Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
August 26 – 27, 2011
Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Ronnie Baker Brooks,
Elvin Bishop, Trombone Shorty, Lionel Young, Curtis Salgado, Alexis P.
Suter, Shemekia Copeland, Tab Benoit & more!
Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Elvin Bishop, Trombone Shorty, Lionel Young, Curtis Salgado, Alexis P. Suter, Shemekia Copeland, Tab Benoit & more!
By Estela Ponce
Photos: Dianne Dunklau
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The inaugural, highly touted Bluestock hit Hunter Mountain, N.Y. on August 26, 2011 like a hurricane! Greatly anticipated by blues lovers across the nation (and several other countries as well), the time for the trek to Hunter Mountain was finally at hand. Festival co-founder and producer, Steve Simon, promised the blues ride of a lifetime, an experience one would never forget. Did Jeff and Steve Simon Productions and Radio Woodstock deliver on this promise? Raise that “hell, yeah” flag!
With a phenomenal lineup and a little help from Hurricane Irene, 2011
Bluestockers, got by in blues unity, to become part of one of the most
historic and memorable blues events to date.
While Irene ultimately made her
presence known, the festival had already been blowing fans away like no
Irene winds could.
Friday, August 26th
Five o’clock p.m., Friday, August 26th, with the sun still shining and the lift chairs floating towards the mountain top under plump white clouds dotting a blue sky, Bluestockers spread their blankets and set out their chairs. Veteran Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruisers (LRBC), a solid core of pre-Bluestock lovers, rejoiced with each new sighting of a fellow cruiser. The crowd, with refreshments and cameras in hand, were visibly pumped to get the show, billed as the “greatest blues show on earth,” started. Eyes set on the side-by-side stages, their wait was broken when 2011 International Blues Competition (IBC) winners, the Lionel Young Band, commandeered stage left. Lionel, who also won the IBC solo-duo category in 2008, led the charge with his electric blues violin and energized the crowd with “You Were Wrong.” “Thank you!” screamed a fan, to which Lionel quickly responded, “No, thank YOU!” Lionel’s band -- Kim Stone on bass, Jay Forrest, drums/vocals, Ricardo Pena, piano/organ, vocals, Dexler Payne on sax and harp, and, Andre Mail, trumpet -- kept the pace going strong to the end, wrapping it up with their signature closing a cappella, “Bring it on Home.”
With no breaks between bands, Richard Rosenblatt (Rosie) from VizzTone Label Group introduced Chuck Cotton on drums, Matt Hill (2011 Blues Music Awards Winner for Best New Artist Debut), and Bob Margolin of Muddy Waters fame. Having heard this dynamic trio play during the 2011 International Blues Challenge (IBC), it was clear that Bluestockers would soon be going wild. With Bob Margolin rollin’, Rosie harpin’ and Matt rockin’, the pace got hot soon enough; and, flames soared when an uninhibited Matt took off his belt and snapped it about with precision. Gotta love that crawlin’, jumpin’, boundless hunk of energy, “Lemon Squeezer!” To be sure, Matt himself says his performances are in the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf and Nappy Brown – a howlin’, snappin’ spirit it is! Local favorite Chris O’Leary (vocals/harmonica) and Lionel Young helped complete the frenzy, ending with “Great Balls of Fire” and “I’ve Got My Mojo Working”.
Trampled Under Foot’s Nick Schnebelen’s smile brightened the sister stage as dusk descended. With a silver-plated, gold accented, National resonator guitar in hand, he sat at the drums and began strumming and singing, “You walk alone…take me back, You walk alone baby child…” He stopped, flashed that smile again and declared, “Ah man, this feels great!” Nick then delivered a stomping rendition of Mean Town Blues, a song Johnny Winter sang at Woodstock (50 miles away and 42 years ago)! Fellow left hand guitar (bass) player and vocalist sister, Danielle and brother, Kris (drums/vocals) soon joined him. Winners of the 2008 IBC, with Nick also winning the Albert King award for best guitarist, Trampled Under Foot continue to be a blues favorite headliner. Look for their newly released “Wrong Side of the Blues” CD.
Voice of the Wetlands activists, Tab Benoit and Johnny Sansone spiced up the night with Cajun blues, with the first course being a deliciously long version of “Too Many Dirty Dishes”. “Sunrise”, written by Tab and Anders Osborne, with long rifts and hot jamming, was also a crowd favorite. (Heard from somewhere deep in the crowd, “Ya gotta love a screaming guitar!”) Tab was definitely in fun mode, quipping, “I normally come up here to get away from hurricanes!” And, “I’ll take a hurricane before FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)!”
No sooner had Tab disappeared then, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue appeared with trumpets up in the air and drumming a beat that went straight to the heart! Fabulously soulful horns, with sounds that seemed to intensify by the second, blazed away. The pace never slowed, nor did the crowd’s enthusiasm for the music. Trombone Shorty shouted, “Put ‘em up, put ‘em up, aye!” And put ‘em up they did. With arms in the air and feet that seemed about to march, Bluestockers were revved and rocking! Tin Pan Alley met Louis Armstrong for “Sunny Side of the Street” – with a cool twist and a phenomenal horn solo that included possibly the longest note ever held. It was a feel good song that embraced the crowd. The band’s sound, often hard to define, is a musical mix that Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has himself christened as “Supafunkrock!” Funky ass blues works too.
Elvin Bishop (of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” early fame) was the final outdoor act of an unbelievable night – an evening that witnessed band after band giving its all. One could say that perhaps each was trying to match or outdo the previous killer band but, in reality, each band was just that amazingly outstanding! Elvin, before turning into a musical mad man, gave kudos to Tab and Trombone Shorty, then stated, “I think we’re going to get our money’s worth!” What an understatement ! He soon had the fans interacting, screaming, “Hey, hey, hey! Let’s have some fun! Hey, hey, hey!” And the drummer sang out, “Take off your shoes and let yourself go; party til the cows come home!” Elvin jumped out into the crowd, singing, twanging and taking a fan back on the stage with him! No matter that he couldn’t quite get her off the stage, as their interaction created much laughter! Assisting Elvin was his ace band: Bob Welsh-guitar, Ed Earley-trombone, Bobby Cochran-drums, Ruth Davies-bass, Steve Willis-keyboards/harmonica/accordion, with special guest, Tab Benoit.
Steve Simon announced Hurricane Irene induced schedule changes for the next day at noon: Robert Cray, then Buddy Guy. Now that’s the way to start a blues fan’s day! Then, said Steve, “We’ll be inside at 4:00 p.m with two stages. It will be tight. It will be intimate. But… it will be memorable!”
The night ended with Mitch Wood’s Club 88.
It was a welcome, familiar setting, especially for cruisers, sans
ocean. Harp player
Billy Gibson and guitarist
Dave Fields, a favorite
pairing, had Mitch’s back and the jamming was on!
True to cruisin’ piano bar
format, a bluesy stew of performers graced the Club 88 stage, including
Sonny Rock (N.Y.’s Smokin’
Aces and L.A.’s Mason Casey), Robert Cray’s
Chuck “100%” Cotton and
Tab Benoit taking turns on
drums, Rosie (harp), Bob
Margolin, Petey Hopkinson on
guitar, a Johnny Sansone and
Shakura S’Aida duet, and a
myriad of other fabulous performers. Conversations
about leaving Hunter Mountain before Irene’s impact could be heard here
and there. Yet, hours
later, a nice sized crowd remained.
Amid dancing and waning blues camaraderie, someone said they
actually heard a rooster crow. With that, the die-hard crowd slowly
dispersed, seeking rest before Day 2. Soon, they would be seeking
shelter from the storm.
Saturday, August 27
So it was as Steve Simon said. It was Saturday, noon. Bluestockers convened under cloudy skies, many with coffee in hand, and cheered as five-time Grammy award winner, Robert Cray appeared. It was a tremendous start to another spectacular blues day on Hunter Mountain! With Tony Braunagel on drums, Jim Pugh on keyboard, and Richard Cousins on bass, Irene was easily forgotten. Cray’s “The One in the Middle,” with its long jamming grooves invigorated the “early” crowd. His (often) undefinable sound worked up the audience who demanded an encore. Cray returned to the stage delivering, “That What Keeps Me Rockin’.” The punchy and catchy tune indeed kept the fans rockin’ and got them ready for the day’s next eye-openin’ act. No more coffee needed; Buddy Guy was being served up next!
After taking the crowd with “74 Years Young,” he brought forward a 12-years-young surprise – Quinn Sullivan. Hurricane Quinn trumped Irene! Buddy commented, “When Eric Clapton came out with Cream, he was playing blues and it sounded something like this"…off they went, the small but mighty Quinn, matching the master note for note! The crowd’s response couldn’t have been any more charged; and, in hindsight, we should have tried to bottle up all that electricity generated. We could have used it for the power outages yet to come!
The rain came. More than 12 inches of it would be recorded in the Hunter Mountain area over the next 24 hour period. The bridge over the large creek that connected the festival with the main street in town would eventually be closed. Bluestockers on the festival side couldn’t cross over to get to groceries, gas, or to Sunday’s new Club 88 location. That was something to be dealt with later, because it was still Saturday and the festival was being moved indoors to two very large rooms, each with a stage. Interestingly, one could not hear bleedover music that would be going on simultaneously later in the night.
Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late Texas blues guitar legend, Johnny Clyde Copeland, was the first of the indoor performers. She began her set while Bluestockers continued to regroup, claiming spaces for their lawn chairs. Shemekia recently recorded a duet, “Baby Don’t Do It” with B.B. King that will be featured on Steve Cropper’s new CD, Dedicated. Shemekia has a voice that many, including myself, wish they had -- strong and straight!”
The Chicago theme continued with the Ronnie Baker Brooks Band, opening with, “If it Don’t Make Dollars, Then it Don’t Make Sense.” Ronnie acknowledged that honored he was to be at Bluestock, “amongst the world’s greatest blues musicians and the world’s greatest blues fans,” which invoked loud applause! Mega-hit, “Take Me Witcha” had fans singing back, “Take Me wi-CHA!” Ronnie, singing, found his way back, way back, to greet the fans situated by the bar! Why hello there and cheers! We love our Chicago Brooks family and their band members!
At about this time, bands began playing simultaneously in order to get all the acts on a stage. It became a little challenging to see everyone but it worked! Legendary keyboardist and three time nominee for the BMA’s Piano Player of the Year Award, Bruce Katz, accompanied by Jimmy Bennett (Alexis P. Suter Band) on guitar and slide guitar, was riveting. International artist, Shakura S’Aida, hot and sizzling, was especially memorable on “That Ain’t Right.” Kansas blues rockers Moreland and Arbuckle, with a down-to-earth stage presence and their “blues is definitely at the core” sound, impressed new fans. For more of their music, check out the September 13th debut of their third Telarc Records album, Just A Dream.
Tommy Castro’s Legendary Blues Revue with Deanna Bogart, Joe Louis Walker, and Rick Estrin brightly shined as is expected from such blues greats. Blues fans are thrilled to hear any one of the Blues Revue performers, so having these four play together, only quadrupled the excitement. Albert Cummings, playing with Shakura S’Aida’s drummer and bass player, continued the all-star hits of the night with his contemporary blues; especially memorable, “Baby Who Do You Think I Am?” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.”
Vocal phenomenon and local favorite, Alexis P. Suter, along with her band, put on a rockin’ show! Since wowing Northeast audiences for the last six years, their fan base has simply skyrocketed! Michael Cloeren, of Pocono Blues Fest fame say of Alexis, “She is as great off the stage as she is on!” The passionate Port City Prophets had the distinction of closing two days of packed, stellar blues. Out of the South Carolina Low-Country marshlands and onto the mountain came this edgy trio to rendezvous with other blues professionals who came, who played, who conquered.
Blues fans, many still not satiated, looked for that last slice of pizza and prepared to enjoy another late night with Mitch Wood and Club 88. Others now let their thoughts return to the possible negative impacts of Hurricane Irene, while a number of others had left earlier in the day in hopes of beating Irene’s punch. Still, there were many who decided to hunker down for the duration. So it was that many ‘stockers were still on Hunter Mountain on Sunday, dreaming of regrouping that afternoon at Villa Villosa for a last round of Club 88 before heading back to the real world on Monday or Tuesday.
Sunday, August 28
Sunday surprise! With severe winds and rain continuing, ‘stockers awoke to find that whichever side of the stream (now almost river worthy) they found themselves on, was it. The connecting bridge was impassible. Our own group had rented a condo on the “fest side” of the swelling waters which resembled Willy Wonka chocolate. With a low food supply (one can of crab), no power, and tired of playing Scattergories, we braved the elements. After several trials and tribulations, we finally found a previously closed road had reopened. We made it to Villa Villosa hoping to order dinner and hear more (yes more) blues. Another power outage extinguished any hope for dinner. Still, we were able to enjoy a bit of Billy Gibson and Moreland & Arbuckle, unplugged and by candlelight, a truly cozy affair. We headed back to a cold and dark condo and with an early morn escape plan in our heads, as we said goodnight Irene, goodnight. It took three adventurous attempts down three different roads to get our two cars off Hunter Mountain. With Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, leading the way and “hitchhiker” Billy Gibson in our car, we finally found an unblocked passage that led us to the Albany, N.Y. airport.
Steve Simon could not have planned a more adventurous, exciting blues outing! But plan he did. Along with his partners, prior and throughout the event, Steve planned and prepared for every possibility to ensure the enjoyment and the safety of each person at Bluestock. Major kudos to producers Steve and Jeff Simon and their team! Hasta next year.