The end of the millennium was also the year for the "lucky" 13th Annual Sound Advice Blues Festival in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The site for the previous twelve blues festivals had been downtown Ft. Lauderdale, but number thirteen marked a change of venue for the festival; Ft. Lauderdale Stadium. The fact that this well-established, and very popular, festival was being relocated far from downtown and its amenities made me a bit apprehensive about the event. However, this was my third straight year at this festival and I was fervently hoping that the change in venue would not adversely effect the quality of the performers.
I am happy to say that despite some problems that I had with the layout of the festival which resulted in some "noise pollution" when two nearby stages had music going simultaneously; what I experienced over the three day event was some great blues music at what I believe is the most "fan friendly" event I have ever attended. The change in venue did not negatively impact my access to the performers to just say hello, talk at some length or to obtain autographs for my growing collection. Starting with a high-powered performance by Little Charlie and the Nightcats on Friday afternoon and ending with the ringing piano and soulful vocals of Marcia Ball on Sunday night, the 13th Annual Sound Advice Blues Festival offered a range of great performances.
On Friday, the music began at 5:00 p.m. with Little Charlie and the Nightcats on one of two main stages. Little Charlie Baty, Rick Estrin and the rest of the Nightcats were in fine form, pounding out their characteristic brand of Chicago blues. On the second main stage, Kenny Neal followed with a powerful set that ended up continuing throughout the weekend as Kenny stuck around for the weekend and made several guest appearances with some of the other performers including Larry McCray and Tab Benoit.
Other highlights on Friday night included great sets by Tommy Castro and the always-exciting, Deborah Coleman and the Thrillseekers. The always vibrant Coleman ended her set with an excellent version of Buddy Miles', "Them Changes" that had everyone on their feet jumpin' and stompin' to the music.
Nearly half of the main stage acts on Saturday featured female singers; all of whom put on exceptional performances. New Orleans R+B singer/songwriter, Timothea, opened the Budweiser Stage with a soulful act. Timothea's career includes work with Earl King, Johnny Adams and Walter "Wolfman" Washington. She partnered with Washington on his debut recording for Rounder Records, "Wolftracks," which received W.C. Handy nominations in 1987 for Best Album and Best Song ("Thinking For Your Self").
Following Chicago guitarist and South Florida transplant, Rob "Wild Board" Moore and singer, Clifford Hawkins; the audience got back-to-back signature performances from a pair of "women of the blues." First, Memphis blues and R+B singer, Reba Russell, blew people away with her powerful vocal barrage. I heard a couple of people comment that with the obvious strength of Reba's voice, there was no real need to boost the volume of her vocals from the sound board. Russell was followed by the always sultry and suggestive, Sandra Hall, capably backed by her great road band of Junior Wells alumni, The Hoodoomen. Even though I have seen Sandra several times, I was entertained (as always) by her combination of humor, sexual innuendo and blues shouting vocals.
Sandwiched between excellent performances by talented and articulate Houston guitarist, Sherman Robertson and the jazzier blues sounds of pianist Henry Butler (accompanied by Corey Harris), was one of the great highlights of the Saturday performances; Son Seals. As it turned out, the highlight was made even more significant by the fact the Seals was backed by the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings for his performance. As a bonus for the crowd, The Rhythm and Blues Kings performed for the first 30 minutes of the 90 minute set without Seals, featuring their horn driven sound and the great vocals of Ernie Penniston. For the next 60+ minutes after that, the brooding and gritty Seals took over the stage, performing a powerful musical set. His continued mastery of the guitar and his unique vocal attack were even more gratifying given the fact that Mr. Seals recently had a portion of his right leg amputated as the result of complications from diabetes. Seals performance was fantastic, demonstrating that his skills are still sharp, while featuring the members of the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings in numerous solo opportunities. Given the separation in the performances, it was a great "two-for-one" bonus on Saturday night.
Saturday evening ended with overlapping sets on the main stages by soul queen, Irma Thomas and Chicago harp giant, Sugar Blue, backed by three members of the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings. A lot of my time was spent wandering between the two stages to catch bits of both of these charismatic performers. Sugar Blue was in rare form, looking ever bit the harpslinger, stalking the stage with his harp belt strapped across his chest. At the other end of the festival grounds, Irma Thomas was thrilling the crowd with her talented voice, demonstrating for the audience why she has been a multiple Grammy nominee and a popular performer for the past 41 years. Looking young and strong, Irma worked her way through a set that lasted nearly two hours and included two encores!
My final day of the festival opened at noon with a performance by Saginaw, Michigan guitarist, Larry McCray, who dazzled the crowd with his lightning fast fretwork. The highlight of McCray's set occurred when he brought Kenny Neal up on the stage to play with the band. Talk about fireworks! Neal and McCray traded lick after lick, pushing each other to the limit on every song they played. The set culminated with some intense, but good natured, "head cutting," with McCray and Neal challenging each other for control of the stage. I was surprised to learn after the set that McCray had gotten very little sleep the night before because they had traveled to Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday evening after performing in Sarasota, Florida only to find that there were no hotel rooms available for them. As Larry put it, they were forced by circumstances to "pull an all nighter" before the Sunday performance at the festival.
My bouncing around the festival grounds on Sunday allowed me to hear part of the performance by Iko Iko, a local band that has been generating national attention with their blend of blues, rock and a touch of voodoo. Later, I really enjoyed a fantastic, burning set by Chicago guitarist, "Real Deal" Carl Weathersby (alias, Levi Roosevelt Franklin Stubbs) and great Louisiana/New Orleans style sets by Tab Benoit and soul-funk-jazz-blues talent, Walter "Wolfman" Washington. Tab Benoit's set, like Larry McCray's earlier, featured a guest appearance by Kenny Neal.
The final show of the 13th Annual Sound Advice Blues Festival was performed by singer and piano virtuoso, Marcia Ball. Like Irma Thomas the night before, Ball rocked the Sound Advice main stage with a delightful combination of blue, soul, Louisiana R+B and boogie woogie piano. To everyone's delight, before performing "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," Ball took a few moments to speak on behalf of pet adoptions in the Dade-Broward County, Florida area; inviting three live poodles from the Dade Animal Shelter on stage to play while she sang the song she dedicated to
them. With a set that included everything from the powerful, "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman to "Sea Cruise," Ball gave the audience a fine performance and a fitting end to the event.
It should also be noted that the festival included much more than two stages featuring national acts. It also included five other venues, each offering something else for the blues fan. The Back Alley was the site for some great acoustic performances by Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Mooney, Eric Culberson and Fruteland Jackson, as well as other acoustic performers. The Kid's Tent and the History and Education Tent offered music, education and workshops on a variety of topics; each involving performers from the festival including Son Seals, Sherman Robertson, Fruteland Jackson, Little Charlie Baty, Timothea and the ever-present Kenny Neal. Finally, two local stages featured 21 of the best blues bands in the State of Florida, including Molten Mike, Michael Locke and the Repeat Offenders, Hep Cat Boodaddies, Code Blue and Lady "A", among others.
Given the national acts performing, the festival really took on a definite Louisiana flavor with Louisiana-born Sherman Robertson, Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Timothea, Kenny Neal, Henry Butler and Walter "Wolfman" Washington all from the region. I am not sure that this was intentional, but it did turn out to be a nice festival "theme."
According to all reports the most discussed after-festival show was scheduled for Alligator Alley, a nearby blues club that recently opened in the area. As you might have guessed already, the featured performer for the evening was, yes, Kenny Neal.
The most interesting rumor related to the festival was that Ray Charles was in the area and going to make a surprise guest appearance on Sunday evening and that someone would make an announcement during Marcia Ball's set. Everytime I saw groups of police in the area, I looked to the stage for an announcement of Ray Charles' surprise appearance, or for Ray Charles to suddenly appear on stage. Unfortunately, this was just a rumor and no one, to my knowledge, ever actually saw Mr. Charles at the festival.
With the promise of an even better festival in the new millennium, and the anticipation that 2000 will be a banner year for blues festivals across the country, I have already marked my calendar for the 14th Annual Sound Advice Blues Festival. You can bet on the fact that from November 10-12, 2000, I will be attending my fourth straight Sound Advice Blues Festival and, perhaps, the best yet.
This review and photography is copyright © 1999 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.