Blast Furnace Blues Festival

SteelStacks, Bethlehem, PA

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Photos by Laura Carbone

Eastern Pennsylvania’s devoted blues community showed up in enough force to make the sixth annual Blast Furnace Blues Festival a success, despite some horrific obstacles, including every promoter’s nightmare.  As one person put it, “It’s hard to talk about this festival without mentioning the acts that are not here.” Saturday night’s original headliner, (the late) Butch Trucks & The Freight Band and his original replacement Curtis Salgado (who had to cancel due to his heart attack a month ago), would likely have bolstered attendance, but the acts that played offered plenty of energy and entertainment, and I certainly did see a number of strong acts.

Guy Davis and Italian harmonicist Fabrizio Poggi delivered two emotionally packed sets Saturday afternoon, playing selections from their three albums together, including the just released Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train.  Among the highlights were the two trading harmonica riffs in “Shake It Like Sonny Did,” and “Kokomo Kidd,” (wherein Davis provided a talking introduction about how this character snuck illegal things into the White House during Prohibition).  One his last verses was “Kokomo gotta bring coke to the GOP.”  In their second set, Davis made some political references as well but it was all humorous, in no way detracting from the animation both players brought to the songs.

Diunna Greenleaf showed how a strong, veteran entertainer can carry the audience despite not having her bass player who was absent due to an emergency.  She filled the room with her gutty wailing voice, while backed by just her guitarist and drummer.  Mr. Sipp fronted a power trio that bridged the gap between blues and R&B.  Sipp’s voice was reminiscent of Al Green in places and while his guitar playing used a bit too much of the wah-wah pedal, he was impressive.  Kenny Neal played his first show of the year and exuded excitement from his opening notes.  His band featured two keyboard players and Neal himself, primarily a guitarist, played harp and lap steel, delving into several tunes from his Grammy nominated Bloodlines.  Among the highlights were his version of Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” and his into-the-audience harp excursion for “Going to New York.” (Note: was unable to attend Jimmy Thackeray’s set)

Sunday’s lineup, on balance, was stronger and, unlike most festivals, seemed to have larger attendance than Saturday, filling the main area, Musik Café, to capacity at around 700.  One of the surprises was the eclectic nature of the set by harmonicist Magic Dick (formerly of the J. Giels Band) and Japanese finger-style guitarist Shun Ng.  The duo played the smaller, packed Blast Furnace Room, and covered traditional blues from Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson to Miles Davis (“So What” and “Four”) to even Queen (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), Ng’s guitar playing, and his singing was unexpectedly soulful, closing with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”  The gospel oriented Lee Brothers, also did a wide array of material, from “Amazing Grace” to an Allman Brothers like “Walk with Me” to a roof-raising closer, Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.”  Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers lived up to their name, creating a palpable danceable energy.  Dopsie is a real showman and some of that flair carried over to his bandmates.  Heck, how many times do you see a washboard solo?

Sunday’s headliners, especially Victor Wainwright & The Wild Roots were tremendously dynamic.   I’ve often compared Wainwright to be somewhere between Dr. John and the late Leon Russell but Wainwright has more stage presence and audience rapport than either of them.  After all, he won the Blues Music Awards B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and his band won Best Band.  His set began “Don’t Boogie Woogie (When You Say Your Prayers Tonight),” “Boom Town” and “Big Dog’s Runnin’ This Town”.  The highlight though was his extended stroll into the crowd for unamplified vocals on Don Nix’s “Same Old Blues”.  This drew a standing ovation mid set.  He felt confident enough to try some new tunes from his yet-to-be-released album and closed with a long version of B.B. King’s “Better Not Look Down.”  Wainwright takes special care to bow in all directions to the audience and complimented them at various points during his set.

Area favorite, recently relocated to Los Angeles, Serbian guitarist Ana Popovic closed the festival Sunday evening.  While her set did not muster the energy of Wainwright’s (and few could),   it proved to be entertaining and her guitar licks were often jaw-dropping.   Dressed in a similar wardrobe as on the cover of her recent album Tribology, Popovic somehow found a balance between being both sexy and classy.  She played a few tunes from Can You Stand the Heat and delved into all three volumes of Trilogy.  Her guitar playing generally borders on blues rock, with high wailing notes and a machine gun approach to the fret board but she demonstrated some tasteful feel on “Johnny Ray” and her jazz tune, “Waiting on You.”    Her vocals were solid but the focus was really her remarkable guitar playing.  She is the only female to ever play the Jimi Hendrix Tour, of which this year’s edition just ended.  So, Ana played Hendrix’s “Can You See Me’ and “Crosstown Traffic” in closing.  Rather than totally mimicking Hendrix solos, Popovic used a slide guitar which she also used to great effect on “How’d You Learn to Shake It Like That” and “If Tomorrow Was Today.”  Curiously enough, there was no encore.  Perhaps the crowd’s energy was totally sapped after the three days.

By any measure, what seemed to be a bit of a stripped-down Blast Furnace Blues Festival compared to prior years was successful in every way based on audience attendance, reaction, and musician comments.   It’s gradually becoming a Pennsylvania blues institution.

—Jim Hynes

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