Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The Beautiful Swamp Blues Festival 2010
November 26th - 28th
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By Glenn Noble
Photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Calais is a very beautiful old border town with a rich history It's at the end of the line for the car train coming from the UK into France.
From the first steps into the the foyer of the Gerard Philipe Cultural Centre in Calais, you are greeted by outsize cut outs of legendary blues artists like Muddy Waters and Otis Rush. There’s even a photo booth where you could have your photo taken while posing as Robert Johnson, thanks to a cardboard cut out. An accompanying exhibition of photographs and other artwork depicting or inspired by blues scenes from Louisiana up the Mississippi to Chicago demonstrated another dimension to this festival, by mixing the visual arts -- photo, cinema and painting -- with the music.
Inside, the 450-seater auditorium - normally more at home to theatre and dance - was transported from France to the Windy City by murals depicting the landmarks of the Chicago skyline.
Friday 26th November
Flyin' Saucers Gumbo Special
With an accordion-wielding singer and washboard player up front, the expectation was set that the French group Flyin' Saucers would deliver a steamy Southern stew; and those expectations were not disappointed. Their set ranged from zydeco and New Orleans blues to swing and funk, while their enthusiastic stage presence was warmly received.
Black Cat Joe and Miss Corinna
Keeping the entertainment coming between the main acts, a corner of the stage was turned over to this unusual French duo. Miss Corinna was seated barefoot on a hay bale, plucking a tea chest bass, accompanied by guitarist/kick drummer and vocalist Black Cat Joe through a repertoire of blues, R&B and vintage rock ‘n’ roll.
Harmonica player Steve Guyger from Philadelphia opened with some relaxed, laid back numbers from his latest CD Radio Blues, which well suited his warm vocal style. Moving up the tempo with a Little Walter tribute “I Gotta Go,” Guyger then introduced a guest spot from guitarist Eddie C. Campbell from Chicago, who was welcomed like a native by the Calais audience.
Mac Arnold & Plate Full O' Blues
Eagerly awaited by the crowd, 2010 BMA Award winner Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues took the stage. Mac's husky, soulful voice and folksy, welcoming personality seemed appropriate for someone describing himself as equally a farmer from South Carolina as much as a bluesman. After singing some new numbers from an as-yet untitled CD, to be released in 2011, Mac unveiled his “gas-can guitar” and shared the story of how he built it for $25 and learned to play it as a boy on the farm. In a standout performance of Little Milton's “If Walls Could Talk” he showed how well his unlikely-looking instrument could sound in the right hands! The show closed out with the recall of Steve Guyger on harp and encored that old crowd pleaser “Sweet Home Chicago”.
Saturday 27h November
Guitarist Sean Carney from Columbus, Ohio opened his set solo, in a slow-paced minor key, drawing the audience close to him. Gradually over the next two numbers, Sean introduced the rest of the band: upright bass player Abdel “Be-bop” Bouyousfi and Eric Blume on drums. In contrast to the opening numbers’ soft, jazzy feel which showcased Sean's wide vocal range, the band let rip in the second half of the set, especially on Willie Dixon's “29 Ways To Get To My Baby's Door” where the rhythm section took off their coats, rolled up their sleeves and really got to work. Not to be outdone in the showmanship stakes, Sean took the opportunity to take a walk around in front of the stage while soloing on a new song, “Throwback,” from Live Blues On Whyte. This got the audience on their feet to close a great set on a high note.
Sugar Ray Norcia and the Bluetones featuring Monster Mike Welch
The harmonica was a well-represented instrument on this night, first in the hands of New England's Sugar Ray Norcia. With a set full of rousing tunes by harmonica greats past (Little Walter, Big Walter Horton) and present (James Cotton, Billy Branch) Sugar Ray also shared a wonderful delicacy of tone on Sonny Boy Williamson's “My Younger Days”, coming off the mic and letting his unamplified harp and vocals hang in the air while spellbinding the audience. To finish the show, they upped the tempo once more with a medley of Big Walter Horton classics. Monster Mike Welch’s amazing guitar playing was a perfect pairing.
Jerry Portnoy featuring Ricky “King” Russell
Ricky “King” Russell may have looked like an accountant, in a buttoned-up grey suit and glasses, when he came on stage to open for Jerry Portnoy; that impression was quickly blown away by his energetic presence and the power and directness of his guitar playing. Ricky introduced Jerry Portnoy as the “Harp Meister” and together they tore through an opening set of numbers that made the rest of the night seem lightweight by comparison. Then, to demonstrate the range and versatility of his instrument, Portnoy switched to a sweet and mellow reading of Errol Garner's “Misty”. To let the auditorium get a close look at a master at work, he took a walk from the stage right to the back of the hall through the classic “How Long”. Closing with a self-penned composition, the wryly humorous “Charge It”, and encoring with “Early in the Morning,” including a fiery slide solo from Ricky, there were few in the crowd left in any doubt they had seen an exceptional performance.
Sunday 28th November
Ms. Nickki and the Memphis Soul Connection
“Come to the blues party” invited Miss Nickki. With her red dress on, she certainly looked like she was going out tonight! School kids flocked to the front row of the auditorium to sing along and take photos. During the week leading up to the festival, Miss Nickki and the
Band had participated in a number of workshops and master classes with a group of local schoolchildren and their teachers as part of the festival’s mission. This kind of engagement with the local community, both youngsters and adults, has been a feature of the festival throughout its seven-year history. Judging by the reaction of the young fans, the next generation of Blues lovers is already enthusiastically embracing the music and performers. Memphis-based Ms. Nickki interpreted Aretha Franklin, Koko Taylor and Etta James, but also featured some of her own material, notably “Where The Big Girls At” -- a soulful call going out to all the plus-size women of the world. Leaving the band to jam through “Green Onions” Nickki changed her outfit and she returned for “Walking the Dog.” For the finale she had the audience dancing along to “Juke Joint Woman”.
Chicago Blues Festival featuring Zora Young, Eddie Shaw, Maurice John Vaughn, Vasti Jackson
A dream line-up for Chicago Blues fans if ever there was one, this bill topper was a mini-festival all on its own. Maurice John Vaughn, bassist Nick Charles and drummer Willie Hayes (“a guy that works 366 days a year” as Maurice joked) opened proceedings with Maurice on vocals - and what an infectious, good-natured voice and personality – generously letting his bandmates show off on “Got To Be Funky” with a couple of bass and drums solos. Acting as MC and sliding over from guitar to piano, Maurice introduced a young man from Mississippi – the hugely talented Vasti Jackson. Starting in a mellow mood, showing to advantage a fine singing voice, it was all the more electrifying when he turned up the heat on “Hoochie Coochie Man” and really let rip with some virtuoso guitar licks, following straight on with a performance of “Hurricane Season” where he carried on a dialogue with the guitar. It was uncanny to hear the guitar “talking” to audience members as he cruised around the entire hall and a deserved standing ovation was his. After blasting through “Crossroads” he then soloed on “Kind-Hearted Woman” as his way of introducing Zora Young.
Zora, battling a case of flu, still managed to draw cheers from the crowd with “Too Tough” and “Girlfriend” before leaving after a valiant “Rock Me Baby”. With his MC hat still on, Maurice John Vaughn then called up an illustrious member of both the Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf bands, tenor sax legend Eddie Shaw. Beginning his featured part of the show with “This is It” he demonstrated his powerful, gravelly voice and of course hot sax. To give the audience a chance to appreciate his real sound, Eddie walked off the mic soloing on “Goin' Down Slow” perfectly capturing the essence of that downbeat, resigned song. Transforming the mood with the bright, bouncy “Messing with the Kid”, and then once more spellbinding on “My Younger Days,” Eddie wrapped the show on a wonderfully cheerful Nat King Cole tune “For You My Love (I'd Do Most Anything)”. Although, of course there was no way the delighted audience was going to give up that easily, and after returning with Zora Young, Eddie and the band barnstormed through “Got My Mojo Working” to send the crowd away buzzing.
There may have been unseasonably early snow and ice outside, but inside there had been some red hot blues and that must have kept everyone warm on the way home. Congratulations to the Festival Director (and one mean harp player) Dominique Floch and the indefatigable Eric the MC for such a smooth event and faultless line-up.