Hidden River Blues Festival

Venice Island / Manayunk, PA

This one-day event was held for the first time at the Venice Island Performing Arts Center in Manayunk, a trendy Philadelphia community on the Schuylkill River. The late morning and early afternoon featured regional acts, with national/international acts Sugar Blue and Otis Taylor closing.  The mobile stage was positioned in a parking lot below, and the sweltering heat had a large portion of the crowd viewing the proceedings from the tented concession areas above, especially for the regional performers like the James Supra Band who played in the dead heat of the afternoon.

Sugar Blue with his tight five-piece band delivered a high energy set that drew many from their perches to the front of the stage. Sugar Blue has his own signature harp sound, tons of notes and a style that runs as close to jazz and jam band as blues. You have the sense he could play in any genre, such is his command of the instrument. Guitarist Rico McFarland has a resume that includes James Cotton, Lucky Peterson, Albert King and Otis Clay among others; and his interplay with Blue and his soloing was riveting. This band really makes blues sound contemporary.

Otis Taylor has branded the “Trance Blues” sound but in this setting he played loud (more on this later) and took his modern day John Lee Hooker sound to a jam band vibe. By this time the area in front of the stage had some shade and a sizeably enthusiastic crowd responded to Taylor’s “The closer you get, the better I play” plea. Of course, fiddler Anne Harris, is a both an aural and visual delight as she moves and dances ever so gracefully while fiddling. Taylor shed his axe in favor of a harp for “Hambone” as he wandered into the crowd riffing. Most of the material was from recent release, Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat. Note: In the interest of honest reporting, Taylor’s set was hampered by the annoying sound of a police helicopter than hovered directly over the stage area, hence the band’s loud sound trying to offset the competing noise. The next morning we unfortunately learned that one patron tried to cool off by taking a dip in the river and unfortunately drowned. While the organizers had seemed pleased with this inaugural event, we’ll see what effect this tragic incident has on its future.

—Jim Hynes

Photos by Kevin P. Inman

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