“If every gig was like this one, there would be way too many musicians and not enough listeners,” beamed Mark Ross, guitarist for Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats, one of this year’s many strong debut acts at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival, where performers arguably have as good a time as the party-going attendees. Everybody’s in a good mood for “the best two days of the year.” Veterans have seen this festival grow from less than 2000 attendees in the early years to an audience approaching 7000 in this– its 18th — year. Somehow the weather seems to uncannily bless the fest with clear, sunny skies and comfortable, low-eighty-degree temperatures each year. It’s just an absolutely gorgeous, relaxed yet lively weekend in so many ways.
While the main attraction for Briggs is its loose, family-gathering vibe, the music is adapting to the growth as well, with blues-rock becoming the major Main Stage genre. Meanwhile, the Back Porch stage has progressed from local and regional acts to a mix that now includes national acts too. The proprietors, Richard and Alison Briggs, do remain committed to traditional blues though, as evidenced by Friday’s Centennial Blues Celebration, curated by Michael Cloeren, producer of the Pocono and PA Blues Festivals. Teeny Tucker, Bobby Kyle and Lonnie Shields performed the music of originators Robert Lockwood Jr., Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines and Billie Holiday, with Tucker closing out the set with a rousing rendition of “This Train” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Mississippi bluesmen Terry “Harmonica” Bean and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes delivered rural and hill country blues on both days. Shields, who spends most of his time cooking the southern style barbecue food that was served at the fest, still mustered enough energy to close out the Back Porch both nights, this time serving up vintage electric blues and soul to dancing throngs.
Last year I dubbed the Alexis P. Suter Band as having the most dynamic, crowd-pleasing set. They topped it this year by bringing world renowned keyboardists John Ginty and Bruce Katz onstage along with drummer Gabe Butterfield, son of recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Paul Butterfield, who joined the band’s Ray Grappone on drums. Teeny Tucker and her seven piece band offered a solid set, accented by the tasteful guitar playing of Robert Hughes. The Devon Allman Band closed Friday night with a blistering set that included selections from his most recent release, Ragged & Dirty, punctuated with his covers of the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” and, of course, The ABB’s “Sweet Melissa” and “One Way Out.”
Saturday’s highlights included the aforementioned Miss Melanie and The Valley Rats with a simmering, smoldering set of vintage, sixties R&B that drew several standing ovations mid-set. Bobby Kyle’s band authored a straight-ahead blues set with Bobby totally shredding his National Steel. Current chart topper Slam Allen played a heartfelt tribute to B.B. King, a generous selection from his recent Feel These Blues while also nodding to Hendrix and Prince and taking an extended solo amidst the crowd below the stage. Mike Zito and the Wheel, featuring three Blues Award nominees/winners (Jimmy Carpenter on sax, Scot Sutherland on bass and Zito himself), energized the crowd with mostly swampy blues and southern rock, capped with a CCR encore of “Bootleg/Born on the Bayou.” Blues Award winner and former Trampled Under Foot bassist/vocalist Danielle Nicole now has her own band, and took her closing opportunity to preview selections from her upcoming album, Wolf Den, and regale the well-satiated crowd with popular covers.
Briggs Farm audiences are respectfully enthusiastic as opposed to the obnoxiously rowdy audiences you often find at these kinds of events. Every artist I spoke to waxed eloquently about what a pleasure it is to play this festival. The atmosphere is just so inviting that long-time Briggs Farm fixture, James Owens, proposed to his fiancée during Suter’s set. This festival is no longer a closely held secret, and it’s no longer small. And yet, it still gets better each year.
Photos by Mike Gendimenico