Pennsylvania Blues Festival

Split Rock Resort / Lake Harmony, PA

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Photos by Laura Carbone

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival returned to Lake Harmony at a new location after a four year absence from the area, and settled in very comfortably to its new home at Split Rock Resort, just two miles away from its original site. With numerous nearby accommodations and a spacious site that offered both sun and plenty of shade, Pocono Blues Festival (1992 – 2010) veterans had a sense of renewal, enjoying a varied program of unmatched, high quality blues, soul, gospel and R&B that award-winning producer Michael Cloeren has uniquely delivered to this area for 24 years. Cloeren held the festival at Blue Mountain in Palmerton, PA for the past four years, but it had reached a stagnation point there. “My audience needs the rooms nearby. They are a little older and tent camping is not their thing. The local businesses are thrilled to have us back, because blues fans spend money.”

This year’s festival was dedicated to the late Grammy Award-winning Texan Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, who headlined the Pocono Blues Festival twice, and for some inexplicable reason has not yet been inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. Copeland was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award followed by Saturday’s night’s rousing set by Copeland’s daughter, Shemekia, who closed the Main Stage in her own inimitable fiery style. Shemekia then led a special tribute to her father, featuring the four surviving members of Copeland’s band — Barry Harrison on drums, Randy Lippincott on bass Bobby Kyle and Joel Perry on guitar. It was the first time since Copeland passed on July 3, 1997 that they have played together. They were joined by a full Texas horn section. Cloeren explained that he asked Shemekia, who has had a summer home in Lake Harmony for 15 years, to choose the songs and even the key in which they were played, while Kyle separately rehearsed the band.  This special showcase event didn’t end until after 1:30 A.M., with members of Copeland’s family from North Carolina, New Jersey and New York present. For this writer, the respectful renditions of Johnny Copeland’s music brought back many terrific memories and found me playing those early Johnny Copeland Rounder releases, as well as material from the nineties like “Catch Up with the Blues” in the past couple of days. Let’s hope that this great bluesman gets his due next year.

Florida’s Selwyn Birchwood opened the Main Stage on Saturday with his swampy brand of electric blues, featuring a quartet that included a baritone saxophone. Birchwood plays both the Stratocaster and lap steel, the latter of which he used to close his energetic set with “Hoodoo Stew.” Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers pushed the party to a higher level as Dopsie himself went into the crowd to engage the audience in some booty shaking. Sugar Ray & the Bluetones played a set of solid blues featuring the interplay of Sugar Ray Norcia’s harmonica and Monster Mike Welch’s searing guitar. Welch highlighted the set with a masterful instrumental tribute to B.B. King. Walter “Wolfman” Washington offered his blend of New Orleans, funk, jazz and blues.

Saturday’s Tent Stage featured two sets of down and dirty Detroit blues from Harmonica Shah, accompanied by the young gifted guitarist, Carlton Washington. John Mooney had the crowd enraptured with his two sets of absolutely brilliant slide guitar and Dwayne Dopsie had them dancing again to close the evening.

Sunday’s Tent Stage was highlighted by two sets of funky blues jamming by the Peterson Brothers of Bastrop, Texas. I heard several folks say that they were the “best surprise this year” – a testament to the prodigious talent and unbridled enthusiasm of guitarist Glenn, 18, and younger brother and bassist, Alex, only 16. A friend aptly described their music as a mix of “Albert Collins meets Prince.” Alvin Youngblood Hart provided a nice contrast with his relaxed brand of country blues. The Mikey Junior Band and Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots delivered high energy, danceable sets as well.

Sunday’s Main Stage performance always begins with a gospel act, and this year it was especially great. The Highway QC’s, a band that has been together since 1946 and has spawned such giants as Lou Rawls, Johnny Taylor and Sam Cooke, showcased the deeply powerful vocals of 87 year old leader, Spencer Taylor, and his son, Spencer Taylor Jr., backed by a full band and two other vocalists. I was simply in awe of their powerful set. Dynamic vocalist Vaneese Thomas, daughter of Rufus Thomas, commanded quite a stage presence with her mix of Memphis blues and soul. Boogie-woogie pianist Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots raised the energy even further. Harmonica player and vocalist John Nemeth delivered blues and soul with his tight four-piece band and festival favorite, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, making their sixth appearance, delighted the audience with their vintage Chicago slide blues.

I wasn’t able to catch the Friday or Sunday night jam or the Sunday Brunch with Slam Allen, but can attest to positive comments on all events from those I spoke to. The experience goes well beyond seeing and hearing music – you feel the music and the comradery more deeply than at other festivals of this type. Put it in your calendar – the 2016 Pennsylvania Blues Festival, the highest quality blues festival in the states, will be held next year on July 29-31 at Split Rock Resort, Lake Harmony, PA. For more information, visit their website here.

-Jim Hynes

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