Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Lucerne Blues Festival 2011
November 10 - 12
By Glenn Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
To see more photos of the fest, visit us on FACEBOOK
Picture a city by a lake with mountain views everywhere, with the sound of blues music drifting out over the water. No, it’s not Chicago, but the beautiful, mostly German speaking, Swiss city of Lucerne, holding its annual Blues Festival in the luxurious lakeside surroundings of the Grand Casino. Now in its 17th year, Lucerne is one of the premier festivals in Europe and attracts top blues artists from around the world. This year saw a particularly strong turnout of Chicago favourites. The Swiss love their blues and know how to do it right.
Day 1 – Thursday, November 10th
Main Stage - Panorama Room
With a stellar Chicago band on board -- including Billy Flynn on guitar, Rodney Brown on sax, bassist Melvin Smith and keyboardist Johnny Iguana – the stage was set for something special and with the arrival of Deitra Farr, the expectations were truly met. Sweeping on to “I’m Worried About My Man,” Chicago’s versatile blues woman switched around between soulful numbers, “Search Is Over” and “It’s My Time,” as well as more traditional blues. Whatever style of song however, her beautifully sustained notes and intimate expression made it feel as if she was singing to each member of the audience, individually. A rousing finale with Billy switching between guitar and harmonica took the set to a triumphant finish and Deitra departed with a bouquet and a huge storm of applause.
Meanwhile, as the main stage show wound down, over on the other side of the Casino on the Casineum Club stage, the first of the nightly late shows started up.
Casineum Club Stage
Shawn Pittman and the Bluestars
Now this was a man playing with real passion. A cheap-looking, gold painted guitar he may have carried, but in the hands of the talented Mr. Pittman, it was transformed. “I Believe” he sang, and you know that everyone within earshot believed too. People are dancing – and why not?! This was Texas boogie at its finest.
Day 2 -- Friday, November 11th
Main Stage - Panorama Room
Shawn Pittman and the Bluestars
Looking and sounding fresh in spite of the previous night’s exertions on the Casino Stage, Shawn ripped into a quartet of tracks from his latest album Edge of the World. “Almost Good,” “One of these Days,” “Leanin' Load” and “Edge of the World” featured some excellent solos on a reverb-y Telecaster. After a long, slow 12-bar (“my attempt at an Albert King” he quipped) Shawn was back on the boogie trail, revisiting the back catalogue with tracks from Something's Gotta Give and Meridian. Shawn closed out with some smoking slide on “I’ve Had Enough,” taking time at the end to express sincere thanks and appreciation to the organisers and the audience for the invitation to play, which was a typically nice gesture from a Lone Star State gentleman.
Henry Gray and Tail Dragger with Bob Corritore’s Rhythm Room All-Stars
Blues harp player Bob Corritore (with Kirk Fletcher and Chris James on guitar and Patrick Rynn on bass) warmed up the expectant audience for the legendary pianist Henry Gray (who once backed up Chicago titans like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley). Gray kicked it off with the title track from his recent CD Times Are a Gettin' Hard. Clearly there was no shortage of power, pace or rhythm in Henry Gray’s fingers or voice. Whether rolling and trickling through slow 12-bar solos or ringing, bell-like broken chords, the piano maestro was in full cry. It seemed that as the set progressed Henry’s voice was getting stronger and rawer at the same time. So, after a half-dozen numbers, the other veteran part of the bill climbed aboard.
Chicago’s Tail Dragger (who was mentored by Howlin’ Wolf) introduced himself with some business about needing a chair, “’cause I got old, and if you all get old, you’ll need one too”; yet as soon as he started singing “My Woman Is Gone (Where Did My Woman Go),” he was up and roaming the room, presumably looking for her, much to the audience’s delight. Continuing his journey while performing “Stop Lying,” he managed to sneak around the opposite side of the stage, playfully wrong-footing Bob and the band, who meanwhile were blowing a storm. Settling down on the stool, Tail Dragger joined in a vocal duet with Henry, in which they compared how much “sugar” they both needed every day; this set up Henry’s solo playoff to huge applause. Both veterans’ performances were unbelievably energetic, and were matched by the nonstop harp blowing of Bob Corritore, who barely paused for a breath through the entire show.
No stranger to the Lucerne festival, Otis Clay had a lot of fans in the room and he welcomed them like family to a top-drawer performance. By singing quality numbers to open his show -- like the 2007 Grammy-nominated “Walk a Mile In My Shoes” and the 2010 Grammy-winning “Got to Get Back to My Baby” -- the gospel and soul legend created a powerhouse start to his set! Otis took on a commanding form, spellbinding the audience from the outset. Otis wooed the audience with “I Could Take You to Heaven Tonight” and judging by the ecstatic reaction of the crowd, he succeeded in doing so. The set reached another high with an extended riff on the Al Green classic “Take Me To the River,” with some outstanding Hammond B3 solo work and singalong participation throughout the room, before closing on “Nickel and a Nail”. There was no way that this was going to satisfy the devoted crowd, however. After all, Clay’s 2003 album In the House was recorded live at Lucerne and probably every local citizen owned a copy.
Even after one encore – a medley of “Let it Shine,” “Amen, Amen,” “Dock of the Bay” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” -- Otis was pleased to come back for a second encore and sang the touching ballad, “If I Can Reach Out and Help Somebody” to finally set the seal on a masterful demonstration of the Chicago soul sound.
Otis Clay was a decidedly tough act to follow, but Detroit’s Larry McCray rose to the challenge. Opening with “Broken Promises” Larry McCray wooed the crowd with his extraordinary guitar playing along with the chemistry between Larry and his bass player, the jovial Kerry Clark. Larry is a musician's musician and consummate crowd pleaser (especially a 14-year old fan named Francis who had travelled with his dad all the way from England!). Larry's set highlighted his ability to rock the audience with heavy numbers like “Run”. However, with classy B.B. King-influenced blues like “Never Hurt So Bad”, Larry demonstrated a more subtle, yet equally emotional and powerful, side of his repertoire.
He has much more to offer and I suspect he will be back in Lucerne someday in the future.
Day 3 – Saturday, November 12th
Main Stage – Panorama Room
Jay Sieleman, Executive Director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis, brought on stage no less than 14 Keeping The Blues Alive award winners who were present at the Festival. Seileman took the opportunity to present the 2011 photo award to lensman Aigars Lapsa. Jay paid tribute to the quality and influence of the Lucerne Festival, demonstrated by the presence of so many KBA award winners in attendance and thanked them all for their efforts for keeping the music alive.
Quintus McCormick Blues Band
Although Chicagoan Quintus McCormick has only released two albums (for Delmark) under his own name, he was mentored by the great James Cotton and the maturity of his performance belies the youth of his catalogue. Tracks like “You Got It” and “50/50” showcase Quintus’ warm, lush baritone vocal while his wild solo on “Get You Some Business But Leave Mine Alone” hinted at the showman lurking under that easy voice. He really started hitting his stride on a slow blues jam, with enough little flourishes to keep the old 12-bar fresh; he then evolved into a conversation through his guitar with the audience, while flirting with the ladies, to the huge approval of the crowd. Then, in an instant, he transformed to the relatively poppy-sounding “You’re Just Using Me Baby, the Way I’m Using You”, which again mutated and developed into an extended guitar/piano riff-out coda. This led the way to a terrifically emotional “Steal Away”, with falsetto vocals, “talking” guitar, once more, rambling through the audience, clearly having as much enjoyment as anyone. Eventually though, Quintus had to close, but due to great acclaim from the crowd, he came back for more, and delighted everyone by taking a Santana trip through “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. To be honest, there seemed to be no reason to stop, and both Quintus and the crowd could have spent the rest of the night partying.
Testifying to the fantastic variety of the Lucerne festival bill, in complete contrast to Quintus, came Texas songbird Ruthie Foster, bringing a down-home, front porch feel to the evening. Ruthie’s clear, powerful, unforced vocals and spiritual-tinged, folksy sound was a straightforward vehicle for the crowd to get with. There was even a solo on the spoons, provided by her female drummer, during the Mississippi John Hurt tune “Richland Woman Blues.” You can’t get much more down-home than that!
Joe Louis Walker
More than a band, the Joe Louis Walker outfit was a party. Mixed through a set of blues standards, including a Muddy Waters medley and Junior Wells covers, were sprinkled intelligent, humorous tunes reflecting the life of a band on the road (“I Don’t Sing For Free”) and their musical upbringing (“In the Room with Jimi”). Incidentally the band had just finished a tour with the new Queen of Chicago Blues, Shemekia Copeland. All this, whipped up together with some fine musicianship and, once more, the untiring efforts of Bob Corritore on harp made for an extremely entertaining package.
Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience
Within ten seconds of Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience’s hitting the stage, it was “Hello Lousiana” and Mardi Gras time in Switzerland. Terrence’s Grammy-award winning show (we know because he brought the statue out to share with us!) involved great music, beads, hats, barefoot dancing and rum.
It was truly a magnificent way to bring the curtain down on yet another fine example of what makes Lucerne the premier showcase for blues in Europe.