The Pocono Blues Festival has become one of the top 5 blues festivals in the States. Consistently, its lineup includes the finest real blues artists in the world. You won't find any pretenders here, they simply do not get invited. It all takes place at a ski resort in the beautiful Pocono Mountains where ski runs are used to create a natural outdoor amphitheater. Over 2 days, 19 national acts featured on 2 main stages and 1 tented stage. Friendly fans from over 25 states and 3 countries came out in droves to partake in the event. The efficient staff ensures the performances run as scheduled. While roaming the grounds, you have as much a chance of meeting an artist as being in the media suite. No wonder it is known as the 'blues lover's blues festival.' Unfortunately, the price of food and drink was ridiculous and coolers aren't allowed into the grounds. However, this guaranteed the parking lot had several constant tailgate parties. Overall, there simply wasn't enough time to catch all the music, food, vendors and attractions.
This festival would not have been possibly without its director, Michael Cloeren. It was his dream project to bring a blues festival to the mountains. The first one was held in 1992 and within 4 years, Cloeren's hard work was recognized. In 1996, he was named recipient of the W.C. Handy KBA Award for promoter of the year. He is totally committed to the blues as evidenced by being on the board of directors for the Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Association.
Little Al Thomas and the Crazy House Band commenced the 10th annual Pocono festival. Raw, south-side Chicago blues roared out of the former steelworker turned vocalist. Crazy House Band founder, Tom "Mot" Dutko, lead the rhythm section on drums. Little Al's scintillating set included all of his trademark tunes including Louis Jordan's "Somebody Changed The Lock On My Door".
Before you knew it his 55 minute set was complete. Then we all rushed off to stage 2 where John Primer and the Real Deal Blues Band hit it with full assault. The night before they played a gig in Buffalo and didn't get to the hotel until 3am. After only a couple hours of sleep, they started driving and barely made it in time! Still wired from the road, they ripped right into the pumping and funky "Hard Working Woman". Then it was one song after another with no time to catch their breath. They mixed new material from John's latest release "Blues Knocking at Your Door", with older covers from the traditional era. Primer played precise West Side notes one minute then piledrove them the next. On each tune, John sang confidently with his solid and strong voice. He also played the slide with much vivacity. Shaped under the pressure of backing greats like Muddy Waters and Magic Slim, Primer is now a staple of Chicago blues. Harpist Tucker (from Japan) had great tone which nicely complimented John's style. Drummer Mark Diffenderfer hit his skins hard while bass player Michael Morrison balanced out the blues foundation. If you are wondering what Jimmy Reed, Walter Horton and Jimmy Rogers would have sounded like in the 21st Century, the answer is Knocking At Your Door.
Pocono has become a home for Detroit Blues veterans. However, this year it was time for a younger contender, Thornetta Davis. Lady T reigned supreme while the heavens opened and rained supreme. With looks that kill and a gospel choir-like voice, she used her girth to deliver full-bodied beats which overpowered the storm, sending the clouds and rain packing. Davis backed herself with musicians as powerful as her pipes. Her driving rhythm section consisted of Gary Jiblian (bass) and Milton Austin (drums). Phil Hale's excellent organ work was jazzy and sassy. Guitarist Andre Frappier was outright ass-kicking on "That's A Pretty Good Love". Chills ran down our spines when we experienced the stamina of the notes that Lady T hit with her dynamic voice on "Please Send Me Someone To Love". Davis used her well trained voice to deliver the lyrics with silk sharp enough to cut through a Firestone tire. She never lost the hold on her listeners, even though it poured ferociously for half of her set. Once the rain stopped, more spectators came back to experience her pure, thundering and danceable grooves.
Unlike most blues artists, Dallas-based Lucky Peterson is a natural performer. At Pocono, he was as flamboyant as they come. With enough energy to launch the space shuttle, Lucky strutted out onto the stage with so much force I thought he was going to end up in the photo pit. He then proceeded to assault us with smokin' red hot contemporary blues featuring his trademark triple threat (organ, guitar and vocals). Guest musician, Rico McFarland used back-alley aggression to thrill the crowd with many bewildering guitar solos. This confirmed him to be a new giant of the blues world. Peterson's enthusiasm was infinite while his dexterity was sleek. At times his soulful voice was similar to James Brown while he consistently used his B3 for fierce bursts and blasts. When the band laid into one from the new CD, Double Dealin, he jammed like a madman on guitar. His encore of "Lets Get Stoned" ironically followed a gospel number where he thanked the Lord for safe travel. As we walked away from the stage, I looked back and noticed a large mushroom cloud hovering over it. Many blueshounds were still talking about his mighty performance the next day. They thought he alone was worth the price of admission and wished his exhilarating performance could have been saved in a bottle.
Henry Gray hails from just outside New Orleans. At the age of eight, he began to demonstrate his talent on piano. In 1956, he joined Howlin' Wolf's band where he remained until 1968. Gray is considered one of the best living exponents of the Windy City piano blues style. He was backed by a tight band of experienced and talented Louisiana musicians. Lil' Buck Sinegal's guitar created a unique brand of spicy blues while Nathaniel Jolivet's drumming was stomping and sweaty. Timeless numbers like "Blueberry Hill", "The Twist" and "Just A Little Bit" had many of the audience shaking their booties for the first time in years. Henry provided a special treat when he requested bass player, Andy Cornett, join his regular harp player, Brian Bruce, in a double harp jam. The song received a standing ovation. Although a similarity of keys and shuffles featured in the songs, his many barrelhouse runs on the 88s enraptured the listeners.
Chicago-born Bernard Allison apprenticed under blues heavyweights Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon before relocating to Paris. While overseas, he triumphantly toured with his father Luther while making a name for himself. He returned to the States in the late 90s and joined a select circle of musicians who define modern blues and are insistent to carry the genre into the future. Appearing to weigh no more than a Spartan 90 pounds, his high-energy singing made him sound like a man twice his weight. The mob warmed up to him on "Bad Love" then he ignited them on "Just Came Back To Say Goodbye". The young Allison certified himself as a world-class blues belter on "Tin Pan Alley." Bernard's powerhouse band was fiery and his keyboardist and bass player were exceptional. With only a short blast of "Purple Haze", he kept the Hendrix stuff to a minimum while maintaining insatiable guitar playing. His cordless guitar enabled him to walk further and deeper into the crowd than Lucky Peterson earlier in the day. It was an incredible display of the future of the blues. Over the next few year's, Allison's career is sure to skyrocket to the same stratosphere as his solos.
Time to check out the tent stage and return to the roots with legend Lazy Lester. Even though he has been living in Michigan for many years, he still delivers some of the best swamp blues. His ole Louisiana buddy Henry Gray sat in the 1st row for the set. The sounds of the party-hearty state flowed deeply thanks to a washboard and acoustic bass. This backing band wasn't his regular one as they didn't know "I'm A Lover Not A Fighter". However, once Lester performed "Sugar Coated Love", day 1 at Pocono was complete.
The overcast skies and oppressive heat from Saturday were replaced by clear, blue skies and intense heat on Sunday. MC, Niles Frantz, seemed ecstatic with the change in weather and announced, 'now this is a Pocono Blues Fest day'! As if things weren't hot enough already, Michael Burks brought it to a boil as he kicked things off on day 2. He is one of those rare artists who has mastered contemporary blues by combining it with soul, funk and a tad of rock. He doesn't simply recycle these genres. He uses them to torrentially express what's locked up inside of him. Burks' voice sounded even more hauntingly like Albert King's than it does on the successful Make It Rain disc. For the 1st half of set, his trademark Flying V guitar was used to feature many tunes from the debut Alligator CD. Then he changed to a Stratocaster for a rockin Texas shuffle where he played wicked slide that featured his keyboard player. At one point, he had as much water dripping off him as on the CD's back cover photo. This seemed to only encourage him to continue with his powerful arrangements that captivated and engulfed the audience to the point of being spellbound. If there is anyone who can leave you breathless and exhausted by expressing the blues like its masters, it's Michael Burks.
Next on the agenda was the scenic chair lift which meant sacrificing DC Bellamy's terrific set. Although we couldn't see him on our journey, his music carried half-way up the mountain. It sounded so good I wanted to jump out of the chair and run down the slope to get to the stage. His performance included a robustful collection of Chicago-styled originals and covers.
Mississippi born and bred Zora Young is the epitome of female Chicago blues singers. She originally sang gospel music in her church. When her family migrated north to Chi-town, her musical interests migrated to blues and soul. Her stunning backing band was comprised primarily of members from the Lehigh Valley Blues Network. 'Chicago' Carl Snyder's fingers waltzed over the 88s while Al Guerrero (bass) and Craig Coyle (drums) maintained the groundwork. Special guest on guitar was Larry Burton who is well on his way to attaining a legend status. It was a bit of a reunion for Carl and Larry. They played together and recorded with Jimmy Johnson on Alligator's first "Living Chicago Blues" album. These highly experienced musicians proved their mastery of the genre on 3 tunes including "Private Eye". Burton flexed his chops on "Tore Down" and then Zora thundered onto the stage in a bright orange outfit singing "Livin In The USA". She performed many others from her Learned My Lesson CD on Delmark including "My Man's An Undertaker" where she proclaimed, 'he's got a coffin your size'! Her smooth yet strong vocals challenged the band to musically soar to new heights. Like Thornetta, the day before, there were plenty of covers. You know the ones about bad men when it comes to love?! At one point, Zora needed to leave the stage for a few minutes to beat the heat.
Not too long ago, Billy Branch was considered one of the new bluesbloods. Now the harp virtuoso is one of Chicago's most esteemed musical talents. His list of accomplishments is mind-boggling including the creation and success of the Blues In The Schools Program, where he has educated kids about blues for over 20 years. Over time, his Sons Of Blues band has been a breeding ground for guitarists producing such stalwarts as Lurrie Bell and Carl Weathersby. Branch and Company lit into a John Lee Hooker tribute with "Boom Boom". Bassist Mitch Childs brought new meaning to "Messin With The Kid" while his Tokyo guitarist delivered "Have You Ever Loved A Woman". Billy was so dissatisfied with the stage conditions he announced, 'this is a typical blues festival, everything on the stage is messed up but we are trying hard'. His frustration came through in the music as it wasn't one of his finer performances.
Sherman Robertson is already considered a young master of zydeco, hard-swinging Texas electric blues, R&B and swampy Louisiana blues. Robertson says 'I use that driving, road-cooking type zydeco groove, and put blues on top of it'. The new kid from the old school dazzled with potent singing and sizzling guitar. Albert Collins would have been mighty envious of the Texas blues burning out of Sherman's Telecaster. He looked mean and mad as hell onstage. This guise incited Robert Parker (bass) and Bryan Austin (drums) to the highest elevation. Gordon Beadle fattened the sound with his beefy sax. In attendance was Alligator president Bruce Iglauer. 'I'd seen Sherman a couple of times before, but not for a few years,' he says. 'He was always good, but when I saw him in June he was on fire. He ruled the stage, had the audience in the palm of his hand, and his just plain physical showmanship reminded me of Albert Collins. He's got that Texas energy, great guitar chops, and is a wonderful, soulful singer.' This description of Robertson fit his Pocono performance to a tee.
The world's number 1 houserocking band blazed out a blues firestorm and instantly created a party. Lil' Ed (he is only 5 foot one) played music that was full of animation and joy. His barrelhouse style came as a welcome change of pace. Together with the Blues Imperials, including his half-brother, Pookie, Ed was one of the loudest and most raucous bands. They played to highly reactive Ed-Head spectators. These, of course, are his most devoted fans who arrive at the front of the stage early enough to receive a picture of Ed taped to the top of a long stick. These sticks are then waved frantically throughout the performance creating bopping Ed-Heads! Wonderfully wild and crazy stuff like the road-tested "Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits" titillated the masses. The deep blues of "Stormy Monday" was used to show his true talent. Here he combined raw, husky vocals with romping guitar. Of course the greatest reactions came when Lil' Ed fired notes on his knees, in the midst of a mid-leap, sliding across the stage, etc. He tended to hide his genuine musicianship behind these antics.
Little Milton and his showband concluded the festivities with a highly professional, well timed, accurately orchestrated show. After his band warmed things up with a few songs, Milton's traveling MC worked the fans into a frenzy for his arrival. The soul great sang some of his many, hits from the past such as "I Will Survive" and "Annie Mae's Café". Then he picked up his guitar and passionately played it for the duration of the evening. As the fireworks erupted above stage 1 (signaling the end of the festival), I wondered why it had taken me so long to attend this fantastic event. Now that I have been to it once, I'll be back. Be sure not to put this festival off.
Other artists that appeared included: Keb' Mo', Ola Dixon, Ike Cosse, Algia Mae Hinton and Sam Carr
For further information about the Pocono Blues Festival, contact: phone 800-468-2442 web www.jackfrostbigboulder.com
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.