Photos by Laura Carbone
American blues and jazz music and musicians have been expatriates in France for years. Miles Davis made it his home, Alberta Hunter, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and Josh White were among the first artists to be welcomed, recorded and promoted in France, leading to a deep interest in American music, especially jazz and blues. Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim went to Europe as part of The American Folk Blues Festival and were so successful that the blues was revitalized in the US. The tradition continues, and, decades later, come summer the blues leaves the States and returns to be embraced by Europe.
Cahors, France boasts one of the only two non-US “Mississippi Blues Trail Markers” and hosts one of the longest-established blues festivals in Europe since 1982. Drawing tens of thousands of fans, Cahors Blues Festival won the 2016 Blues Organization’s “Keeping The Blues Alive Award” for International Festival of the Year.
Entering into the beautiful town of Cahors, blues banners flutter over the festival site in the center of this historic town, over tree-lined central boulevard and outdoor cafes, and the side streets spill into a tangle of narrow passageways. During the day, wine can be sipped in an open square while listening to over a dozen free open-air concerts. There is education, with a Master Class of The Blues by Michael Hawkeye Herman and a friendly battle of European finalists in a Mississippi Blues Trail Competition. Highlights of the afternoon events include past International Blues Challenge winner and now Alligator label artist, Selwyn Birchwood. Barefoot, his lap-steel guitar across his knees, he told downhome stories between solid blues riffs. The European surprise was a high energy band of The Travellin’ Brothers: pure fun, dashing out into the crowd with New Orleans ecstasy and humor.
True to the European pace of dining first, then music, there is a savory pause before the mainstage acts in the evening. Opening night, the beautiful Canadian artist Shakura S’Aida sparkled in high heels, feathers and style, bringing soul and the heat of hot R&B with her unsurpassed vocal range and kickass band.
One of the hottest touring bands, Vintage Trouble, tore the stage apart with their high energy dance and retro soul antics. Singer Ty Tylor spun, levitated and twisted to the beating drum of Richard Danielson, the backbeat of Rick Barrio Dill and the tasteful fender of Nalle Colt. Vintage Trouble’s sound reflects the essence of the early soul movement, the freshness of the early R&B with a badboy flash of British punk, all the while dressed to kill in throwback duds.
The next day, Eric Bibb was accompanied by Jean Jacques Milteau on harp. One of the strongest soulful blues singers of today, Bibb performed many of his past songs with a clarity and honesty in a tribute to Leadbelly, ending with the rousing “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down.”
Taj Mahal’s voice, just like his song “Stealin’,” has a way of “wrapping his arms around you like a circle round the sun.” Taj surrounded himself with a yet another circle, a fort of banjos, harmonicas, steel and vintage wood guitars to weave his way through his multi-cultural vision of the blues, from the Delta to the Caribbean to Africa.
The excitement of the festival occurred when Sugaray Rayford and his seven-piece band took the stage. Like a linebacker racing down the field, Rayford’s high energy commanded not only the stage but also the entire festival grounds. He shook his booty on the bump out into the audience, and, backed by Amy Winehouse’s horn section, hit the groove hard and called on the ghost of James Brown with “Cold Sweat.” Off mic, out into the audience and ’way into the very back of the bandstand, he filled the space with just his voice, clear as a bell, then, sitting a line of chairs, he got up close and personal with some unplugged gospel tunes . This is one group that is hitting the blues bell hard, grooving on what live entertainment is all about. This group is going to become hot on the festival circuit.
Cahors Blues Festival is the European Delta, celebrating 24 years of bringing historic American blues that continues to be prominent and respected in Europe.