Photos by Joseph A. Rosen and Martin Goettsch
They should rename it “the candy store festival” said a fan, amazed by the quality of the (“all killer, no filler”) acts and many exciting choices they presented. Celebrating its 25th year, the Pocono/Pennsylvania Blues Festival returned to Lake Harmony at Split Rock Resort for its second consecutive year. Award-winning producer Michael Cloeren has consistently delivered top quality programming, earning this festival another, rather common nickname, “the blues lovers’ festival.” Typically the festival has been held on the last weekend of July, but was moved to mid-September due event conflicts at the resort. That turned out to be a great decision, as the weather cooperated with sunny and partly cloudy skies on both weekend days, with temperatures comfortably in the seventies. It felt nice not being sweaty, and needing only one Elmore shirt per day.
This year’s festival began with a welcome party and Beareather Reddy singing vintage blues in a piano bar setting as guests checked into the hotel and arrived to see their friends. As has now become customary, the Friday night showcase, “Mikey Junior’s Blues Revue” was led by gregarious harmonica player singer-songwriter Mikey Junior. This year he assembled 37 regional musicians for well-organized, briskly paced sets of 15 minutes each or so, punctuated by the ’50s R&B from Brad Vickers and His Vestapolitans, Dane Tilghman’s Howlin’ Wolf Tribute, the guitar showmanship of Dean Shot and local favorite, Little Red Rooster band.
Slam Allen began the Main Stage on Saturday in true entertainer style, with a quintet that included soulful saxophone player and keyboard great, Dave Keyes. Allen went into the crowd early in his set for extended guitar soloing. He was the perfect opener. Zac Harmon followed with an equally energetic set, playing generously from his latest release, Right Man, Right Now. Anthony Geraci, keyboardist for Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, was the band leader for the Boston Blues All-stars, an aggregation which featured his usual bandmates as well as turns from vocalists Michelle “Evil Gal” Wilson, Darrell Nulisch and Toni Lynn Washington as done on Geraci’s great record, Fifty Shades of Blue. Toward the end of the set, tasteful and searing guitar solos came from Monster Mike Welch, on “Blues for David Maxwell” and his own tribute to B.B. King, “You Know I Love You.” Those were two of the afternoon’s many highlights. The entire ensemble was joined by Ronnie Earl for the closer.
Crowd favorite, the charismatic Kenny Neal, played his usual top notch mix of soul, blues and funk following receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award. And, in one of the festival’s surprise moments, Neal, along with Bill Wax (WPFW – D.C.) and Paul Benjamin of the Blues Foundation, presented a totally unsuspecting Cloeren with a Lifetime Achievement Award too. I was later informed that Slam Allen and Kenny Neal were the top two merchandise sellers, giving yet another indication of crowd response.
The thoroughly funky, animated Ronnie Baker Brooks closed the Main Stage, bringing out legendary headdress adorned Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater for the latter part of his set. While Ronnie and Eddie are both known to favor rock n’ roll more than many of their peers, they mix it in with the blues so well that it does not come across as blues-rock, but rather amped-up, aggressive blues.
Saturday’s Tent Stage featured two sets of country blues and roots music from Guy Davis joined by keyboardist/accordionist Professor Louie and stand-up bassist Mark Murphey. They took on Dylan’s “Lady, Lady, Lay” and did Muddy’s “Can’t Be Satisfied” on the five string banjo, for example. A major festival highlight came from the Toronto-based horn-infused Blackburn, featuring a dynamic saxophonist and trombonist. Joined by former Chairman of the Board vocalist, Harrison Kennedy, they rendered Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and some former Chairman material wonderfully. Slam Allen had a lively tent set as did the closing act, Blackburn, playing without Kennedy on that one.
Sunday’s Tent Stage was highlighted by a rousing set from emerging star, saxophonist/singer Vanessa Collier and her fine band, a rousing, foot-stomping gospel set from the Campbell Brothers and a nice contrast of relaxed country blues from Harrison Kennedy, who has devoted the latter part of his career to traditional blues.
Sunday’s Main Stage performance always begins with a gospel act, and this year the Campbell Brothers had the honor, engaging the crowd in their call and response sing-alongs. The Andy T Nick Nixon Band was without Nixon due to health issues, and Phil Pemberton (vocals) and Doug Wolverton (trumpet), both from Roomful of Blues, joined the contingent instead. While they clearly produced a different dynamic than Nixon would have, they played an enthusiastic set and certainly had plenty of fun. Another rising star, Toronzo Cannon, delighted the audience with his clever songwriting and his ode to Jimi, “John the Conquer Root,” to commemorate the day of Hendrix’s passing. Like most of the artists here, Cannon has the performer’s flair and natural stage presence. Chicago’s Mike Wheeler Band led the Delmark Records Revue, which featured passionate vocalist Peaches Staten, and the ever cool veteran guitarist-singer, Jimmy Burns. Wheeler is a bit more contemporary than his guests, so it made for a varied sampling of what you hear in Chicago these days.
“You can’t buy this anywhere,” said the stage manager as we witnessed a pairing of Toronzo Cannon and Ronnie Earl during the latter’s deeply spiritual closing set. Cannon and Earl had spent a good part of the afternoon together as Toronzo soaked in some “learning.” Adjectives cannot adequately describe Earl’s performance. He feels every note he plays, and is able to convey a spiritual intensity, guitar tone and mastery of dynamics like no other guitarist. I mentioned to a friend that in my years of hearing live blues music, only two guitarists (and very different ones at that)– Muddy Waters and Earl– actually sent chills through my body. His solo on Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” was emotionally amazing, and during the set he reminded us that “the music doesn’t need to be loud and fast. There’s beauty in those sweet notes.” Ronnie said he was “taking us to church,” and his set was very different from two years ago, mostly because of the powerful vocals of the newest Broadcaster, Diane Blue, who also showed that she can blow the harp too. The generous Earl invited on to stage those he had jammed with on Friday night and reportedly sat in with Vanessa Collier’s band at Sunday’s after party.
I wasn’t able to catch the Saturday showcase or either night’s after parties, but did enjoy the gospel harmonies from Gaye Adegbalola & the Wild Rutz at the Sunday Brunch. I missed Ronnie Earl’s Saturday Master Guitar class too. Nonetheless, my three day experience went well beyond seeing and hearing music – you feel the music and the comradery more deeply than at other festivals of this type. You are able to easily mingle with the musicians. This year’s festival seemed to carry a special, rather inexplicable spirit of sharing and gratitude not often found in these events.
If you’ve never been, you need to go. Put in on your calendar – the 2017 Pennsylvania Blues Festival, the highest quality blues festival in the states, will be held September 15-17th at Split Rock Resort, Lake Harmony, PA. For more information, visit www.pennsylvaniabluesfestival.com. In the meantime, you can catch a more eclectic mix of music at the Pennsylvania Music Festival to be held indoors at the same location on October 29-30, just a few weeks away. Visit www.pamusicfestival.com.