With an overwhelming number of blues festivals to choose from, how do you know which ones to attend and which ones to avoid? When compared to the Pocono Blues Festival, all other blues festivals pale in comparison. Most of the other festivals are either too large, too long in duration, do not present enough real blues, are not professionally run or focus too much attention on beer revenue as opposed to the music. None of the 15,000 festival-goers experienced any of these common frustrations at the 12th Annual Pocono Blues Festival. Instead, they were subjected to 21 national 'real deal' acts featuring many formats of blues, soul and R&B on three stages over two and a half days.
Michael Cloeren runs an entirely professional festival. He excels at organizing it, producing it and treating the artists, fans and media with undue respect. For the first time, he expanded the usual two day format to include a VIP pre-party on the eve prior to the festival. This was done in grand style too where 500 blues enthusiasts where treated to a hot buffet prior to the entertainment commencing. Plenty of the patrons have been attending to hear music in its purest form since the festival's inauguration. When the gates open and everyone scrambles to mark their turf, it is always a pleasure to observe neighbors introducing themselves to create new blues friendships. This year, the attendees came from 25 states plus Canada and Japan.
Due to a few massive downpours and fans sliding down the ski runs, at times it felt like Bluestock. But it always felt like a blues family reunion. Since it takes place at a ski resort, it offers amenities that are not found at other festivals. These include: real washroom facilities and dining lounges to consume a meal or retreat from the heat. There is something about the picturesque Pocono setting that guarantees you get a top performance whether it lasts 60 minutes by one of the opening acts or 90 minutes from a headliner. A wide range of vendors are always present peddling everything from CDs/LPs (Severn Records, M.C. Records) to blues magazines (Blues Revue, King Biscuit Time) to famous blues photographs (Dick Waterman) to clothes and jewelry.
At the VIP show, Cloeren's goal was to turn the tent stage into a Mississippi Juke Joint. He achieved his goal thanks to Sam Taylor, Michael Burks and expanding the tent's size by 40%. Emcee Niles Frantz took advantage of the intimate setting and briefly interviewed Taylor before his laudable set of mostly original material. This gave the audience a chance to know Sam on a different level. Here, we learned this Tuscon-based singer/songwriter/guitarist has his own popular blues radio program. His five member pervasive band included exceptional keyboard and sax players. In fact, the tenor saxman's notes were so high you'd think he was performing from the space shuttle. It was a stylistic mix of traditional blues with plenty of soul-funk.
The last time Michael Burks played the festival (2001), he had an opening slot but this time he triumphantly returned as a headliner. Dressed in a Hendrix shirt, he smoked the tent after a massive downpour. His version of "All Your Affection Is Gone" sent shivers down our spines. His organist was rippling and sang "Little Wing" while Burks' captivating guitar solo left the masses awestruck. While madly jamming, Burks walked through the delighted crowd, performed with his Flying V on a few numbers and even took a turn on organ after being coaxed on by the band. If the tent had chipped paint on its walls, there would have been no paint left after Michael's torrential exhibition. Surely the nearby trees lost plenty of bark during one of best performances of summer of 2003.
On Saturday, things began with one of the Bay Area's best kept secrets, Craig Horton. His songs were full of driving rhythms, intense vocals and Handy Award worthy guitar playing. It left many asking, "where has he been?" It all began in Conway, Arkansas when Horton's grandmother introduced him to the guitar. Later, Craig played guitar with the legendary Little Walter and was a big part of the 1950s Chicago music scene. He now has a multifaceted style that reflects those early years. There was plenty of grace heard in his smooth, jazz fretwork which contrasted with his Albert Collins-like mannerisms.
Belzoni, MS native Eddie Burns was confined to a chair and had his cane by his side during his supple program. Mid-way through, he couldn't resist pulling out the Mississippi Saxophone - rightfully so since it earned him a spot in John Lee Hooker's band back in 1949. Burns' harp is still fiery and his traditional blues is still sweet as on "Lonely Man Plea". His unobtrusive voice is now frail but it made the basics of the blues sound oh so good.
Soul sensation, Lou Pride, had a seven member band including a conga percussionist plus the always welcome sax and trumpet. His golden-throated falsetto voice was as wide as his girth. Dressed entirely in black, he must have been on the verge of combustion. He came across like a real ladies man and proudly told the phillies, "the only thing short on me is the mustache." He performed lots from his new El Paso sessions CD. Some of which was recorded with the Hi Records Band in 1972. Born outside of Chicago, he got his start singing in a Baptist Church choir.
Jody Williams was a staple on countless Chess recordings. By the late 60s, he had become disillusioned with the music business (other artists stole his songs and he received no credit or royalties) so he quit. In 2001 he resurrected his dormant career and released "Return Of A Legend" which won him a Handy Award. At the beginning of his articulate set, he told his adoring fans that he was very grateful for everything he has attained over the last few years. Then he acknowledged and admitted some folks don't achieve that in an entire lifetime. He and Red Lightnin' (his guitar) put on a retrospective performance at Pocono. His fingers were nimble throughout and they played short, laser-sharp, exquisite notes on "Lifelong Lover", "Lucky Lou" and "You May". Later, he introduced "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am" as the five most important words in any language! Jokingly he stated, "I said thank you. I am a very appreciative guy." Many claim to hear Otis Rush in the guitar playing of Jody. However, it was actually Jody who was the influence on Rush. Williams was the most social of all the artists. He hung out in the media lounge forever. There he said, "I have been robbed for millions but my memories are worth millions." At Pocono, Jody was far better than the disappointing Bo Diddley reunion gig at the 2002 Chicago Blues festival.
Many members of the soul patrol were in the first few rows for Muskegon, MI's Bettye Lavette. She had a mean and assertive "you listen to me boy" voice. Backed by a six member band including a brass section (it can't be soul if there are no horns), her sultry voice made you sit up and listen. Influenced by the great singers and styles of the 30s, 40s and 50s, her brand of soul music transepts many other forms including disco. Her effervescent stage persona can be attributed to Detroit's Hastings Street nightlife.
The heart of blues folklore lies in the music of Denver-based Otis Taylor who has been enjoying a highly rejuvenated career since 1995. On his recent CDs, he delivers deep acoustic blues but his Pocono show was far more heavy, hard and electric. In fact, it was so loud, it bordered on being classified as grunge music. The master storyteller told dark tales
via his trance-like blues music which included unusual musical arrangements and instrument combinations.
The master of roots and world music, Taj Mahal, has thrilled fans with his eclectic blending of musical styles for more than 40 years. When he shows up for a gig you never know which Taj is going to appear and you never know what style of music he will perform. It could be anything from country blues to southern blues to soul to R&B to bluegrass to Hawaiian music to Caribbean music. On this night, he was backed by bass and drums only and he proceeded to deliver a very mellow concert. This wasn't the usual raucous headlining presentation that the gathering was anticipating. Some of the them decided to beat the rush and head for the exit gates while others charged over to the tent stage were Sharrie Williams was delivering a far more lively act. Her thundering sounds actually drowned Taj out. Still, for those who stayed, Taj's remarkable voice ranged from gruff and gravely to smooth and sultry.
They don't come funkier than Michael Coleman who has been voted one of the top 50 bluesmen by Guitar World Magazine. He and his Backbreakers drove all night from Chicago in order to make their 11:30am gig on the final day of the festival. Coleman developed his lowdown guitar skills while performing with Aaron Burton, Johnny Christian, Muddy Waters and Eddy Clearwater. Coleman is known best for his tenure with James Cotton in the 80s. Since the early 90s, Michael has been a solo act and a mainstay at numerous Chicago clubs. His current band is a smaller band than the Cotton era but the arrangements were as tight and precise yet gave himself and his band the flexibility to express themselves without confinement. During this morning wake-up call, he had lots of reaction from the spectators. His funky style of blues included plenty of minor keys where the words, thoughts and feelings all emitted from his fingertips. Highlights included "Shake Your Booty" and the closing number "My Girl". Whoever penned the term, "way cool", must have attended a Coleman gig. His set was so potent, had the festival stopped then and there I would have been completely satisfied.
Mississippi Heat was the surprise act of the weekend. I knew they were good but I wasn't anticipating being completely blown away by them. I have come back convinced and converted that they are the real deal. Pierre Lacocque proved to be a top notch harpist while singer Inetta Visor was full of life and knew how to deliver the goods. 'Footprints On The Ceiling" gave the adults plenty to ponder the next time they retreat to the bedroom. Although their guitarist looked like Anne of Green Gables, the band's music was down home and honest. A touching moment came when they performed some blues for departed Chicago axe-man George Baze.
Detroit may not have a ball team but the city's musical legacy was well represented at this year's festival. Rhythm and Blues music may have fallen from the limelight but it never really disappeared in Detroit. Each of the celebrated vocalists in the Motor City R&B Pioneers revue (Joe Weaver, Stanley Mitchell and Kenny Martin) had exciting careers in the vibrant R&B scene that preceded the Motown era. Their exquisite set was affluently backed by R.J. Spangler's Rhythm Rockers. Stanley sang "The Thrill Is Gone" with his sweet, soulful vocals. By contrast, Joe's vocals were scratchy yet extremely emotional on "Soft Pillow", "Baby I Love You So", and "Sugarlove Baby". To the joy of the listeners, all three returned to the stage where they performed "I Found A Love" and "Motor City Man".
"The Godfather of the Austin Blues Scene", W.C. Clark, is musically comfortable with both soulful Memphis R&B and guitar-driven Texas blues. He cares only about playing his music which he has been doing for almost 50 years. It absolutely poured during his time on stage which made it difficult to completely enjoy it. However, it was quite something to experience his Handy Award winning song of the year, "Let It Rain", under these conditions. During the time I spent at his stage, there was no observed interaction with the crowd nor any acknowledgment of the thousands who stood in rain. Near the tail end of his show, the sun came out briefly with an unbearable intensity.
Johnnie Taylor's son Floyd is the heir to the soul throne. He did not disappoint the legions of fans who came out to witness soul's royal line. Of course, his chitin-circuit-styled act included "Last Two Dollars" and other hits made famous by his father. At times, Floyd was visibly emotional about performing his daddy's tunes. He walked down the runway and into the rain that continued to pour. He figured if his audience could stand in the rain, the least he could do was to get wet too. He became so soaked from rain and sweat that he had to wrap himself in a morning robe from the hotel. He completed his show while still wearing it. With his red pants and shoes, he was easily the sharpest dressed artist.
The Neal Family's show was dedicated to Raful (who wasn't present due to illness) and the musical legacy he produced via the ten musical children he fathered. The first 45 minutes belonged to Kenny's 20 year old nephew Tyree. He is rapidly making a name for himself as a young, guitar sensation. Also present was Kenny Jr on drums. Combined with an organ and bass, they played a series of classics and covers. Of course they could not resist to throw in as much of their bayou roots as possible. Kenny finally came out blazing on harp while delivering vigorous and burly vocals. Earlier in the day, the family took part in a meet and greet, informal interview session at the tent stage.
The festival was capped off with the reigning king of Chicago blues guitar, Buddy Guy. Moments after taking the stage, he was presented with a cake in honor of his 67th birthday and the fans sang Happy Birthday to him. Then he lit right into his standard of easily recognized tunes including: "Don't Tell Me About The Blues", "Breaking Up Somebody's Home", "Feels Like Rain", "Slippin' In" and "Damn Right I've Got The Blues". His stage act hasn't changed much over the past ten years because it doesn't have to. Yes, he still makes his way through the crowd while frantically playing a wildly, speedy guitar solo. He still plays a few riffs of John Lee Hooker, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. And the band still includes keyboard wizard Tony Z. Buddy looked all trimmed up with a new, more mature look which he didn't have two weeks earlier in Canada. With one glance of his contagious smile, a certain warmth permeates your soul.
This festival is like a blues fantasy that goes by too fast but while it lasts the music and people are wonderful. If you attend only one festival, this is the one. If you already attend various festivals, add this to the list and watch how many others are removed from your circuit. Most festival-goers stay 30 minutes away in the surrounding towns and cities. But if you attend with a large group consider staying onsite in a townhouse or condo. If camping is for you, a large campground is conveniently located nearby.
Other artists that appeared included: Charlie Musselwhite, Shirley Johnson, Music Maker All-Stars and Larry Johnson.
For further information about this "Blues Lovers Blues Festival", contact: phone 800-468-2442 web www.jfbb.com
Tim Holek - Freelance Journalist/Photographer
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