Category Archives: Throwback Thursday

Revisiting An Interview With David Maxwell

DavidMaxwellPianoEyesSometimes it is only in retrospect that we can truly appreciate a moment, or a word, shared with another human being. For me, this human being was David Maxwell, a man I had the wonderful opportunity to interview a few years ago. When I heard of his passing I wanted to revisit the conversation we had and in doing so I realized some wonderful things. In essence, David told me that music was ultimately a healing experience for him and that, above all, he has lived a rich life and he has been “basically, pretty happy…”

 

Maureen Elizabeth: David what is your perception of “the state of the Blues” today?

David Maxwell: That’s a tricky question. Things have to evolve, art forms go into modification. There was a pretty big watershed when SRV was around. He was an amazing guitarist and I think he set the tone for a lot of guitarists after him. Then there’s the old school kind of stuff. I was influenced by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, all those piano players like Pinetop, and Slim – I knew them personally. And there were so many more that I heard on CDs or with whom I got together, like Charles Brown. I think that there are a lot of really talented Blues artists out there today. The palette has really changed a lot – it has expanded – and I am all for that. I play a lot of jazz, world music, and I think there is a lot of soulful music all over the place. I’m not saying that I’m a died in the wool pure Blues player, but when I do play the Blues my reference point is the kind of stuff that came out of Chicago, primarily, and all its influences from Mississippi and all the deep Blues that came out of there. Some people say “well there’s Deep Blues – capital D, capital B, almost like it’s a museum piece. I try to keep it alive and when I play I stick to the language, but I add my jazz predilections or whatever and I stretch it a bit maybe rhythmically or in its tonality, but I really try to stick to that sound that, to me, really represents the Blues.

ME: You stay true to the sound while still breathing new air into it?

DM: Yeah. I think that the danger is groups sounding too generic – where you have the guitar playing overriding everybody in the rest of the band, where it’s just a rug or a vehicle for the guitar player to shine, or the singer, or whatever. I liked it when everybody was contributing, just as it was back in those days, like with Muddy’s band, Howlin Wolf-all those bands out of Chicago. But not only there, other cities as well, but it was more of a group spirit. I think that there are some really good players out there today. I record with Chris James, Pat Rynn, Rob Stone- they’re on Earwig -and they kind of keep to that tradition. But there are so many other musicians who maybe don’t play in that style because if everybody did it would be kind of boring, but they have their own style and I think they are great. There are some great singers out there and a lot of my old friends. So there’s a combination of the so called old school and some of the recent developments of great players as well.

DavidMaxwellWithRonnieEarlME: Your style is often described as as post-war Chicago Blues…

DM: Well, there’s Chicago blues – I guess they use the war as a demarcation because we‘re dealing with more electrified instruments and clubs where you have electric guitars and microphones. It’s not the acoustic kind of blues that you might associate with some of the clubs of the 30’s and 40’s when the so called “rediscovery period” happened. When I was growing up in the mid 60’s and I was at club 47, I heard people like Skip James, Son House, Booker White and Fred McDowell. Later, Muddy Waters came through with James Cotton on harmonica and Buddy Guy, Jr Wells… but that was something different, that was considered kind of “too electric” in a way by some of the standards of the time. You know, we were sort of gravitating toward the kind of thing where you wanted these deep acoustic blues or folk music. I heard that stuff, but when I heard Otis Spann with Muddy Waters I just thought “wow” – there was something so soulful with his playing that just led me to really want to go after that kind of sound. I fell in love with it – I was really passionate about it

ME: So Otis and Muddy really opened the door for you…

DM: Well, yeah. In high school I really didn’t hear that much blues. I was into jazz and I was playing piano so I learned a little about chords, but it was around the early 60’s where I began. I knew Alan Wilson, he lives in the town next door to me, and he later joined Canned Heat, but in high school he played trombone and we used to have jam sessions. We’d be playing soul, jazz stuff – he’d always been into Dixieland, New Orleans, real rootsy stuff -and then he got into the early Mississippi blues and he kind of turned me on to that. I was getting into it and then we found Muddy Waters and everything kind of changed. I really began to try to learn that style, that Otis Spann style, Sunnyland Slim, and I started to play with people to back people up and it went on from there.

ME: I find it fascinating that when I talk to musicians about their early experiences hearing the Blues there is always a real passion or a real draw…

DM: Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me. In 1963, I was in my junior year abroad in Paris. I had been going to the University of Rochester for two years and I wanted to get away from the college –it wasn’t really happening for me- It was a little bit stultifying for me.

ME: What were you studying?

DM: Classical Music – and I was playing a little bit of jazz.   I was doing a music major and a liberal arts major at the same time, so I went to Paris, to a school there, and I got exposed to all kinds of music because many international artists would come over from India, Iran… from everywhere, and I was totally into that stuff. But then the Blues Caravan came over, I think it was probably in ‘64, in the spring. I was probably in the third balcony of this huge theater in Paris, with a friend – and we were diggin’ it- and there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters and then Otis Spann played something solo – he played “Goin’ Down Slow” and what he did was just… I’m not sure if I knew it was Otis at the time or I figured it out later. There were other piano players there – there was Memphis Slim- but this was not Memphis, this was Otis, the style. What it was, was that this guy was just so magnetic and so electrifying, and a little inebriated – I think he almost fell over on the piano bench – but he was singing and he was playing this stuff with all this right hand figures – it sent shivers down my spine. Now that’s the moment that you are looking for. Later on, when I got back to Cambridge and went back to school, Muddy came through with Spann and Cotton and the Band, I heard Spann again, and that began a relationship ship that lasted until Span died in ‘70. I got to know him, and eventually I got to sit in with him at the jazz workshop up in Boston. I kinda’ followed him around a little bit and Muddy was really supportive. One night I even replaced Spann on piano when he was sick – this was the late ‘60’s when Paul Oscher was in the band. Paul and I are fast friends, we’ve been friends forever – but that was the key, when I heard that sound. I had a friend who taught art classes at MIT- those were the days when you could just requisition the student lounges, so we staged these jam sessions – and one time, when Muddy was in town, we had the pianos back to back, you know, Otis Spann and me – it was great – stuff doesn’t happen like that anymore. That’s when Big Momma Thorton came through and I backed her up for a week. I would play with a bunch of local Boston musicians as well; J. Geils and all those people – you know, that was a breeding ground. But for me, when I went out on the road with Freddy King in the 70’s, I would have my Eric Dolphy tapes and my Cecil Taylor tapes at the same time and my Otis Spann and Freddy King tapes too, so I’ve always been interested in more than two facets of it.

ME: When the music speaks to you – you must answer its call…

DM: Exactly. Lots of music speaks to me, but the Blues speaks to me in a way that really comes from the heart – you have to play it with subtly, getting the right inflections, the right kind of feeling to it, otherwise it becomes just another form.

ME: It’s not an intellectual exercise…

DM: No, not at all. I’ll save all my intellect for figuring out Herbie Hancock or somebody like that – it’s all about expression and communication from that point, where you are dealing with a specific language – you don’t want to violate the language, but you want to enhance it.

DavidMaxwellAtPianoME: And you want to make it your own…

DM: Exactly.

ME: Looking back, what would you consider a peak moment in your career?

DM: I’ve had many, many, many, and I’ve probably forgotten half of them because it’s always the gigs where you say ah man that was so great, we couldn’t have done it any better than that. But if you want some names, playing with Freddie King undoubtedly was one of my greatest experiences. I played with him for a couple of years- baby grand or grand piano- and it was great to be a part of that. It’s on DVD – they were big on the video cameras back then in ‘72, ‘73 and it’s on You Tube – I have muttonchops and a beard and my hippie beads and my platform shoes. I was the only white guy in the band so I was straddling both worlds, but there was definitely some extremely moving moments like when he sang “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and other slow Blues tunes. I also played with James Cotton in the late 70’s and we had some great, great moments. Playing with Bonnie Raitt was very special. Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin -playing with those guys, there was something very, very special about that. And Louisiana Red – I recorded an album with him. Red is singularly a huge force – there is nobody like him. And then Ronnie Earl – we have this magic together that is pretty inspiring – I’ve know Ronnie since the 70’s and I recently had a CD release party for Conversations in Blue –it’s about Otis Spann and how I reinterpret his work. Ronnie and I played together many times over in the last 30 years. There’s been a lot of great experiences and to mention one particular gig – the short answer to that is “yeah – there probably is one night where everything magically fell together and I wish we would have recorded it” but I can’t remember the night or when it was but the general answer is all the people I mentioned- those people are really special.

ME: Any regrets along the way?

DM: No too many. I’ve just tried to be who I was. Basically I have been pretty happy.

ME: You’ve lived your life doing what you love…

DM: Sometimes I think, well, maybe I should be playing more jazz or maybe I should be composing more, but you generally do what you are good at and you continue to work at the other things that you want to accomplish.

ME: What is your hope for the next generation of musicians?

DM: What I hope is that they really just find what they are interested in and really give voice to that and appreciate whatever turns them on. That may sound simple, but a lot of kids are pressured to do this and do that and some of them are working 35 hours a week and don’t have time to practice. But just to revel in the beauty and the sensuality of the music… music is ultimately a healing experience for me, that’s where it goes, that’s the primary thing. For years I’ve been intrigued by other musical systems like Turkish or Persian where they have particular scales that relate to particular ailments. I’m totally into that and I play a lot of what you might call totally improvised music where I’m just painting or sculpturing or making architecture with just sound…

ME: That’s beautiful…

DM: It is, at its base, kind of mystical and at its best it’s, hopefully, uplifting and cathartic…

ME: Is there any other thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?

DM: It’s been a pretty rich life. I’ve been able to play with a lot of cool people, a lot of legends… We make our choices and we do what we want… and I’m always open to new things…

ME: Thank you David for being such a gift to us…Rest in Peace…

 

Prior to his passing, David was nominated for a 2015 Blues Music Award for
Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year.
You can vote for David by clicking the icon below:

 

All photos in this article were used by kind permission of DavidMaxwell.com

 

Throwback Thursday: Devon Allman – On The Cigar Box Guitar and Breaking All the Rules

With the Allman Brothers Band calling it quits this year and winding down in New York City this week and next, I thought we’d take the opportunity on Throwback Thursday to look backward and forward with this piece by Maureen Elizabeth. It was previously published at our alma mater American Blues News.

Maureen spoke with Devon Allman who quite organically found his way to the family business. Devon is making music on his own terms and like his father’s band, he cannot be pigeonholed into one genre. He makes music. Honest, soulful music done with integrity, care, and skill. In that way he is carrying the family tradition into the 21st Century. So as the Allman Brothers Band disappears into the distance, we can rest assured Devon Allman will be out there making music for years to come. Remember to check out our review of his tremendous new album Ragged & Dirty.

Alright Bicuiteers, step into the WABAC machine and hold on to your hats…

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Inspired? Yes. Intentional? Not really. Beautiful? Absolutely. Devon Allman’s first evening spent with his own cigar box guitar inspired a melody in a quiet moment that soon became a fan favorite – “Yadira’s Lullaby.” Devon spoke with American Blues News about how the gift of his cigar box guitar reconnected two families and the excitement of playing an instrument that has no rules…

When was your first introduction to the cigar box guitar?

It’s kind of a funny genesis. I was playing a show in Tennessee and I have a fan who comes to all the Tennessee shows. He had mentioned on a fan site that he was going to be bringing a gift for me and I thought “cool!” He came to the show and my assistant brought him backstage. He has this thing in his hands and I said “what do you have there, Jim?” And he pulls it out and he said “man, this thing, I just have a feeling that you are really going to dig this” and he gave me this cigar box guitar. I was blown away! I had never seen anything like it. I had always been a pretty traditional guitar player and I just sat there immediately and started plucking away at it. I just fell in love with it.

What is it about it that attracts you?

I don’t know, I think just… visually – it is so unique – there’s no doubt about that. And when you play it the tonality of it is so Americana and I really dig that aspect of it. The guitar is such a standardized thing – you have a certain body style and neck radius and number of frets- and this kinda’ breaks all the rules.

From what I am hearing, that seems to be a large part of the appeal….

It’s cool – especially with getting down to 3 or 4 strings. It really makes you think differently, melodically, and I found that you can pop on the top string with your thumb and hold the base line while you get melodic with the other strings – it’s a cool approach.

It offers something a little different – a little new…

Definitely.

I would be curious to know your opinion – what do you attribute this renewed interest in the cigar box guitar?

I don’t know what to attribute it to, really, because the dynamic of people being attracted to something is so fleeting – people are fickle, you know – it’s one thing and then it’s on to the next. For me, I would think that the simplicity of the instrument and the unique look definitely draw people in. Once you play it- the different vibes that it embodies are definitely astounding – it can bluesy, it can be country, it can be swampy, it can be classical and that is pretty cool.

That’s amazing for one instrument.

Yes. Obviously, the guitar can be all of those things too but typically, when you have a brother or a sister of a guitar…let’s talk about mandolin, let’s talk about banjo, those instruments pretty much lean into one venue of music whether its bluegrass with a banjo, or folk music with a mandolin. The cigar box guitar crosses all genres and when I held it I fell in love with it right there. Later that night I was talking to my girlfriend on Skype – I was on tour in 7 cities-and I just wanted to show her the guitar because I was so jazzed about it. I literally wrote a tune on the spot as a lullaby to put her to sleep and it’s crazy how that song has become a fan favorite. It’s going to be on the next album. The cigar box guitar instantly inspired me to do something that I would have never done which is write a lullaby! Rockers don’t write lullabies! (Laughing) But- personal reasons aside- musically, and on an esthetic level, I was so pleased to be able to do something as simple as a lullaby. And to actually have it be something personal and poignant is cool but to also have it as worthy to put on an album or worthy to pull this out and play on the stage live and get such a crazy response has been a win, win. When I pull the cigar box guitar out you can hear the cat calls from the crowd – “what is that thing?” It’s absolutely a joy to play.

It is inspiring then?

Definitely, definitely! The fan that gave me the guitar put me in touch with its creator, Travis Woodall, and strangely enough Travis’ Uncle was really great friends with my Dad who obviously has been a musician for a long, long time in the Allman Brothers. So it was cool to make contact with Travis and know that our families were connected 30 years ago when we were kids!

There’s a lot to be said for serendipity!

The guy that was stuffing those boxes over in Honduras or over in Cuba 30 years ago -how would he know that this box would become an instrument that would bridge two families and inspire a song- that’s crazy! It’s just cool. The cigar box guitar phenomena –is very much under the radar. But I think that it is just healthy for music you know, it’s doing something a little bit different – it’s shaking things up- and that’s how I feel when I pull it out live and people go “holy cow what it is this thing?”

Maybe people are searching for something new and different- it gives you that little sense of awe because you don’t know what it is or what it can do…

The first time I ever saw one was on Beale Street in Memphis. There was a street performer out there – he is actually kind of known as the most popular street performer in the world – Richard Johnston. BI saw him sitting on the side of the street on Beale Street with a cigar box guitar with 2 or 3 strings – I can’t remember – and he had a kick drum that he worked with his right foot and a snare drum that he worked with his left foot. His thumb was working the base string and his fingers were working the melody and he had a microphone and he’s singing. He was drums, base, guitar, and vocal – a one man band! He was absolutely killing it – he must have had 100 people in a circle around him and he had these huge, these comically huge, cowboy boots that he was using as a tip jar -they were like size 15 and looked like they belonged to Kareem Abdul Jabir!  People were pulling out 20 dollar bills, 10 dollar bills – I know this guy was sitting on a grand right there and it was all because, well… number one because he kicked ass and number two because it was such a unique display! That was my first ever encounter with cigar box madness and it stuck with me.

That would leave an impression!

Richard is a great guy. He’s a monster. You know – people from Japan pay him to go over there and do the exact same street show in Tokyo. I played with him a few years ago and we’ve been text buddies ever since – he’s a great performer.

Have you built, or do you intend to build, your own?

You know, funny enough, once this fan had introduced me to Travis we just got along famously, instantly. I told him -dude it would be neat to have a double neck! He came to a show and brought me a different one – I had a 3 string and he brought me a 4 string and when I started plucking away at it I said “wow, this is an ENTIRELY different sound than the 3 string!” The 3 string was more swampy – more like a base and the 4 string was more like – I don’t even know- more of a twangy – I got more of a Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page kind of vibe out of it – so I thought it would be so awesome to have both of those sounds on one guitar – what about a double neck -3 strings on one neck and 4 on the other? He made it in a month.

And how is it?

It’s a monster! Travis is really, really good in creating these instruments – they are not shoddy in any way. They don’t fuzz out or fret out. He installs the electronics perfectly– when you plug it in it sounds great and that’s the thing. One thing I was really concerned about once I plugged it onto my amp was- how was it going to sound true- how it does it sound acoustically and would there be feedback problems- which there wasn’t.

For something that‘s kind of “kitschy” -like a cigar box guitar- that may not play or sound as well; that’s more just kind of a novelty than an actual playable instrument – it kills! It’s really, really good! I foresaw writing some material on the 4 string and then I started thinking for the live show -it would kind of suck to pull out the 3 string and play the lullaby and then go to the 4 string and play something else – it would be neat if it was all in one.

And without rules it can all be accomplished – you just have to ask!

He was really great and I think his company has a really bright future – it’s nice when someone like Travis has it together that young and can stay under the auspices of his own creation – if he sold out to some company tomorrow they could easily drag the quality down.

And the fact that he is an artist creating something and therefore putting a piece of himself, his soul, into it there is an intimate connection that raises the value not just in terms of money but as in what has been created.

Absolutely, because you are making art on this piece of art. When you mass produce it you lose that soul. It’s like if you go to a store and you buy a thousand dollar Gibson Les Paul- yeah, it’s a nice guitar but if you buy the $5,000 custom shop -you’re not just paying for the name “Custom Shop” – you are paying for the guys who take the time, use the finest material and instead of cranking out 500 guitars in a factory that day – they maybe cranked out 5. And that attention to detail is what gets lost when these companies get big. That is my wish for him – that as he grows he keeps that personal touch.

When I was talking to Travis about the resurgence in popularity of the cigar box guitar he talked about how people turn to music no matter what the hardship is they are facing and that this instrument is a bridge for people who have always wanted to play but felt they couldn’t or couldn’t afford to. So it becomes that accessible instrument that anyone, really ANYONE, can hang on to –if they want to produce a little bit of music in their backyard.

It’s true. Somebody picks up a guitar for the first time – if it only has three strings – it’s a little less intimidating. You can kind of pluck away at it without thinking what should I do with all these other strings?

When you pick up the cigar box guitar what does it do for you?

It’s something different. If I had to give it a really lame analogy- it’s like if you already drove a really great car- say you drove a really nice Cadillac every day – you love it, you’re used to it, you’re comfortable in it but then you get to go off road in a really cool jeep – it’s a completely different feeling. Well, that’s how it is grabbing the cigar box guitar- it’s just kind of… there’s no rules… it’s a nice diversion.

So getting back to my earlier question…would you ever build one yourself?

You mean physically, with my own hands? (Laughing) Oh no, no, no, I don’t build them -I just play them! I’ll leave that to Travis!

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Throwback Thursday – We Survived Bluestock!

Buddy Guy at BluestockI 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…

BluestockPosterSkies 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).

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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.

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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.

There was a bridge there on Friday. I'm sure of it!
There was a bridge there on Friday. I’m sure of it!

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.

 

Guitargasm. Add it to your lexicon.
Guitargasm. Add it to your lexicon.

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.

I'm not sure what used to be here but it's probably on Oneonta by now.
I’m not sure what used to be here but it’s probably on Oneonta by now.

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.

Throwback Thursday – The Doors With Albert King CD Review

AlbertKingJimMorrisonI’ve been in an Albert King mood recently and even went so far as to re-string a guitar upside down, tune it to E minor and attempt to play it. Yeah, attempt. It’s not as easy as it sounds. So when I was looking through old stuff to post for Throwback Thursday I came across this CD review from 2010 for The Doors Live In Vancouver with the man himself, Mr. Albert King.

Let’s fire up the Wayback (WABAC) machine and revisit those heady days of 2010 and 1970 when King Albert held court with Messrs Densmore, Krieger, Manzarek, and Mojo Risin’…

…This year fans of The Doors and blues fans alike will have something extra for which to be thankful. On Tuesday, November 23, 2010 Rhino Records in conjunction with Bright Midnight Archives will be releasing an oft-bootlegged performance from June 6, 1970 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Doors Live In Vancouver 1970 presents a full recording of the band’s show from that evening which includes a four song jam with blues legend Albert King.

DoorsLiveInVancouver1970Although Albert was probably completely unfamiliar with their music, The Doors were no strangers to the blues. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek and singer Jim Morrison were avowed blues enthusiasts and many of their songs featured call & response style arrangements. The Doors music was an amalgamation of original American musical styles. Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger were all fans of jazz music, particularly Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s bands. Ray grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was intimately familiar with the city’s greatest export: Muddy Waters. The Doors combined the improvisational aspects of jazz with tight arrangements of Chess recordings of the 50’s, added some California psychedelia and lyrics by the Poet Laureate of the Apocalypse to create their own inimitable sound.

Live in Vancouver 1970 finds these influences profusely swirling around the band as they created the music on stage, cradled comfortably in the eye of the storm. The discs capture the entire show, including five minutes of pre-show stage noise and tuning. The musical portion opens just like their previous album, Morrison Hotel, with one of the most recognizable stuttering blues riffs of all-time in “Roadhouse Blues.” The riff continues on for a several extra bars as Morrison escalates the crowd’s anticipation by delaying the opening lines. Is he out of it tonight? Is he going to sing it at all? This tour was on the heels of the infamous Miami incident and the band, particularly its mercurial lead singer, was considered dangerous and unpredictable. Morrison eases his grip on the audience ever so slightly as he sings the first line; from there it’s a wild ride through the doors of perception.

The fitting “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” segues into a blues staple in The Doors’ repertoire: “Back Door Man.” As Jim Morrison channels the immortal Howlin’ Wolf there is no doubt whatsoever that the little girls understand. This abbreviated yet blistering version stops almost imperceptibly before Robby Krieger starts churning out the riff of “Five To One.” The two songs meld perfectly like two Vulcans in an orgasmatron.

“When The Music’s Over” continues the all-out attack on the senses with lulls and crescendos of its hard-rock psychedelic soundscape. Manzarek and Krieger create sheets of sound so disquieting they would stupefy John Coltrane. When Morrison unleashes the banshee wail of “NOW!” the pair seems to create in unison its demonic musical equivalent. Jim Morrison may have been the mouth and face of The Doors but Ray, Robby and John Densmore provided the relentless soundtrack keeping it fresh and interesting even as Jim’s antics grew tiresome. Here, these musicians are at the top of their game, and thankfully Jim is also on his best behavior. Maybe it was the presence of the King.

Albert King joins the band on stage after “Love Me Two Times” and a short American music history lesson from Jim to the audience while the crew sets up Albert’s rig. The jam starts with “Little Red Rooster.” Robby Krieger plays slide while Albert sends flurries of notes into the ether. Albert and Robby are in the same channel because of the recording set-up; it was recorded by then tour manager Vince Treanor using two AKG-D1000E stage microphones and a Sony T630 reel-to-reel tape machine. Their tones are similar and Robby uses the slide to great effect as he imitates Albert’s deep bends and they go toe to toe for several bars of rousing head-cutting action.

At the beginning of “Rock Me”, Ray can be heard calling out chord changes. Even without rehearsals, the band and King play like they did this every weekend and twice on Tuesdays. Ray Manzarek recalls in the notes “What a funky night. Jim singing his ass off with a prod in the butt by a legendary old blues man.” Albert King brought out the best in all the musicians of The Doors. They closed the jam with an exhilarating rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” Robby again adorns his finger with the slide and slithers through the verses like a desert sidewinder. Even with King sitting in, The Doors sound and style permeates this seminal rhythm and blues tune transforming it into cascading prismatic majesty. In the midst of it all, Albert King is there not merely riding on the storm but actively contributing to its power. The band and fans are duly impressed. A voice from the audience calls out “all right Albert!” and the disc ends with Jim acknowledging their guest.

Disc two has only two songs but at nearly 18 minutes each, “Light My Fire” and “The End” finish an already dynamic show in a grand manner. Jim’s spoken word piece “Petition The Lord With Prayer” starts off “Light My Fire” and so begins a dazzling display of The Doors improvisational abilities. Ray and Robby build their solos to fever pitch; Robby even throws in Coltrane quotes like “My Favorite Things.” Morrison takes a turn, improvising lyrics based around “St. James Infirmary” and fever. John Densmore’s agile percussion pulls everything together and pushes it to the edge of the precipice. His connection to the music is mesmerizing. It is intuitive and telepathic. He builds the dam and then crashes through it like the cresting Mississippi. Set the night on fire indeed.

With its minor key Eastern melodies and rolling tabla-style drums “The End” gives the crowd a few moments to rest and catch their breath before it too furiously builds to a glorious climax. It’s the end of disc two and the end of the show, but hopefully it is not the end of these archival recordings that have been released almost yearly for the past decade.

Although there are sonic limitations from the original tapes, the sound is clear and robust. The mics on stage capture banter between songs and calls from the audience, all adding richness to the atmosphere of the show. The recordings have been cleaned up and balanced by long-time Doors engineer and producer Bruce Botnik and this set is far superior to the bootlegs in circulation. It makes an excellent addition to any Doors fan’s collection and appeals to curious blues fan as well.

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Throwback Thursday – Richard Briggs Interview 2012

Next Friday, July 11, 2014, the Briggs Farm Blues Festival will kick off its 17th annual event with a stellar lineup of national and local acts, great food, and an eclectic array of vendors. In 2012 I had the opportunity to chat with festival organizer Richard Briggs on the occasion of the festival’s 15th Anniversary.

Briggs2014WebBanner

Let’s fire up the Wayback machine for a short trip in time to 2012 and Richard Briggs…

 

Briggs Farm is a 350 acre family-run farm nestled in the small, rural Pennsylvania town of Nescopeck and one weekend every July since 1998 it has been home to blues musicians and fans from around the world as they gather for the Briggs Farm Blues Festival. 2012 marks the 15th anniversary of the Briggs Farm Blues Festival which has hosted dozens of artists from legends like David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Louisiana Red and Johnny Rawls to local favorites Clarence Spady and upstarts like Vandelay Industries. The festival features acts on the Main Stage and the Porch stage which is literally a back porch set up under a tent and the spot where Honeyboy Edwards sat telling stories about his time with Robert Johnson, Harper instructed the crowd on the finer points of didgeridoo playing, and festival favorite and BBQ Pit Master Lonnie Shields perennially lights up the night with his electrifying performances. For the 15th anniversary, the folks at Briggs Farm have put together another all-star lineup including Sam Lay on the Back Porch, Friday headliner Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Saturday headliner Bernard Allison, plus Moreland & Arbuckle, Rory Block, The Butterfield Blues Band, Linsey Alexander, Alexis P. Suter Band, and many others. The festival takes place on July 6 and 7, 2012 and is sure to be a hot weekend of blues.

Alexis P. Suter makes sure Jimmy plays it right for you.
Alexis P. Suter makes sure Jimmy plays it right for you.

The Briggs Farm Blues Festival is the brainchild of Richard Briggs, blues and roots music fan and former TV producer. We caught up with Richard recently to take a look back at 15 years of Blues and family fun down on the farm. Richard Briggs’ experience as a producer gave him a different perspective when he attended festivals as a fan, “I like to go to other festivals, not just to see musicians but to see how it’s produced. I produced TV shows for PBS station WVIA and I was there for 22 years. I started this project here on the family farm while I was still doing TV, so I come from that background and I really enjoy putting on a show.” The idea for the festival came to him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, “I always thought I could do better. I was at the Philly Folk Festival thinking ‘I could do this.’ Everything was ready and I just had to put it together. It took a few years to get it together and convince people that it wasn’t outrageous. It took a lot of convincing at first. The township was concerned and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be a bad situation for the community and neighbors. We’ve had a gradual growth in attendance over the 15 years so it wasn’t like a horde of crazy people coming in to town. Traffic problems never occurred, parking wasn’t an issue. It’s really become a good thing for the community. In addition to the local business people who are involved, there are families who come to visit relatives and go to the blues festival. People come from Texas, Canada, California, all over. ”

Terry "Harmonica" Bean brings Hill Country Blues to Briggs Farm
Terry “Harmonica” Bean brings Hill Country Blues to Briggs Farm

Richard was confident he and the festival could succeed but he’s not afraid to admit he over-reached a bit that first year. “I had planned to do three festivals,” he said with a laugh. “But I learned my lesson. People still say to me ‘why don’t you do a jam band or a country festival?’ – but they’re crazy! It’s a lot to put together, but that first year I had a folk festival also and there was another one I cancelled. But the blues people were just really nice. They were comfortable and it was well enough attended that I really didn’t lose any money. Now, we get a lot of people coming back and they bring more people and whole families and groups of friends. It’s a comfortable place for people.” Comfort isn’t usually something you often expect at a festival, but the laid back atmosphere and farm fresh food at Briggs Farm is a big part of the comfort factor. Their willingness to allow coolers and outside food and drinks also helps, and you can’t beat camping at Briggs Farm, especially if it rains. “It was initially a one day event and the next year we had really bad weather. In fact the second year attendance was less because of the weather so we decided to do two days. We already had everything set up so we thought if one day is rainy and one day isn’t then it’s not a loss if people only come one day. Then we had some people who wanted to camp so we started letting them stay overnight. So camping turned out to be the best idea because people camping don’t care if it rains and it makes it very easy for people to come a long way. They don’t have to find a hotel and don’t have to drive if they’ve had a few drinks. It’s a lot of fun to have people stay overnight.”

Briggs Farm crowd 2011

Camping tickets are a hot commodity and have greatly helped the Briggs Farm maintain its reasonable prices, which is important to Richard and the folks at Briggs Farm. They view their festival as a family event and want as many people to enjoy the music as possible. “If we have to increase the price we agonize over it. We’d rather have more people come than raise the prices and have less people. We have the space so we want people to come have a good time. We don’t want it to be an expensive event. I think our prices are good and we’re going to keep them there. We’re making it at this price. We didn’t start out to make a bucket of money and be done. We want a yearly event that we all love to do and have it be financially stable, which it is. We like the bands we’re able to afford at this point. We’ve been able to grow our audience and we can pull from a larger pool of artists now because we can pay more. Now our second stage is becoming as well booked as our big stage.”

Lonnie Shields makes sure you get the good stuff.
Lonnie Shields makes sure you get the good stuff.

Another integral part of this successful festival is the food, which is overseen by none other than Lonnie Shields who is not only a blues maestro but also a barbecue master who offered his services to a frustrated Richard Briggs. “One of the early years, Lonnie headlined on a Friday night and that’s when I met him. He’s one of those guys that’s always talking barbecue and we continued to talk over the years and we’ve had him back a few times. Eventually he offered it to me. Originally we were making the food ourselves, and then we had vendors in and I was not happy. Then again we had vendors the next year and I still wasn’t happy. Lonnie was there and he wanted to help out. We made the smokers and cookers to Lonnie’s specifications. We buy 500 to 600 pounds of pork and he comes up and starts cooking on Wednesday night.” Richard continues, “Making the food is something we always wanted to do ourselves and with Lonnie’s help it’s going well. We’re adding some new things in the style of home cooked Delta-style food. We definitely want something home cooked instead of from a cart or a truck and Lonnie loves doing it. Now he brings his sister Pearly Mae up from Helena, Arkansas to help him out. They have a little family reunion. He has other family within reach and they all come to the festival and stay over.

EliCookOnTheBackPorch
Eli Cook channels Son House on the Back Porch Stage

Lonnie also knows all the musicians coming in and he often goes and plays with them on the main stage after his set on the Porch Stage. He entertains all the volunteers too. He has plenty of stories! I was concerned that at some point he might not be able to do it so I asked him about it and he said I’d have to tell him not to come, and that’s not going to happen.”

A Bluesman's work is never done.
A Bluesman’s work is never done.

Over the course of 15 years there have been some great memories made for fans and musicians a like but a few stick out in Richard Briggs’ memory, “We always try to get some older guys for the Porch Stage so that can be really close to the audience and relate some of the history. This year we have Sam Lay and in 2010 we had Louisiana Red – a lot of those guys are leaving us, but Red was here. We had a lot of rain that Saturday night and I remember him sitting in the green room tent backstage waiting to go on and water is coming in under the tent – it was raining pretty hard – but he wanted to go on. He’s saying ‘If there’s any way we can go on, we want to play.’ So I told him as soon as the sound guy gives me the go ahead we’ll get you out there. It was real late and the rain stopped so Red went on and then it started to rain again but he kept going! He played until around two in the morning. His wife wanted him off stage because it was really late but he wasn’t pausing between songs long enough for us to comfortably get in there to get him off stage. It was quite an experience.” He continues, “One year, Eddie Kirkland, who was about 80 years old, drove up in the beat-up old 80’s station wagon, popped the hood and started working on it. I looked in and it was held together by wire and duct tape! (laughs) It’s just been great to meet all those guys.”

Luckily, everyone attending Briggs Farm Blues Festival also gets the chance to meet the performers, usually at the merchandise table after their sets but many stick around for some of Lonnie’s pulled pork or some fresh sweet corn cooked to perfection, and can be found chatting with fans and fellow musicians all day long. The interaction between musicians and fans, the relaxed atmosphere, the volunteers, the fresh food, and great music makes Briggs Farm Blues Festival a true family destination that is affordable and enjoyable. There is a tangible sense of community that permeates the festival, putting smiles on faces even before the music starts and Richard Briggs is particularly proud of it, “I want people to get that as soon as they drive in and I want them to be wowed by it and get that excitement.”