After the threat of Hurricane Floyd left South Florida, I was lucky enough to catch Cephas & Wiggins on the second of a two night engagement at The BamBoo Room in Lake Worth, Florida. Given the fact that I drove up to The BamBoo Room in a driving rain storm, I can only imagine what everyone who dealt with Hurricane Floyd must have experienced during the past week. Cephas & Wiggins were scheduled to finish up in Florida on Saturday evening and travel to Savannah, Georgia for a performance at the Savannah Folk Music Festival, before returning home to Virginia and the Washington, D. C. Area.
The "Ambassadors of the Piedmont Blues," as they are often referred to, are not only performers "par excellence", but also strong educators and advocates of the acoustic blues style. Guitarist, John "Bowling Green" Cephas and Phil "Harmonica" Wiggins conduct numerous workshops across the United States each year on the blues and blues styles.
On Saturday evening at The BamBoo Room, the performers were greeted by a large audience; no doubt out to enjoy the weekend after the stress created by preparations for the hurricane earlier in the week. The blues hungry audience were warmed up for Cephas & Wiggins by musician-in-residence, Keith B. Brown. Brown is a native of Memphis, Tennessee and an excellent interpreter of the acoustic delta sound. Brown performed a number of original songs and covers by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and others. Many of the songs during his performance were from his self-produced CD, "Walking On Muddy Waters." Brown did an excellent job of getting the crowd in the mood with his fine voice and interpretations of songs from the Delta.
As soon as John Cephas and Phil Wiggins took the stage around 9:00 p.m., it was clear that it was going to be a special evening. After opening with "Flip, Flop & Fly" from the 1992 CD of the same name, Cephas let everyone know that he was there to have fun, telling the audience that, "We're gonna have a house party right here tonight with a little feel good blues." This promise was followed by one of several instrumentals that the duo played during the evening, showcasing the musicianship of the two men. There was a great deal of musical interplay between John Cephas and Phil Wiggins on every song and it was easy to see that the two men liked working together. John Cephas is an excellent guitarist and offers a strong presentation of the thumb and finger picked Piedmont blues style. Phil Wiggins was simply amazing on the harmonica and demonstrated that the duo's recordings don't do justice to his live performance skills.
In the songs that followed during the evening, Cephas was allowed to display his rich, mellow vocals and skillful guitar playing, while Wiggins continually dazzled the audience with his phenomenal harpwork. The evening included songs from many of their recordings over the past seventeen years and songs representing both the Piedmont style and single string, Delta blues. During the first set, John Cephas spent some time describing the differences between the Piedmont and Delta styles. After the description, he demonstrated each style with a medley of Piedmont type songs that included "Freight Train, Freight Train," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane" and "Railroad Bill." This was followed by a representative Delta number entitled, "Risin' River Blues."
While the first set of the evening predominantly featured Piedmont style songs, the second set included more Delta tunes. Vocals were mostly handled by John Cephas, although Phil Wiggins sang the lead vocals on a couple of songs, including "Electric Chair Blues." Several times during the evening, the audience was engaged to provide the backbeat for a song by clapping, and on two songs in particular, "Fool's Night Out" and Jimmy Reed's, "Let It Roll," everyone joined in singing on the chorus.
The two hour show ended far to quickly for me and it was clear that nearly everyone else in the room shared my feelings. After performing their encore, the classic "John Henry," John Cephas thanked everyone for supporting acoustic blues and encouraged everyone to continue supporting the efforts of Russell Hibbard, the proprietor of The BamBoo Room, to bring acoustic blues performers into the spotlight. He also suggested that there needed to be more places where acoustic blues performers could share their work with audiences across the country. After witnessing an excellent performance by Cephas & Wiggins, I left hoping that my next opportunity to see the duo would be at a venue in the Twin Cities. Perhaps whoever books acts at The Cedar Cultural Center will take note and help to fulfill my wish.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.