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19th Annual Lucerne Blues Festival

14-16 November 2013

Lucerne, Switzerland 

by Glenn Noble

photos: Jennifer Noble

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Byther Smith & Larry Garner
Byther Smith & Larry Garner at an after hours set 

A chilly Lucerne, nestled by a pristine lake high in the picturesque Swiss mountains, welcomes the hottest blues talent to its festival every November since 1994.  The line-up for the big festival weekend is composed of artists drawn from many parts of the blues world, but it’s no surprise that the Chicago scene usually provides some of the most exciting acts - after all Chicago and Lucerne have been culturally linked sister cities for over 15 years!  This year was no exception, with a bill containing a smattering of BMA and Grammy winners; a handful of blues ladies, some guitar gurus and harmonica heroes; music from the Crescent City to Chi-town, from West Coast to East.

Michael Van Merwyk & Larry Garner
L to R: Michael Van Merwyk & Larry Garner 

So to open the proceedings in the delightful setting of the Grand Casino, Larry Garner and Michael Van Merwyk settled into the chairs. A partnership between the Baton Rouge, LA songwriter and a German blues buddy, there was a whole lot of laid back, joke-cracking banter to ease into the festival.  Working with a pair of acoustic guitars, and occasional lap steel interlude from Van Merwyk, it was a friendly, engaging performance which easily got the audience in the mood.  For example, a great singalong number was  “Going To Lucerne” , a song dedicated to the festival,  which featured a guest spot from the dual harps of Rick Estrin and Johnny Sansone , of whom more later.

Zora Young, Bob Margolin, Bob Stroger
L to R: Chicago Blues Allstars, Bob Margolin, Zora Young, Bob Stroger

The first of the Chicago blues world contributions now took the stage.  Under the banner of Chicago Blues Allstars,  songstress Zora Young fronted a band featuring some of the stalwarts of the Chicago scene: guitarist Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, with Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and Bob Stroger in the engine room. Bob Margolin led off the first couple of numbers, growling through the vocals, then gave the mic to bassist Bob Stroger, resplendent in zoot suit and feather hat.  Not to be left behind, Kenny Smith took a turn singing from the drum seat too.  Having set the scene, Bob introduced the featured vocalist, Zora Young.  Zora laid her blues diva credentials right on the table from the start, tearing straight into a rocking version of “Daughter of A Son-of-a-Gun” from her Sunnyland  album, which she recorded with the great Hubert Sumlin.  A more emotional moment, then as she slowed down the tempo in “Thrill is Gone”, and then picked up the pace with another of her own tunes “Pity Party”.  Turning the heat up another few notches, the whole band went out on top with those old standards “Dust My Broom” and “Mojo”. 

Johnny Rawls & Byther Smith
Johnny Rawls & Byther Smith

Johnny Rawls and Destini Rawls Mississippi Soul Blues delivered exactly what the name promised.  Mr. Rawls is a very tight and disciplined bandleader as you would expect from Johnny’s time leading Southern soul legend O.V. Wright’s band for many years.  A sultry “Help Me” (Sonny Boy Williamson) heavily featuring Hammond B3 segued into “Fever”,  whipping up the crowd (especially the ladies!) with some hot dance moves.  Johnny then called up daughter Destini for a pretty rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Chain of Fools”.  Johnny then took over once more with “Red Cadillac” from the award-winning album of the same name. The audience was really getting into the soulful groove over the next couple of numbers, happy to “get down for me” on “Soul Survivor”.  Destini returned  for a cover of The Staples “I’ll Take You There”  then a couple more bluesy numbers: “I’m Movin In Baby and All Your Troubles Are Movin Out!” and “Baby Hit the Road”. Getting back to the soul with “Can I Get It” -- a good solid soul tune from the Red Cadillac album -- continued to encourage the dance moves going through the crowd. Byther Smith was called up for a chorus or two delivered by ”two Mississippi boys”.  To wind up a set of toe-tapping, hip-shakin soul, Johnny turned to the late Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight” -- a wonderful choice of set closer

Byther Smith

The headliner Byther Smith, although a Mississippi native, has spent the majority of his musical life as part of the Chicago blues scene.  Backed by bass guru EG McDaniel and Bryant T. Parker on drums,  the veteran bluesman laid out some straight ahead guitar picking and revealed he still has a remarkably robust voice for a performer in his 80s! On slow blues like  “Hold That Train Conductor” and “Forty-Four Blues,”  his hoarse, rasping vocal fit the subject perfectly.  More up-tempo fare like Howlin’ Wolf’s “300 Pounds of Joy” and “Mojo” raised the energy level.   Zora Young made a guest appearance and revealed that Byther was one of the first people to help her out when she was starting in Chicago. Byther learned from (and was a first cousin of) JB Lenoir, so finishing the show on Lenoir’s “How Much More Longer” felt very apt.

James Harman
James Harman

Way over on the other side of the Grand Casino, on the Casineum Club stage, the late night set went through to the small hours with a packed stage featuring James Harman’s Bamboo Porch Revue,  backed by longtime guitarist Nathan James and additional percussion from “Bonedaddy” Tempo.  This line-up made for a lively fusion of West Coast blues and Cuban/Caribbean rhythms, led by Harman’s agile and gutsy harmonica lines.

Rick Estrin
Rick Estrin

Friday night opened up with the very cool-looking Rick Estrin and the Nightcats fresh from a 2013 BMA win (Estrin scored Best Harmonica Player). Straight off the bat, Rick started blasting the harp with a high-speed jump blues, “Squeeze Me”, then made way for guitarist Kid Andersen to show off some extended and melodic solos on a slow blues. Lorenzo Farrell stepped out from behind the Hammond to work the double bass, demonstrating the versatility and talented musicianship supporting Rick. Not to be left out, drummer Jay Hansen, took over vocals from behind the kit on a real rock’n’roller of a number, with Kid Andersen high-kicking around the stage.  Obviously energized, the next number was a showcase for Andersen -- “The Legend of Taco Cobbler” from 2012’s One Wrong Turn album.  This was a completely over the top homage to surf music and spaghetti western soundtracks, which at one point had Andersen’s iPhone generating tones into the guitar pickups - wild stuff and great entertainment.  A more traditional blues, “Callin’ All Fools”, brought Rick back into the picture, winding into “If You Dig It Don’t Do It” - a Nightcats oldie. “You Can’t Come Back” closed out a spectacular set. 

Annie SampsonAngela Strehli
Annie Sampson & Angela Strehli

The Blues Broads, a foursome of the best female vocalists around  - Dorothy Morrison, Tracey Nelson, Angela Strehli and Annie Sampson - each bring their own distinctive perspective and influences to the mix.  Dorothy Morrison’s gospel background, Tracey Nelson’s country style, Angela Strehli’s Texas roots and Annie Sampson’s musical theatre heritage provided a rich set of both individual contributions, and combinations that covered the widest range of blues styles. 

Dorothy MorrisonTracey Nelson
Dorothy Morrison & Tracey Nelson

 “Livin’ the Blues” and “Two Bit Texas Town”, down home blues tunes, contrasted nicely with soul classics “Respect Yourself” and “River Deep”.  There were also a couple of big mainstream hits in the repertoire which had to be aired -- Annie Sampson proved outstanding on Dylan’s  “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and Dorothy Morrison’s rousing reprise of “Oh Happy Day” -- a real high energy gospel number with which to end a show of real quality.

Bobby Rush 

Bobby Rush laid down an eye-poppin’ extravaganza of a show, but behind the gals, glamour and glitz, there’s a pretty talented singer, songwriter and harp player with a great feel for a tune, as evidenced by his 2013 Grammy award nomination in the Best Blues Album category for Down In Louisiana.  When Bobby sang “Ain’t She Fine” and “You Know What You Do” with his two showgirls, there was little doubt what he was talking about!  But with a twinkle in his eye, his relationship with the ladies always felt naughty but nice, never tawdry. The nimble blues star whipped from one style of music to another in mid-song, from straight-up blues  (“What You’re Doing To Me Would Never Do”) to funk (“Ain’t Studdin’ Ya” featuring some fine guitar slinging - literally!) and back to Chicago blues shuffle (“You Know I’m Crazy About You” and “Have You Ever Been Mistreated”).  It was amazing to see Bobby put out a phenomenal amount of energy, especially for a man in his 70s. Prolific in output - having made almost 250 recordings since 1951, Bobby gave us a little autobiography while singing  “Hoochie Coochie Man” and shared his philosophy as a performer: “Why I’m here, is to entertain you.” With his memorable rendition of Muddy Waters’ “19 Years Old” and the funky blues with “Everybody In The World Like That Thing,” Bobby showed how rappers like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent stole it all from him and from James Brown.  For good measure the master entertainer impersonated Michael Jackson and Elvis too!  He geared up for the finale with “Catfish Blues,” “Three Problems” (i.e. A Lover, A Girlfriend and a Wife), and ended with an extended “Shake Rattle and Roll”; Bobby and the girls took many bows and were gifted with enthusiastic applause from a delighted audience.

Bnois KingSmokin' Joe Kubek

Smokin’ Joe Kubek (right) and Bnois King (left) drove the night to a close with some signature hard rockin’ Texas style guitar from Smokin’ Joe, nicely balanced by the softer, more rootsy picking and singing from Bnois.

Byther Smith took on the late slot on the Casineum Club, and for my money, the veteran bluesman turned in a much more relaxed set in the club setting than the earlier main stage show.   Once more, the stalwart work of bassist EG McDaniel kept the show in shape through the late night haze.

Pat Wilder & Carole Mayedo 
L to R: Carole Mayedo & Pat Wilder

California guitarist and singer Pat Wilder and her band Serious Business kicked off the Saturday night session.  Livened up by Pat’s infectious enthusiasm, the crowd gave her a warm reception.  Carole Mayedo on violin added an extra dimension to a set with a definite slant to the funkier side of the blues.

Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom Trio were next up.  A long time member of B.B.King’s band, Ron took the Hammond B3 and went in a more jazzy direction with it.

James Harman’s Bamboo Porch Revue, making their second appearance of the Festival, started with a simple, understated tale featuring Harman and his solo harp; then he brought on Nathan James who soloed on a peculiar guitar with a body made from a washboard playing a downhome, fingerpicking number called “Green Snakeskin Shoes”.  Introducing the rhythm section, the full band launched into an uptempo “Crap Shoot”, and set the tone for a set full of swinging West Coast blues, punctuated by the excellent harp work of Mr. Harman.

Johnny Sansone 

Johnny Sansone, New Orleans-based harmonica player, accordion player, singer and songwriter came on with a wild set to close out the action on the main stage.  Set opener “Invisible” was an epic tale of bad news and bad luck which had Sansone using the bullet mic atmospherically to create a scratchy, broken feel to the vocals, while John Fohl’s long, sinuous guitar lines evoked a sparse backdrop for the harmonica accents.  By contrast, when Johnny brought out his accordion and kicked into some Zydeco-flavoured  numbers from his Crescent Moon period (“Give Me A Dollar And Watch Me Play”), he turned on the crowd’s dancing feet and had everyone jumping.  Ringing the changes of mood again, the intensity was turned way up on “The Lord Is Waiting, The Devil Is Too”. With a searing harp on top of heavy duty guitar riffs, brandishing a mojo like a man possessed, this was a compelling performance that riveted the attention of all.  Well-deserved of his multiple BMA awards and nominations in 2012 (Song of the Year, Contemporary Blues Male Artist, Contemporary Blues Album, Album of the Year), Sansone gave us an outstanding show to remember the festival by.

It fell to Smokin’ Joe Kubek to take the last late night show on the Casineum Club stage, living up to his nickname and jamming with many of the rest of the artists to the great delight of the hardcore blues fans who had the stamina to stick it out ‘til the wee small hours.  So, once more the Lucerne Blues Festival team, led by Guido Schmidt and Martin Bruendler, had worked their magic and created a top quality lineup with something for everyone to enjoy.  Blues fans across Europe eagerly await the 20th festival in November 2014.

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rambler.jpg lynnejordan.jpgLynne Jordan