My blues festival season for the new millennium began on March 24 when I spent three glorious days at the 2000 Tampa Bay Blues Festival. This three day event was held at Vinoy Park, located near downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, right on the edge of Tampa Bay. The weather for the event was almost perfect with sunny days on Friday and Saturday, coupled with a cloudy, but rain free, Sunday. By most standards the Tampa Bay Blues Festival would not be considered huge, but it did offer three days of great blues with fourteen high quality blues acts.
The festival opened at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon with a set by West Coast harp player, Mark Hummel. Hummel's 60 minute set got the steadily growing afternoon crowd off on the right foot with a rollicking set that ended with an extended instrumental version of "Hand Jive." Hummel established a nice rapport with the audience and thanked everyone for the fact that so many people were on hand for the first act of the three day fest.
Friday's second performer was Bernard Allison. Over the past year or two, Bernard has successfully risen above just being the son of the late, great Luther Allison to becoming a star in his own right. Recently signed to record for Tone Cool Records, Allison's guitar smoked with a mix of originals, covers and a number of songs taken from his father's songbook. Allison never ceases to amaze me with his talent and his ability to please a crowd where ever and whenever he performs. With songs like "Goin' Down," "Bad Love" and "Life's A Bitch," Allison's encore-extended set still seemed to end too soon.
Day One of the festival ended with a fantastic set by the legendary Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Band. The largest audience of Day One spent the entire 90+ minute set on their feet, digging every minute that Taj offered to them. Unlike the first two acts of the day which included featured instrumentalists and songs extended by lengthy solos, Mahal's set had many more, shorter tunes featuring elements of blues, jazz, reggae and folk music. The set included a three song encore of "She Caught The Katy," "Ooo Poo Pa Doo" and "I Need Your Lovin' Every Day," extending the first night of music by more than 30 minutes; a great start for the festival!
Saturday started at noon with a pair of fine local blues performers, opening with Sean Chambers, followed by T.C. Carr and The Catch. Chambers set featured some hot guitar licks that sometimes reminded me of early Johnny Winter (especially on Mean Town Blues) and Carr demonstrated is harp and vocal skills backed by a veteran band and some excellent slide work by guitarist, Lenny Austin.
The first national act of the day was Roy Rogers and The Delta Rhythm Kings. Roger had taken the "redeye" flight to Tampa Bay and planned on leaving shortly after his show. However, his 90+ minutes of slide guitar were some of the most memorable of the entire weekend. Rogers is a fantastic slide guitarist, as well as a keen historian of the blues. In fact, his set featured a number of songs from Robert Johnson's songbook. After speaking with him briefly backstage before his set, I was even happier that I had a chance to see him perform live. During our conversation, Rogers told me that he was getting tired of being on the road and was cutting way back on his performing in favor of spending more time producing records for other artists.
The rapid fire succession of hot blues artists on Saturday continued with Shemekia Copeland and her excellent, experienced backing band. With a voice that was as powerful as ever, Shemekia sang and talked fondly about her late father, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland. She played several numbers from her upcoming, as yet untitled, CD which is scheduled for a July-August 2000 release. According to Shemekia, the new CD will be more funky and very different from her excellent debut recording, "Turn The Heat Up."
Copeland's set was followed by an equally powerful performance from Coco Montoya, the first of two John Mayall's Bluesbreakers' alumni to perform at the festival (Walter Trout played on Sunday). Montoya, who was mentored by the "Master of the Telecaster," Albert Collins, put on a fiery guitar-laced performance that more than once reminded me of his teacher. Montoya was promoting and playing songs from his new album, and first for Alligator Record, "Suspicion." His rock-tinged blues really got the large Saturday crowd pumped up; the perfect setup for the final act of Day Two, Robert Cray.
Robert Cray's set displayed the unique style, mixing blues and contemporary sounds, that has helped him to become one of the more popular figures in the blues today. Although Cray was rather aloof and even somewhat dour backstage, he put on a well-crafted show that included new material from his latest CD, "Take Your Shoes Off," as well as some of his classic hits, such as "Smoking Gun" and "Strong Persuader."
Despite the fact that Sunday was cloudy and cool, the blues lineup for Day Three was as hot as ever. After an abbreviated opening set by the local Back Track Blues Band, the audience was thrilled by an electrifying performance from "The Real Deal," Mr. Carl Weathersby. His set included some powerful songs from his upcoming CD, "Come Home To Poppa," which is scheduled for a May release, and an prolonged walk through the audience as he played. After his "tour" of the crowd was completed, he said, "The day that I can't walk through a crowd and play is the day I lay down my guitar and start driving a truck!" These words struck me as a sincere expression of thanks from one of the most underrated blues guitarists today.
Following Weathersby, I got my first opportunity to see Northwest harp ace, Paul DeLay. Besides being struck by the fact that DeLay is a REALLY BIG man, I was impressed by his innovative, jazzy sounding harp. He obviously had a good time playing for the festival crowd and spent a lot of time talking to, and joking with, the crowd about a variety of topics, including himself. With songs like "Nice & Strong" and "Fourteen Dollars In The Bank," DeLay played his butt off for the audience!
One of the major highlights of the weekend occurred when guitarist Walter Trout took the stage. The lightning fast Trout burned through his set, making it clear why he was chosen as the sixth best guitarist in the world in a recent BBC listeners' poll. To make the performance even more significant, the entire set was recorded for a live CD scheduled to be released in mid-June 2000. If the recording sounds anything like the live performance, it will be great.
The weekend event closed with a spirited performance by 1999 Grammy nominee, Susan Tedeschi. Tedeschi got started a little late because of Walter Trout's long set and some technical problems, but when she launched into "Rock Me Right," from her CD "Just Won't Burn," she captured the crowd's attention and maintained it right to the very end. It was the "exclamation point" to a great weekend of blues on Tampa Bay.
The Tampa Bay Blues Festival represented an excellent combination of music, food and weather. Food vendors offered everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to alligator and a variety of well-spiced cajun dishes that tasted as good as they looked and smelled. The venue for the festival, Vinoy Park, was beautiful and the music was exceptional. Given my experience at this year's event, I can't imagine a better recommendation for the 2001 festival.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, 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.