Photos by Mike Gendimenico
“This is one of the best blues festivals in the country,” Devon Allman said, playing before almost 7,000 party-going fans on Saturday night at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival– his return engagement from last year. The fest is rapidly becoming a “must gig” for contemporary blues acts. What was previously dubbed “the best two days of the year” has become a four day festival with music for campers on Thursday night and a most uplifting half day of gospel and blues from three acts on Sunday. Veterans have seen this festival grow from less than 2,000 attendees in the early years to an audience approaching 7,000 in this, its 19th, year. There were as many fans on Sunday as there were on a typical Friday afternoon just a few years ago. Somehow the weather seems to uncannily bless the fest with clear, sunny skies and comfortable low 80 degree temperatures each year, despite oppressive humidity, torrential downpours and dense fog just 50 – 70 miles south of the site. Briggs Farm isn’t only a special place. Its vibe is unrivaled. As one fest-goer put it, “I don’t need a full week’s vacation. I just need three days at Briggs Farm.”
Briggs Farm isn’t only a special place. Its vibe is unrivaled. As one fest-goer put it, “I don’t need a full week’s vacation. I just need three days at Briggs Farm.”
Both the Thursday night entry/music for campers and Sunday morning’s Gospel Blues– this year’s new additions to the lineup– were instant successes. Sunday morning began with Philly area saxophonist/vocalist Vanessa Collier blowing her alto sax on the ground in front of the morning gathering to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and encoring with her four piece band with James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” That set the tone for a rousing, rather spontaneous set from Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots, this year’s BMA winner for Best Band. Wainwright (BMA’s B.B. King Entertainer of the Year) mixed his own material with standards like “I’ll Fly Away,” “People Get Ready,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and a Ray Charles-like “Over the Rainbow.” The highlight of his set was a truly transcendent moment, bringing tears to some in the audience as he and the Queen of Beale Street, Barbara Blue, led the crowd in a singalong to “I Shall Be Released.”
Rising star Alexis P. Suter is a Briggs Farm staple and featured her newer band, the Ministers of Sound, as Sunday’s closer for a live recording that will be the second for Briggs Farm Records (its first – Jimmy Duck Holmes Live at Briggs Farm has received two Blues Blast nominations). Flanked by stellar keyboardist/ vocalist Dave Keyes and soulful guitarist Chris Bergson, her companion vocalist Vicki Bell and the rhythm section of drummer Ray Grappone and bassist Tony Tino, the emotional Suter was deeply touched by the troubling current racial climate, and spread love through both her commentary and songs such as “Wade in the Water,” “Didn’t It Rain” and “Take Me to the River,” among others. Keyes did a few tunes too, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Bergson dedicated his “I’m Goin’ Home” to Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, where the group originally met. Suter’s set had many high points, but the crowd became even more engaged when Wainwright joined her onstage for duets on “Singing My Song for You” and Willie Dixon’s playful “I’m Built for Comfort.” Suter closed with a deeply emotional “Let It Be.” Those that left Saturday missed the best consecutive five hours of music at the festival.
Richard Briggs has a tough balancing act. He provides traditional blues, but is increasingly moving toward booking more contemporary acts in view of his relatively young audience.
Richard Briggs has a tough balancing act. He provides traditional blues, but is increasingly moving toward booking more contemporary acts in view of his relatively young audience. Friday’s Main Stage featured the seven piece Southern rock/jam band styled Marcus King Band out of South Carolina, Grammy-nominated Cedric Burnside playing North Mississippi Hill Country blues and rock act Nikki Hill. The highlight of the evening though was John Primer’s traditional Chicago blues band, laying down classics like “40 Days and 40 Nights” and the standard closer “I’ve Got My Mojo Working.” Younger acts can and should take notice of Primer’s “less is more” approach.
Saturday’s Main Stage featured Mississippi electric guitarist Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, who is a real showman, wandering into the crowd for extended solos. Wainwright & the WildRoots played their typical funky, crowd pleasing set and were followed by fiery Texan guitarist/vocalist Carolyn Wonderland, who had the crowd on their feet throughout her set as she shredded both her telecaster and lap steel. The Devon Allman Band closed Saturday night with a blistering set that included selections from his Turquoise and Ragged and Dirty releases punctuated with covers of the Spinners “I’ll Be Around,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and, of course, The ABB’s “One Way Out,” for which he was joined by the WildRoots’ guitarist, Patrick Harrington. Rather symbolically, some fans launched colorful fireworks illuminating the grounds toward the end of Allman’s set.
The Back Porch stage starts earlier in the afternoon each year as it has now become a great platform for local favorites like the jam band Mighty Susquehannas, as well as animated guitarists Dustin Douglass and the Electric Gentlemen and Anthony Gallucio & the Retreads. It’s so refreshing to see these young bands playing with sheer enjoyment in front of appreciative listeners. Mississippi legend Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes presented honest acoustic blues on both days. Miner Blues, a trio with lead singer Ed Randazzo and his bandmates from the popular local group, the Badlees, engaged the audience with a haunting set of folk blues, following a warm and often humorous set of songs from J.P. Biondo, of the band Cabinet. Scranton’s Clarence Spady delivered his usual smooth well-paced set. Fest fixture Lonnie Shields closed the proceedings with his always danceable Back Porch Party on Friday and Saturday night.
Every artist I spoke to beamed about what a pleasure it is to play this festival.
And yes, the food satisfies too. Lonnie Shields doubles as the pit master for Southern Style Cookin’, serving up Arkansas pulled pork baked wings, catfish sandwiches with Remoulade sauce, mac & cheese with stewed tomatoes, collard greens, coleslaw and fresh farm roasted sweet corn. Also, each year Briggs Farm raises thousands of dollars for the Local Women & Children’s shelter, Beyond Violence, with a guitar drawing. This year three guitars were donated, one each from C. J. Martin, Young’s Custom Cigar Box guitars and Rock Street Music.
Briggs Farm audiences are respectfully enthusiastic, as opposed to the obnoxiously rowdy audiences you often find at these kinds of events. They know how to party the right way. Every artist I spoke to beamed about what a pleasure it is to play this festival. Plans are already underway for next year’s 20th Anniversary, July 7-10, 2017. Visit www.briggsfarm.com for photos, videos, and information on 2017.