I was looking for some pictures to commemorate Buddy’s Guy’s birthday and for Throwback Thursday on our Facebook page. I was led to a nice set of shots taken at Bluestock, the ill-fated festival in the Catskills that literally and figuratively took a bath thanks to Hurricane Irene striking far inland three years ago. The post led to a conversation on Facebook with ChefJimi Patricola and Chris Lyon, our ticket winner for Pennsylvania Blues Festival, and it got me thinking about that fateful weekend at Hunter Mountain in New York state.
So let’s get in the WABAC machine once again and revisit the one, and so far only, Bluestock…
Skies were blue and spirits were high on Friday afternoon as the first annual Bluestock festival kicked off with two time IBC winner Lionel Young and his band, but a sense of foreboding was palpable as attendees wondered what Sunday would bring as Irene left a wake of destruction in her path up the east coast.
No, Bluestock did not exactly happen as planned. Gregg Allman, Saturday’s scheduled headliner, had to cancel due to illness. Mysteriously, or perhaps enigmatically, Steven Seagal and his band Thunderbox (yes! this is a real thing) were no where to be found. Shemekia Copeland was a late addition to the lineup and Robert Cray was added as a headliner. Then the unexpected, unwanted guest arrived: Hurricane Irene. Producer Steve Simon probably never had an inkling that hurricane season could disrupt his monumental undertaking of combining the Blues Cruise with Woodstock. A hurricane? In the Catskills? Never. Well, think again.
By the end of Friday night, Sunday’s schedule had been scrapped and the festival, originally intended to take place outdoors, with two side-by-side stages for continuous music, was to be moved indoors on Saturday. Thankfully, Hunter Mountain Ski Resort had several halls to accommodate the indoor festival allowing them to keep the original plan of adjacent stages and continuous entertainment. To everyone’s surprise, the headliners Robert Cray and Buddy Guy were to play outdoors on Saturday afternoon and all the other acts that could make it would be playing indoors for a marathon thirteen hour show.
Of course, many were displeased by the turn of events and several angry customers shared their opinions on social media sites like Facebook. Some were angry about cancellations and many felt the festival should have been cancelled altogether. However, the majority of people gathered on the mountain thought the show must go on. And go on it did. Crammed into two days of music were nineteen acts featuring a veritable who’s-who of modern blues. Performers ranged from longtime favorites like Elvin Bishop, Tommy Castro & The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue, Tab Benoit, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Shemekia Copeland to relatively newcomers Moreland & Arbuckle, Alexis P. Suter Band, Trampled Under Foot, and Port City Prophets to local favorites Bruce Katz Band and Chris O’Leary, who made a surprise appearance with Bob Margolin & Matt Hill (Matt now plays full time in his wife Nikki Hill‘s band).
While Saturday had illustrious acts seemingly every hour on the hour, Friday’s lineup was stellar in itself. The Lionel Young Band got the early birds moving with their leader’s guitar pickin’, fiddle pluckin’ boogies and a rollicking version of “Got My Mojo Working.” Literally moments after the closing notes of their set, Bob Margolin & Matt Hill continued the show on the adjacent stage allowing the crowd nary a second to catch its breath. Bob Margolin is a proven crowd pleaser but 2011 BMA Best New Artist winner Matt Hill stole the show with possibly the best AC/DC cover ever in “Hellz Bellz” – done Jerry Lee Lewis style, it was a nearly unrecognizable revved up rock n’ roller that would have left Malcolm and Angus Young drop-jawed and stupefied. Matt Hill then upped the ante with a song presumably called “Lemon Squeezer.” He sang about squeezing your lemons, woman, showed you his technique, bounded around the stage and removed his belt to whip you into submission. His infectious energy spread through the crowd and band. When Chris O’Leary came out to blow some harp it seemed the hurricane may have come early. They laid waste to preconceived notions of legendary jams when Lionel Young came out with his fiddle and joined the fray. This supergroup tore into another version of “Got My Mojo Working” that had the Catskill evergreens shimmying on the slopes.
The Bluestock crew kept the music going, operating like a well-oiled machine, getting BMA nominees Trampled Under Foot on stage just as the jam with Bob Margolin ended. The band appeared on many “best” lists in the last few years and it is immediately apparent why. This trio of siblings plays almost telepathically, locked in the groove and playing hard. Once their fiery set ended, the festival modeled after the Blues Cruise found ports of call in Louisiana with sets from Tab Benoit and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Benoit’s laid back delivery and sinewy grooves took us deep in the heart Cajun Country. Exuberant fans threw plush alligator hats to the band and Tab obliged by donning the cap while playing. His searing solos were hot as a raging skillet in a blackened shrimp contest, and were twice as tasty.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue took us from Benoit’s rural bayou to the Crescent City with an effervescent set full of New Orleans funk and jazz. Many concert goers later commented that the band seemed out place at a blues festival, but enjoyed them nonetheless. Blues and jazz are inextricably linked, born of similar circumstances and using the same musical language. It was a master stroke to remind the fans of this oft forgotten musical relationship and the powerful music of Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue certainly had the crowd in the palm of its hand by the end of the set. Shorty’s passion and connection to his instruments was nearly tangible as he breathed life from the trombone and trumpet into the air around Hunter Mountain. The band was one of only a few selling their CDs for less than twenty dollars – theirs were merely ten – and I hope everyone who enjoyed the set took one home. A better value for ten bucks could not be found at the festival.
Friday’s closer Elvin Bishop took the stage and played a set roughly based on his recent CD “Raisin’ Hell Revue” recorded on one of the Blues Cruises. Unfortunately he told some of the same stories from the CD but his good humor helps overcome the familiarity. His guitar playing helps a little too. Well, it helps a lot. The jamming kicked up a notch when Tab Benoit joined Elvin Bishop and the band for a few songs to close out the set. They didn’t play “Got My Mojo Working” and I’m glad for that. After the first two acts of the day did it I was getting worried.
Due to a bizarre twist of weather-related fate, Saturday noon found Robert Cray on stage while the crew set up the opposite stage for Buddy Guy. Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, back to back, on a Saturday afternoon. It almost made you glad to be in the path of a hurricane. Cray’s smooth, soulful blues eased the bleary-eyed revelers into the day. Cray joked a few times about the bright sunlight and time of day but there was no detrimental effect on the music.
While Robert Cray’s set was somewhat laid back, Buddy Guy came out all guns blazing. If the hair of the dog didn’t cure your ills, trouble was coming your way at maximum volume and speed. Buddy’s amps must have been bought from Spinal Tap because he was definitely one louder than everyone else. He sang “74 Years Young” from his Living Proof album but played like the owner of 34 years young fingers. His passion, humor, stage antics and propensity to say “fuck” a lot certainly woke everyone up.
About halfway into his set, Buddy brought out 12 year old Quinn Sullivan who has been appearing with the Buddy Guy Band for a few years. Quinn has enormous talent and his technique is flawless, but unfortunately he’s at a stage of his musical life marked mostly by imitation, and Buddy let him dominate the rest of the set. Sullivan sang a few songs, but his pre-pubescent voice is too high and was washed out in the mix. Still, he is only twelve and will hopefully evolve into a powerful musical force in the next ten years or so. Buddy Guy believes in him and even quipped that he would certainly come back next year, but only if Quinn gets an invitation too. I say Quinn Sullivan should be invited, but give him his own set so we can get a full ninety minutes of Buddy Guy next time.
After Buddy Guy’s set, the festival moved indoors, just moments ahead of the rain. Recent concert tragedies from stages falling at the Indiana State Fair and the Ottawa Blues Fest surely had the promoters and crew concerned and they made short work of taking down the outdoor staging. Accommodations were also made to allow the campers to stay in the lodge on Saturday night. Steve Simon and crew put safety first making sure all attendees were protected.
Meanwhile, two stages were ready to go inside. One in a large auditorium style hall and the other in place for the late night jams with Mitch Woods, dubbed Club 88. Mitch hosts Club 88 on the Blues Cruises and usually persuades lingering musicians to join in the fun. Tucked in the corner of the lodge, the stage was like an eight ounce brisket sandwich with sixteen ounces of brisket on it; messy, over flowing, and finger licking good. The sky was crying but the blues lovers were smiling as the two stages provided continual music for the next eleven hours as the rain pounded the mountain outside.
Saturday’s indoor lineup was Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Curtis Salgado, Bruce Katz Band, Shakura S’Aida, Moreland & Arbuckle, Tommy Castro & The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue, Albert Cummings, Alexis P. Suter Band, and Port City Prophets. Every one who made it to the mountain played a set and then the music continued once more when Mitch Woods’ Club 88 re-opened for business with the Prince of Beale St. Billy Gibson at the microphone.
I must confess I’ve seen Shemekia Copeland three times this year. She played basically the same set each time and told the same stories. I suspect I’m spoiled by bands that vary their sets. Her band is tight and plays perfectly each time, which makes once a year enough for me. Ms. Copeland has a powerful voice and uses it well, but there are no surprises for repeat customers. If you haven’t heard her sing live though, I highly recommend it. No studio wizardry, and sometimes no microphone, is used but her tiny frame holds inside an immense musical force.
Ronnie Baker Brooks gave the guitar fans one long guitargasm after another and even soloed his way through the crowd to the bar for a drink and a bottle to play some slide. It’s not a new addition to the traditional trick bag, but it gets the crowds going every time. Curtis Salgado’s blue-eyed soul had the faithful swaying to the beat; Bruce Katz Band whipped up some Hammond B-3 blues with Alexis P. Suter’s guitarist Jimmy Bennett pulling double duty, playing and singing with Bruce. Shakura S’Aida’s vigorous vocalizing drew cheers and Moreland & Arbuckle literally and figuratively kicked everything up a notch with their guitar and harmonica led trio. They were asked to play a bit longer while Tommy Castro was setting up next door and the enthusiastic crowd response drove them to greater manic intensity. They even had the audacity to release their new album on vinyl, which was quite popular at the merchandise table.
The delay from getting Tommy Castro set up caused a schedule crunch and bands had to play simultaneously, dividing the attention of the Bluestock survivors but Tommy Castro & The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue held most of the focus once under way. They played an incendiary rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody” before being joined by Rick Estrin, Deanna Bogart and others for a recreation of the legendary blues cruise’s favorite jams.
Albert Cummings took the stage with the rhythm section from Shakura S’Aida’s band – two guys he met a mere thirty minutes before going on – and they wowed the small crowd in front of the tiny Club 88 stage. The trio played seamlessly with Cummings’ molten licks flowing freely over the bedrock of bass and drums. Alexis P. Suter’s powerful, booming voice filled the auditorium and the band’s gospel infused blues surely added weight to those prayers for shelter from the storm pounding the Catskills. Port City Prophets, an upcoming band from South Carolina, played last on the Club 88 stage, mixing amusing originals with clever covers. They played a dynamic version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Couldn’t Stand The Weather” in honor of the looming devastation that would be unleashed by morning.
And so, we had Bluestock 2011: One of the headliners cancelled, an MC was AWOL, minor acts hoping for major exposure were crammed into a ski lodge playing for hundreds instead of thousands, headliners opened the show, openers closed; all the signs of the Apocalypse were there. But the Apocalypse never came. The crowd was well behaved in the cramped space, everyone was happy to be there enjoying a seemingly endless variety of blues, and the producers, promoters, managers and musicians all pulled together to provide those who braved the weather the best possible experience. They came through with class and grace, deftly handling one dilemma after another making Bluestock 2011 an unforgettable weekend of music, friends and adventure. Although I’m already looking forward to the next Bluestock, strangely enough, the Simon brothers and the Bluestock crew will have a hard time topping it next year.