Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
November 6-7, 2015
By Glenn Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
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Frederikshavn: a small seaport town located on the northeast of the Danish peninsula that juts into the cold waters of the Kattegat strait on one side, and the North Sea on the other. Unlikely place to find some of the world’s top blues acts you may think, but it is the home of a festival which, over its 10-year history, has claimed the title “Blues Heaven on Earth”. Based on the stellar line-up of this, the 10th anniversary show, it’s pretty easy to see why they make the claim. The festival takes place in the city’s Musiske Hus (Music House) which is a sizeable, modern, purpose-built arts venue set up with two performance areas. The smaller room, high-ceilinged and atmospherically-lit, is given over to acoustic performances on a low, intimate stage. In contrast, the main area provided a full-scale concert stage, with not only a big open area up front for those who want to shake their moneymakers, but also a raked, theatre-style seating area to provide comfortable viewing for those moments when you need to take a break from boogieing. A great combination, which more venues could do with copying!
It’s perhaps unusual to open a show with a heavy hitter, but starting the show with a bang in the Music House was Warren Haynes, longtime Allman Brothers guitarist and Government Mule co-founder. Haynes covered a lot of material from the recent Ashes and Dust album -- songs with an Appalachian/Americana sound which gave his banjo and fiddle players a chance to shine. Also mixed in was a fair sample of his more Southern Rock output, finishing up with the almost inevitable crowd pleasing “Soulshine.” Fans of Warren would not have been disappointed with this outing.
Dashing upstairs to the “small room” we see British blues bad-boy Ian Siegal acoustically amusing and entertaining. Ian projects a world-weary, wasted image and often his material looks at the downsides of life. On occasion though, a vein of humour sparks through the blues, and tonight was one of those nights - reinterpreting Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ‘69” as a Johnny Cash song for example! Mesmerising story-telling on “Silver Spurs”, deep gospel “Mary Don’t You Weep”, Ian covers a lot of bases with authority of emotion -- a very satisfying performance.
Back on the main stage, the first performer of the Chicago contingent was the wonderful Lurrie Bell, with Houstonian vocalist Diunna Greenleaf, backed by Danish band Copenhagen Slim. Lurrie provided a masterful example of blues guitar, minimal and magnificent. The material was all standard tunes, “Honey Bee,” “Messin’ with the Kid” etc., but Lurrie’s terrific sound and unique intonation, he created a classic show, epitomising the Chicago blues sound. Diunna matched Lurrie phrase by phrase with a wonderful emotional performance. A super encore of “I’ll Never Forget” was just the two stripped to the bare bones of the blues -- this was the real thing .
Just enough time to catch a little bit of Louisiana's Lil’ Jimmy Reed accompanied by pianist Bob Hall. Guitarist/singer/ harp blower Reed was looking smart in white wingtips and a sparkly shirt and gave a very relaxed and unpretentious old-school blues show.
Chicago called again on the big stage in the shape of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Bounding on stage full of energy and fun, Lil’ Ed shook up the crowd with his infectious, high-octane playing, ably assisted by well-known Chicago axe-slinger Tom Holland, who was looking and sounding in great form. Diunna Greenleaf somehow had the energy to come on at the encore and give a really intense reading of “Summertime” - what a great ending to a super opening night.
Saturday openers The Travellin’ Brothers were Spain’s winning entry into the 2015 European Blues Challenge. They displayed their competition-winning quality as they rocked the house with verve and enthusiasm with front man Jon Careaga firing up the room to give the second day a flying start. A little brass in the mix never hurts and the fuller sound really took the crowd along the “Magnolia Trail” from New Orleans to Chicago. Everyone in the place was happy to join in with the encore “This Little Light of Mine” - a touching moment.
A little keyboard action now, with a pair of Polish piano pounders, the Boogie Boys up in the acoustic room. As their name implies, the duo of Bart Szopinkski and Michal Cholewinski blasted out some high-energy boogie-woogie, which is always guaranteed to get audiences’ toes-tapping.
Following the Boogie Boys up there in the acoustic room, Diunna Greenleaf once again, with a more intimate but no less passionate set. This time Diunna was accompanied by the colourfully-named Danish band, Big Creek Slim and the Cockroaches. Diunna took full advantage of the smaller size room to let the crowd get the full emotional power of her singing.
Time now for
from San Jose, CA originally, but now a Danish dweller -- the harp player
appeared with his near neighbour, Danish guitarist
Bo Carlsson. A very cool guy indeed,
with a wicked harp technique, Hook has played with some of the top blues folks
in the south of California and Texas and
well worth a listen.
So after a lengthy spell in the small room, it was back downstairs to the big stage, and boy, did the stage need to be big for the next act! Melvia “Chick” Rodgers and the South Side Review filled the stage not just with a big band and backing singers, but with a huge voice. It was hard to reconcile the sheer size and presence of the voice coming from such a tiny frame. Grown men - and I’m talking big, hairy Danes with Viking blood - were stunned as the hairs rose on their arms listening to the sound of this diva. Originally from Memphis, Chick moved to Chicago in the late 80s; the diminutive powerhouse put a lot of Chicago in the set, notably giving sincere tribute to Koko Taylor, who Chick opened for many times. Chick is a versatile singer though, at home with soul or gospel as much as South Side blues, and possibly the high spot of the show was Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” which completely floored the crowd.
One of the great things about a blues festival is the range of different styles of blues that you can be seen all in one bill. Moving from the soul-influenced Chick Rodgers, we had Trickbag, a multinational outfit throwing down some serious rythym and swing blues featuring the very talented Steve “West” Weston on harp (fans of Mud Morganfield may be interested to know Steve is Mud’s regular harp player in the UK). They also brought along a guest guitarist/singer in the shape of Junior Watson, a somewhat eccentric but wholly entertaining character with a unique line in blues and surf music!
In a tidy arrangement, there was a big hitter to start the festival and a big hitter to finish too. On the comeback trail following near-fatal liver disease, guitar hero (not too strong a word here) Walter Trout made a triumphant return in front of what could be considered a home crowd (being married to a Danish lady). Bursting on stage with a fizzing firework display of guitar licks before settling into a rocking groove on “Help Me”, Walter did not look like a guy who had just recently been literally at death’s door. Quite the reverse, he had the look of a man whose zest for life had been totally renewed and had plenty he wanted to share with the crowd of fans who had come out for this event. Fair to say that energy and speed were turned up to 11 in this set - it was hard at times to see how the rest of the band could keep up! A couple of guests - Hook Herrera helped as “The Blues Came Calling” and an epic, extended guitar duel between Walter and son Jon Trout on “Rock Me Baby”, which I’d say went to Trout Senior on points - but look out for the young guy! Neatly, “I’m Almost Gone” closed out the set. On the basis of this showing, and with a new CD, aptly-named Battle Scars out, the future's looking bright for Trout fans.
Equally, the future's looking bright for the Frederikshavn Blues Festival as it goes into its second decade. With quality programming like this, combined with a great venue, fantastically dedicated backstage crew and a dynamic promoter in Peter Astrup, all the ingredients are there to keep Blues Heaven coming down to Earth for a long time to come!
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