Photos By Kyra Kverno
Carnegie Hall is hallowed ground for several reasons, but on the evening of February 5th, it was all about Huddie Ledbetter, known to most as Lead Belly. The event honored the man and the musician on the very stage where he gave his last performance in 1949; the sold out crowd and star packed lineup spoke volumes about a giant of a man who has been gone, but not forgotten, for 67 years.
The evening kicked off a bit late, without the usual fanfare that an event of this magnitude might suggest. Nick Moss took center stage with Michael Ledbetter, who was a respected member of the Chicago Opera community for over eight years before his path took him to the blues. Their acoustic rendition of “Backwater Blues” set a soulful tone for what was to fill this grand music hall over the next three hours. The audience was already clapping and singing along by the second song they performed, “C.C. Rider.” Lead Belly’s larger than life image was projected as a backdrop, while the musicians and announcers rotated throughout the multi-media tribute concert. John Davis took to the keys for a spirited “Eagle Rock Rag,” and Dom Flemons, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, followed in quick succession with “Poor Howard.” Dom gave a nod– as others that evening would– to Pete Seeger, before going for it on the banjo. He dubbed Lead Belly the “Rosetta Stone of Blues Music,” and the audience wholeheartedly agreed.
Laurence Jones, who became a big deal in Britain after she won the 2014 British Blues Award for Young Artist of the Year, was a new discovery for many of us in the audience. We were treated to two songs, “Swamp Soul River” and “Thunder in the Sky,” both of which sent a buzz through the eclectic New York crowd. Multi-faceted Guy Davis took it to another level with his tongue in cheek “Bourgeois Blues,” referencing current events in a song befitting Black History Month. Three time Grammy Winner, Tom Chapin, schooled us in the pronunciation of “Hu-Dee” Ledbetter’s name, and gave us a lesson in the 12-String Guitar that is so closely associated with Lead Belly. “Rock Island Line” and “Midnight Special” did not disappoint, with the latter even turning into a sing-a-long.
Walter Trout was introduced by his gracious wife, Marie Trout. Her introduction was heartfelt, and touched on how blessed we all feel that this guitar master has returned, better than ever, from the brink of death after a liver transplant last year. Trout’s performance of “Say Goodbye To The Blues” and “TB Blues” was electrifying, and he played with gusto and a fervor that conveyed his appreciation for his new lease on life. He also dedicated the first song to his very good friend and King of the Blues, B.B., and received the first standing ovation of the night. Before we had a chance to catch our breath, Dana Fuchs rounded out the first half of the evening, taking to center stage for her first appearance at Carnegie Hall. She looked every bit the part of a badass rock goddess, and she delivered, big time. Backed by three guitars, a violin and a piano, she belted out “Gallows Pole” like it was the most natural thing in the world to be on stage in one of the most revered music halls in the world. She left us wanting much, much more.
As the lights dimmed to begin the second half, the video backdrop touched on another crucial reason for the evening. The foundations that this event raises money for were brought to the forefront, as we learned about ABC, the Association to Benefit Children, inspired by Lead Belly’s love of children, and Project A.L.S, a foundation to research the disease that was responsible for claiming Huddie’s life. Ali Isabella stepped to the microphone and performed “Take This Hammer” in a seasoned manner that belied her youth, while images of children that have been helped by ABC flickered on the screen behind her. This segment also touched on the lesser known fact that Lead Belly performed for children in Tompkins Square Park, and also wrote and recorded children’s songs.
Edgar Winter was up next, leaping from side to side during his two songs, one of which he dedicated to his greatly missed brother, Johnny Winter, who passed in 2014. With his trademark silvery hair blowing, he alternated between singing and playing saxophone on “Tobacco Road” and “Good Morning Blues.” Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, however, got the biggest response, not only for his music, but for his wonderful stage presence and colorful commentary. Paxton is an old soul, and his delight in being part of this night was both palpable and greatly appreciated; The young artist is a true hope for the future of the blues (just remember you heard about him here first, in Elmore Magazine!).
The rest of the evening wrapped up with several veteran artists. Eric Burdon’s “In the Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)” and “House of the Rising Sun” rang out strong and clear, and his unmistakable voice was met with a standing ovation. New York Blues Hall of Famer, Sari Schorr, gave us a haunting rendition of “Black Betty” that mesmerized the full house.
Josh White Jr. personally knew Lead Belly, and sang “Precious Lord,” the same song his dad sang at Lead Belly’s funeral. Kenny Wayne Shepard did “Shame Shame,” and revisited “Backwater Blues” as the show crossed well over the 11 o’clock mark and sped towards midnight. Tom Paley, whose influence has been cited by Dylan and the Grateful Dead, performed “On A Monday” and “Mississippi Flood Song,” just before the polka dot Daddy himself, the one and only Mr. Buddy Guy, capped off this magical night with “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues” and “Born To Play Guitar,” the title track from his 2015 album.
This tribute festival had its inaugural debut last June at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and opened to rave reviews. This second installment is another smashing success for producer Paul Puccioni, a man that had a dream and made it a reality. What a perfect parallel to Puccioni’s blues idol, Lead Belly, who faced huge obstacles, but persevered in spite of– and perhaps even because of– them, attaining great success in his lifetime. Lead Belly Fest will head to several other iconic music venues across the globe. You can find out about these upcoming events, the charities they support and so much more at the Fest’s website.
– Ali Kaufman