Springing the Blues 2016

Festival Takes- Springing the Blues, Jacksonville Beach, FL April 1-3, 2016

Samantha Fish

Saturday night headliner Samantha Fish

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:

Friday night

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.

Toots Lorraine and Traffic

Toots Lorraine and Traffic

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”.

Sean Chambers Band

Sean Chambers Band

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.

Selwyn Birchwood

Selwyn Birchwood checking inventory at the merch tent.( Photo by AussieGirl )

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!

Saturday afternoon/evening

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”.

Eryn Shewell

Eryn Shewell onstage and on the big screen

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 “.

Corbitt Clampitt with Parker Urban

Corbitt Clampitt with John Parker Urban

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.

Corbitt Clampitt Experience with John Parker Urban

Corbitt Clampitt Experience with John Parker Urban and ladies

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 “.

Mr. Sipp

Mr. Sipp

Mr. Sipp and red Chuck Taylors

Mr. Sipp and red Chuck Taylors

 

Sunday afternoon

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.

Jarekus Sigleton

Jarekus Sigleton ( photo by AussieGirl )

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.

Conrad Oberg waiting during Jarekus Simpson set

Conrad Oberg waiting during Jarekus Simpson set

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 Oberg

Conrad Oberg ( photo by AussieGirl )

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.

Conrad Oberg onstage

Conrad Oberg rocks ” Black Betty “

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 !

Blues at the Crossroads 2: Muddy & The Wolf, Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN, 2/4/13

“Got their mojos workin’!”; Seated: James Cotton (L), Jody Williams (R); Standing: Tinsley Ellis (2nd L), Bob Margolin (3rd L); Kim Wilson (Center) with the rest of The Fabulous Thunderbirds arrayed behind him

BLUES AT THE CROSSROADS 2: MUDDY & THE WOLF, GUTHRIE THEATER, MINNEAPOLIS, MN, 2/4/13

Blues at the Crossroads 2 followed the same successful formula as the original tour from 2011: choose a theme based on the music of an iconic blues legend (2011: The Robert Johnson Centennial; 2013: The Music of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf); showcase two senior citizens of the blues (2011: David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin; 2013: James Cotton and Jody Williams); add some special guests (2011: Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm; 2013: Tinsley Ellis and Bob Margolin); and pick a band to back everyone up (2011: Big Head Todd & The Monsters; 2013: The Fabulous Thunderbirds). The result is like trying to make supper out of party hors d’oeuvres: lots of tasty bites, for sure, but ultimately one is left hungry for more.

Concerts held at the Guthrie during its busy performance season invariably take place on a Monday evening (the traditional theater off night), and the musicians set up right smack dab on the set of whatever play happens to be staged at the time. On this night, the play was Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with the stage set up as a cutaway view of the interior and exterior of an English country home. Before the show started, it was amusing, yet somehow appropriate, to observe some of the musicians chatting casually as they sat on the rocking chairs or leaned on the railings of the faux front porch located stage left. If you let your mind wander, you could almost imagine the scene as an old Delta farmhouse with local pickers and players wandering in and out, milling about, getting ready for their regular weekly jam session.

Kim Wilson and the Fab T’birds kicked things off with a short set of Muddy and Wolf tunes, including “Baby, How Long” and “I’m Ready,” with Kim Wilson getting some big orchestral sounds out of his chromatic harp on the latter. The first guest up was Tinsley Ellis, the Georgia-born blues rocker, who made a grand entrance at the top of the center staircase of the “Long Day’s” set. His too-brief set featured dueling guitar solos with T’bird Johnny Moeller on “I’m Gonna Quit You” and a duo with Kim Wilson on Willie Dixon’s “Red Rooster,” with Tinsley on the National steel guitar. Alas, we would not see or hear from Mr. Ellis again until the grand finale at the close of the show. More hors d’oeuvres, please!

“Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin was up next. Margolin and the venerable James Cotton were bandmates of Muddy Waters from the mid-70’s until Muddy’s death in 1983, a period of time that saw Muddy’s career gain a boost from his association with Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky records. Margolin recalled those days as a member of Muddy’s band, sparking the T’birds with some furious bottle-neck work on his Telecaster. Then, like Tinsley Ellis before him, he was gone; off to the rocking chairs and porch railing at stage left. These cocktail weenies and meatballs just ain’t gonna cut it!

Kim Wilson takes a stroll

Kim Wilson takes a stroll

Wilson and the T’birds closed out the first half of the program with another short set, bringing unannounced newcomer Jeremy Johnson onstage to join them on guitar. Wilson took the spotlight on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Early In The Morning,” with his unmiked stroll halfway up the center aisle of the Guthrie, tweeting the high notes on his blues harp all the way. As if that piece of showmanship wasn’t enough, Wilson engaged in an insufferably long, self-indulgent harp workout on the final song of the first half, sending the band offstage for what seemed like an eternity before bringing them back to wrap things up. A famous man – it was either Karl Marx or Mr. Rogers – once said, “Sharing is caring.” While we’re all in awe of your prowess on the mouth harp, Mr. Wilson, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Following the break, Wilson & the T’birds were back to open the second half of the show, starting with Howlin’ Wolf’s “You’ll Be Mine,” and including Eddie Boyd’s chestnut, “Five Long Years,” with Wilson once again taking center stage on the chromatic harp. T’bird guitarist Mike Keller got in a nice solo on the Wolf’s “Riding With Daddy,” to finish off the set, before bringing out the special guests.

First up was 78-year old Jody Williams, an obscure but important figure in blues history, who, as a teenage guitarist, was part of the 1954 recording sessions that produced such Howlin’ Wolf classics as “Evil (Is Goin’ On)” and “Forty-Four.” Mr. Williams took the stage carefully, as befits a man his age, and seated himself stage right, where he played an unnamed double-shuffle instrumental, before switching to familiar songs associated with The Wolf: “How Many More Years” and the Willie Dixon-authored “Spoonful.” As befits a musician more accustomed to the studio than the stage, Mr. Williams seemed uncomfortable in performance, and his guitar playing was tentative, causing the T’birds to adjust the tempo of the song on the fly to stay in sync. Still, he received a rousing ovation when he finished his short set.

By contrast, blues harp pioneer James Cotton was full of personality when it came his turn to take the stage. Mr. Cotton was the third of Muddy Waters’ harp players, after Little Walter and Big Walter Horton, and he has recorded and led his own band ever since Muddy’s death. Touring regularly, despite his advanced age and arthritic knees, Mr. Cotton is outgoing and engaging onstage, with a harp style that’s long on power, at the expense of finesse. He was smiling and playful and clearly seemed to be enjoying himself. In deference to Mr. Cotton’s status, Kim Wilson actually left the stage briefly, allowing the old master to have the harp spotlight all to himself. Wilson rejoined the festivities for a nifty trio workout, with Messrs. Cotton and Margolin, on Son House’s “I Got A Letter This Morning.” The evening ended with everybody back onstage for an extended version of Muddy’s signature tune, “Got My Mojo Workin’,” with Cotton and Wilson – mentor and mentoree – engaging in a playful harp dialogue.

With the show clocking in at roughly two hours, excluding the break between sets, it was certainly a solid evening’s worth of entertainment. Still, it left one questioning the balance of time between the artists. Was it really necessary for Wilson and the T’birds to have opened the second half of the evening by themselves? Why couldn’t Messrs. Ellis and/or Margolin have joined them right away? It seems a shame to have had these two formidable bluesmen out on stage for only their brief 15-20 minute sets, plus the final group number. And, while it is understandable to not want to overtax the senior citizens, the world would benefit from more exposure to Messrs. Cotton and Williams, who are some of the last links to the founding fathers of the blues. Perhaps when it’s time to put together Blues at the Crossroads 3, the producers will consider dividing up the stage time more equally among the performers. Until then, we can at least thank them for putting together these tours, which celebrate the historical antecedents of this most fundamentally American music form.