Photos by Mike Gendimenico
By Jim Hynes
“We don’t have any more room for parking,” said a staffer around 4 P.M. on Saturday afternoon as 7,000 plus fest-goers gathered at the 20th Annual Briggs Farm Blues Festival. Having received a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation earlier this year, an acknowledgement reprised that same afternoon, Richard and Alison Briggs have made their homegrown festival one of the nation’s best. What began as a two-day festival 20 years ago has evolved into four days, with music for campers on Thursday night and a most uplifting half day of gospel and blues on Sunday. 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 rain in the immediate surrounding areas. It’s not only a special place, its vibe is unrivaled. I have attended for seven straight years and will not miss “the best weekend of the year.”
The Back Porch stage starts earlier in the afternoon each year as it has now become a great platform for local favorites and emerging national acts. It’s so refreshing to see young bands like The Mighty Susquehannas, and animated guitarists Dustin Douglas and The Electric Gentlemen playing with sheer enjoyment in front of appreciative, overflow crowds. Miner Blues, a trio with lead singer Ed Randazzo and his acoustic mates engaged the audience with a haunting set of folk blues on Friday following an electric set from Phyllis Hopkins, who first played the fest 20 years ago. Bobby Kyle and the Administers played a stirring set and rising star Vanessa Collier completely captivated Friday’s Back Porch and Saturday’s Main Stage audiences. She may well have been the star of the weekend—she certainly sold the most CDs. Other Back Porch highlights included a smoldering set of soul jazz/blues from PA’s Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats, stage antics and entertainment from Kansas City’s Norman Jackson Band, crowd favorites Swampcandy (in the mode of Reverend Peyton) and Saturday’s closing set by the Clarence Spady Band’s funky grooves that got the audience dancing.
Friday’s Main Stage got moving with guitar whiz Joanna Connors’ mix of Chicago Blues and a couple of Allman Brothers tributes after a rather hypnotic set from Mississippi’s R. L. Boyce and the Corn Lickers. Slam Allen put on an incendiary performance with his five-piece band featuring blazing saxophone and keyboards from Dave Keyes. John Nemeth and The Blue Dreamers (BMA’s B.B. King Entertainer of the Year nominee) mixed soul and blues with some dance music before bringing on Allen toward the end of his rousing two hour set for more James Cotton tunes.
Saturday’s Main Stage opened in sparkling style with Vanessa Collier’s soulful singing and sax playing. After her Friday performance, she had the “buzz” and just added to it with her fiery set. Briggs staple Lonnie Shields followed with a three-piece horn section and guitar-driven blend of soul and blues. Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” Thornetta Davis (bedecked in a head-to-toe camouflage outfit) played a tasty set of authentic blues, backed by two background vocalists. Highlights included a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love’’ and the Janis Joplin nugget “Take Another Piece of My Heart.” Headliner and bona fide fret master Eric Gales was predictably loud and Hendrix-inspired as he blended Jimi covers with selections from his recent album Middle of the Road. His testimony about beating life-long battles with substance abuse had the crowd on his side from the get-go. Sax players were the stars here, too. From Lonnie Shields to Slam Allen to Norman Jackson to The Mighty Susquehannas and the baritone sax of the Corn Lickers; and, of course, Vanessa Collier; sax players worked the crowd, had creative stage antics, and supplied tons of energy.
Sunday’s gospel show began with Lonnie Shields, resplendent in a pure white suit, leading a ten-piece band directed by 18-year-old guitarist Jesse Loewy. They delivered 100% gospel, accented by Shields’ brother and sister on vocals. Powerhouse vocalist Alexis P. Suter, a Briggs Farm staple, featured an augmented version of her band, The Ministers of Sound, that included two drummers and two guitarists, regular Chris Bergson and Woodstock’s Connor Kennedy. Suter did mostly a gospel set with tunes like “John the Revelator” and “Didn’t It Rain,” closing with her deeply emotional take on “Let It Be.” Thornetta Davis, dressed beautifully in flowery blue, and enthralled by her great reception Saturday, used both power and finesse in her closing Sunday set, doing several selections from her fine recent album Honest Woman.
The Briggs Farm attendees seemed more laid back than usual on Friday afternoon until Vanessa Collier’s show. From that point forward, both stages radiated their usual controlled joyous energy. Briggs Farm fans know how to find the balance between enjoying the music and partying. That balance seemed right on the mark this year, as opposed to those years when partying had the edge.
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