the ocean breezes caress the food vendors and kitsch hawkers within earshot of both the Main Stage and the smaller inland Blues Lounge. This year’s fest brought expanded VIP seating up front, a return of the perpetually headlining Lee Boys, and an adjusted artist schedule that had bands on both stages starting and finishing simultaneously. The latter brought much grousing from the hardcore attendees, who bemoaned the lost opportunity to check out artists in both venues, and the pleasures of constant music from one stage or the other. With three days of music, some sampling is usually required, and our intrepid reporter weighs in with some highlights from this year:
Opening night brought a strong lineup including area standout Toots Lorraine and Traffic and STB first timers Sean Chambers Band. Toots plays jazz and blues standards to great effect, and her voice holds up well in both the large and small stage settings.
Blues rock was next on the menu, with the Sean Chambers Band blowing up the Lounge stage with their mix of originals ” Full Moon on Main Street”, ” You Gotta Help ” and ” Here and Now”, along with genre standards like Willie Mitchell’s ” Come to Papa ” and a rather obscure Alvin Lee ( yes, he of Ten Years After and the incredible ” Coming Home” in the Woodstock movie) track ” Choo Choo Mama”.
For many fans, Friday night belonged to festival favorite Selwyn Birchwood, the guitar whiz tasked with opening the fest from the Lounge stage. By the time his set was over, many fans followed him to the Main Stage, where he held the crowd with a tight set of originals ” Hoodoo Stew ” and ” Pick Your Poison “. His lap slide playing was especially tasty, and he left the stage to enthusiastic applause. We caught up to Selwyn later at the merch tent, where he was checking the inventory of CDs, shirts, and glasses.
Which brought to mind the best way to support the artists: buy your CDs at the show and send the money directly to the artist. Many times when CDs are pressed the artist is given a number of complimentary discs to sell or distribute, and these are usually what’s seen at the merch tent. Don’t put that big box store between the artist and your purchase!
After a thunderous morning storm the clouds cleared over Jax Beach, making way for sunshine over the crowd during sets from Kim Reteguiz and the Black Cat Bones, the Parker Urban Band, and Eryn Shewell, who delivered a great cover of Lowell Fulson’s blues chestnut ” Little By Little”.
The VIP section in front of the Main Stage was still not jammed by late afternoon, but a blistering set from Toronzo Cannon pulled fans from the food and ” arts ” ( we’ll use that term loosely here) plaza to their folding chairs in VIP and their blankets and canvas chairs for the hoi polloi in back. True to form, the hard rocking Samantha Fish served up a rock-flavored set of arena-friendly blues tunes, including selections from her 2015 release ” Wild Heart “. The Kansas City star showed why the Blues Foundation has nominated her for their 2016 Best Contemporary Female award.We hope she wins!
But for Saturday night, the best action was at the small Lounge Stage, where the Corbitt Clampitt Experience appeared at 6:40, just as the sun was setting on the Fest. They were shortly joined onstage by comrade John Parker Urban, and the twin-lead guitar lineup quickly jolted the crowd with a tight set that at times reminded older fans of the halcyon days of the Marshall Tucker Band. Although Urban was initially buried in the mix, the sound booth made adjustments and the band pushed through on numbers like Pinetop Sparks’ ( notably covered by BB King ) ” Every Day I Have the Blues “.
The band’s rousing finale of Dave Mason ( no, Joe Cocker didn’t write it, though his version is the best known)’s ” Feeling Alright ” brought two terrific singers to the packed stage ( come on guys, introduce them! ) and the crowd to its feet. The band has a strong local following and the rocking ensemble feel to the rolling tune had fans loudly singing and dancing along.
Had the fest ended there for the night, few would have complained. But despite the tough act to follow, national blues fest veteran Mr. Sipp ( a nod to his Mississippi roots) skipped onstage in his red lowtop Converse Chuck Taylors to cap the evening with his engaging presence and professional delivery of rocking blues, notably his own ” I Hit the Jackpot “.
Perhaps the loveliest day of the Spring graced the fest on Sunday, and the locals came by bikes, skateboards, and sandals to the oceanfront venue to close things down. The fest was headlined again by the popular Lee Boys a funk and gospel band based out of Miami. The band plays in the Sacred Steel tradition that arose out of the House of God Church. Having seen them several times, we opted for the Lounge stage, where we were treated to a fine set from Jarekus Singleton, highlighted by a great version of William Bell and Booker T. Jones’ R and B classic ” Born Under A Bad Sign “, popularized by Albert King and Cream.
But this fine set was merely a warm-up for many fans’ Main Event of the fest, an appearance by local hero Conrad Oberg, who rose from Jacksonville arts magnet Douglas Anderson School of the Arts to become an international blues figure, with over 4 million worldwide YouTube views.
Born profoundly prematurely and blind at a pound and a half, Conrad overcame huge obstacles to learn keyboards from age two until given his first guitar at age ten. Five years later he played the Hendrix-style National Anthem at the Woodstock Reunion! His appearance at STB continues his touring in support of his 2013 release ” Spoonful “.
Conrad’s set featured many tunes from the ” Spoonful ” CD, including Willie Dixon’s title cut ( famously covered by Cream on ” Wheels of Fire” ) and Dixon’s ” I Just Wanna Make Love to You” ( the Foghat version is well known to classic rock fans ). Conrad started slowly, seemingly warming to the crowd, before tearing it up on ” Mojo Mofo “, Doug Sahm’s ” She’s About A Mover “, and Robert Johnson’s ” If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day “. During extended solos, he would drift into well-known riffs from similar tunes, tossing P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri’s ” Secret Agent Man ” into the Ventures’ ” Pipeline “, and Led Zep’s ” Heartbreaker ” into the White Stripes’ ” Seven Nations “. Wisely choosing familiar rock-influenced blues tunes for the mostly pre-Millennial crowd, Oberg seemingly peaked with scorching versions of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ” Texas Flood” and the Allmans’ ” Whipping Post ” . But the finale was another surprise: a reprise of Huddie ” Lead Belly ” Ledbetter’s ” Black Betty “, hewed closely to the 1977 rock version by Ram Jam.
While not what anyone would consider ” blues “, the covers of these rock standards showed their somewhat obscured blues roots, verifying McKinley Morganfield’s conclusion that ” the blues done had a baby, and they named the baby Rock and Roll “. Call it what you want ( as Junior Wells says ), Springing the Blues delivered again.
Many thanks to our roving correspondent Nanker Phledge for this report !