Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The 2016 Frederikshavn Blues Festival
November 4-5, 2016
By Glenn Noble
For the last 11 years, the small Northern Danish seaport town of Frederikshavn has been the home of a festival which has claimed the title “Blues Heaven on Earth”. It’s pretty easy to see how they justify this claim, with artists like Peter Green, Dr. John, Magic Slim, Johnny Winter, Walter Trout and many more, coming year after year. But after this year, there will be no more Frederikshavn Blues Festival! But don’t panic blues fans, it will coming back next year with a new identity, “Blues Heaven” and possibly new venue. Festival Director Peter Astrup says the reason for the change is “First and foremost because the festival has risen to greater heights, with a stellar parade of artists; but also because our Festival visitors come from many countries, and we should like to make it easier for them to read, write, and say the name of the Festival”. Something even more special to look forward to next year!
Back to the present time however, and opening the action was, the soulful, rootsy sound of Ruthie Foster, multi-award winning songwriter and singer from Texas. Recent album Promise of A Brand New Day featured strongly in a set that also ranged widely - a smattering of Staples singers, a morsel of Marley, a little Lucinda Williams - but all given a distinctive emotionally honest treatment by Foster. It’s no surprise that this captivating performer is a five time Blues Music Award winner for the Koko Taylor Award for Best Traditional Female Artist!
Time to hot-foot upstairs to the “Mississippi” room, with its smaller acoustic stage and more intimate atmosphere to catch Doug Deming. Slicked back hair and equally slick licks were very much in evidence from the one time Detroit boy, now calling sunny Florida his home. With guest Steve Guyger providing muscular, up-front harp and a solid rhythm section in the shape of Doug’s regular band The Jewel Tones, their brand of lively jump blues went down well.
Meanwhile, the crowd was gathering in the main auditorium for the appearance of the first of the night’s big attractions, the fabulous Castro Coleman - better known as Mr. Sipp. As you probably could work out from the name, Sipp is a child of Mississippi and a top notch guitar slinger - no mean vocalist either. Mr. Sipp was honoured tonight with a presentation marking his imprint on the “Wall of Fame” - an honor presented to important cultural figures by the city of Frederikshavn, and the first blues musician to be so recognised. Sipp opened up with the old Howlin’ Wolf standard Smokestack Lightning. With an athleticism that belied his slight build and nerd-ish look, it was off from the stage and up, up into the top of the terraced rows of seating at the back of the hall, jamming all the while. That really got the crowd buzzing from the start.
Returning to the stage, Sipp was joined by another young guitar wizard, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram in a lively version of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come, giving ample opportunity to marvel at the dexterity of this 17-year old prodigy. Bringing the tempo down a notch or two, Sipp and his neatly-dressed band showed that they were equally at home with slow blues and shuffles as they had been with the searing guitar numbers, then once more turning the power up with a rousing finale in the shape of Jimi Hendrix’s classic Little Wing.
For a complete change of pace and style now, across to the acoustic stage for Corey Harris. Corey takes the down-home blues of the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and infuses the sounds of West Africa, producing a mellow and rhythmic mix.
Back into the main stage for the headline act of the night; unfortunately Chicago powerhouse slide guitarist and singer Joanna Connor could not make it due to illness. Finding an act to fill in at short notice could be a big headache for a promoter, but, making a welcome appearance for the second year in a row, British harp meister Steve “West” Weston stepped into the breach. He was more than ably supported by his partner in crime from Mud Morganfield’s touring band, the superb Danish guitarist Ronni Boysen. Backed by an international collection of sidemen, Steve and Ronni kicked out some good time blues, with a hint to the golden age of Chicago blues master, Muddy Waters. Ronni’s notable guitar skills held the room while Steve’s hot harp and engaging chatter kept the audience engaged and enjoying the performance. A last-minute choice they might have been, but they surely provided a quality close out to the first day of the festival.
This festival has a habit of pulling surprising names out of the hat and this year was no exception. Opening the second day’s line up, was a world-famous guitarist, with multiple Grammy nominations under his belt and a host of collaborations with some of the biggest names out there: Robben Ford. Featuring the Nordkraft Big Band, based out of nearby Aalborg, both stage and auditorium was packed! This was somewhat of a reunion gig, as Robben and the Nordkraft band have performed and toured together on numerous occasions. Robben took advantage of the full sound of the band to work the jazzier side of the blues street. What an interesting choice to start the day!
Now for a complete contrast, a young man from Clarksdale, Mississippi: Christone Kingfish Ingram. In a few short years, the 17 year-old guitar prodigy has reached astonishing heights, international tours and appearances with legends such as Buddy Guy. But his performance was not all about fiery guitar slinging as you might expect -- Christone shows mature use of dynamics and pacing to add depth and texture to his solos, and also has a much deeper, richer singing voice that you’d expect from a kid of 17. Even breaking a string mid-solo couldn’t stop the torrent of riffs and licks tumbling off Christone’s fingers (and tongue too, apparently having mastered even that trick already). Listening to the virtuosity of his playing, it was easy to forget his lack of years; until during a break to replace that broken string, Christone’s mother, Princess, popped up to tell the world how proud she was of her young son - still young enough that she has to accompany him on the tours. Back with all six strings now, he finished up the set with numbers by two guitar legends from very different ends of the six-string spectrum, The Thrill is Gone and Purple Rain. The terrific reception from the audience indicates that this young man has a very bright career ahead of him.
A treat for aficionados of the slide guitar next up, as we catch a glimpse of slide wizard Roy Rogers’ and his band Delta Rhythm Kings. Probably best known for his work with the late great John Lee Hooker, Roy has recently released his album “Into the Wild Blue” and a track, “Don’t You Let Them Win,” from this disc shone out, as Roy’s flying fingers worked their magic.
Now, if Christone Ingram was a look at the young, up-and-coming generation of blues players, next on was a good, heaping helping of the sound that made Chicago such potent force in the blues world, and beyond. The Original Chicago Blues All Stars has been around for 40 or so years, and from its origins with the legendary Willie Dixon, has maintained a direct connection with the icons of the Windy City’s own style. The lineup today featured Freddie Dixon, following in his father Willie’s footsteps on bass, and Steve Bell, likewise inheritor of his own father Carey’s skill on the harmonica. Top sideman and producer Maurice John Vaughn took the front seat on guitar with the late Otis Clay’s Sir Dedrick Blanchard on Hammond. Rounding out the band we had noted drummer, educator and theatrical producer, Doctor Jimmy Tillman. This was a sharp-suited group of guys who looked like they meant business, and did they deliver.
With so much talent in the band the only thing to do was to take turns fronting, and so Maurice John Vaughn led off with a brace of his well-known songs: “I’m a Travelin’ Man” -- with some fine harp action from Steve Bell -- and “Everything I Do, Got to Be Funky”. From behind the kit, Jimmy Tillman took over celebrating Willie Dixon’s influence on “Earthquake and Hurricane”, and what could be more natural to follow that, than to hand over the reins to Freddie Dixon to finish up with one more of his father’s, the classic “Hoochie Coochie Man”. Some may say this gets overplayed, but in the hands of a band like this, it becomes as exciting and magical as it ever did, and the audience certainly received the set with great enthusiasm.
The second half of the show saw the All Stars backing one of Chicago’s blues divas - Holle “Thee” Maxwell, whose entrance in a turquoise taffeta costume and a waterfall of blonde hair was theatrical to say the least. Holle worked the audience in the big room just as though they were in an intimate club setting, taking them through a set with soulful songs (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”) and jazzy arrangements of the blues standards. Holle spent a good number of years with the Ike Turner band, so no surprise that she went there for the closing number “Proud Mary”.
Just time for a quick peek at the quaintly-named The Cornfeds on the acoustic stage, which was enough to get a sense of their rustic, downhome style, wielding resonator and hollow-body guitar, before rushing back to the main stage for the closing act, Eric “Slim” Zahl and the South West Swingers. “We came to rock and roll” announced Eric, and indeed they did. Winners of this year’s European Blues Challenge, Eric and the band also collected a Grammy in their native Norway for Best Blues Album in 2013. Their style of 1950s-influenced jump blues and swing, both musically and in stage presence was just the thing to close out a show on a high-energy note.
So with a new brand to look out for, but keeping the tradition of high quality artists and excellent production, staging and organisation, “Blues Heaven On Earth” 2017 should be an event that blues fans across Europe and beyond should make note of in their diaries.
About the author: Glenn Noble is Chicago Blues Guide’s London based correspondent for European blues festivals. When not at blues gigs with his wife and reporting partner, photographer Jennifer, he can be found playing baritone horn and bass guitar in various bands on London's punk rock scene.