“You can’t buy this anywhere,” said the stage manager as we witnessed an impromptu jam with James “Super Chikan” Johnson backed by rising blues talent Jarekus Singleton. Aside from the dueling guitars and Johnson’s boundless energy, Singleton’s smile alone could have lit up the room.
This July, the Pennsylvania Blues Festival (formerly called the Pocono Blues Festival) celebrated its 23rd year of bringing unmatched, “real deal” blues to the area. Michael Cloeren, who has produced the event each year, does not bow to commercial acts. In fact, he shuns them in favor of hand picking musicians who play with unbridled passion and live, breathe and sleep the music. Cloeren sees 95% of the acts he brings in, seeking out authenticity and building a tremendous amount of trust within the blues community. Having dedicated his life to keeping the blues traditions alive, his audience consists of loyal blues fans who respond with lots of love. Artists are honored to play this event.
This year, the most anticipated act was Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, a band that had not appeared in the area for over a decade. They did not disappoint. Ronnie humbly began his mind-blowing set by thanking the audience, saying, “We are blessed to be playing for you. We are not here to show off; we are here to spread the love.” Adjectives cannot adequately describe Earl’s performance. He feels every note he plays and is able to convey a spiritual intensity and mastery of dynamics like no other guitarist, anchored by a top-notch band that made for musical heaven. Earl was preceded by 73-year-old blues and soul veteran Barbara Carr, who was backed by an amazingly energetic young band. Carr fittingly concluded her powerful, gutsy set with Koko Taylor’s “Force of Nature.” She and Earl delivered the strongest back-to-back, emotionally draining sets I’ve seen in at least ten years.
Blues legend James Cotton closed the main stage on Saturday, displaying his iconic blues harp technique accompanied by his band, featuring soulful vocalist Darrell Nulisch. Ursula Ricks delivered two funky sets, and Rip Lee Pryor, son of Snooky Pryor, had the audience tapping their feet and dancing at the indoor stage. The main stage also featured a blistering performance by Shawn Holt (son of Magic Slim) and the Teardrops, as well as tasty soul and blues from Tad Robinson.
Sunday’s highlight was Jarekus Singleton’s performance. When I remarked to Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer how impressed I was with Singleton’s poise and presence, Iglauer said, simply, “He came with it.” Singleton writes his own material, mixes in funk and rap, plays incendiary guitar and has all the makings of the next big blues star who will be faithful to the tradition while shaping a new direction.
Californian guitarist Chris Cain is a great example of the relatively unknown blues artist with the Cloeren stamp of approval that is able to leave the audience saying, “Wow, he can play and sing so damn soulfully.” Elsewhere, the Heritage Blues Quintet played a rousing set of blues and gospel, highlighted by Chaney Sims dancing to their rhythmic version of Nina Simone’s “See-Line Woman.” Mississippi’s Como Mamas took us to church with acappella gospel and the D.C.-area trio of Little Bit a Blues delighted with their soothing, swaying Piedmont blues. A special brunch featured a crowd-pleasing set from Murali Coryell and Dave Keyes, who closed with Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles covers. Now that’s a set!
The experience of the Pennsylvania Blues Festival goes well beyond seeing and hearing music; you feel the experience more deeply than at other festivals of this type. And this was easily the festival’s most consistently strong set of performances yet.
– Jim Hynes