Photos by Laura Carbone
Coverage by Iain Patience and Laura Carbone
Cahors Blues Festival, in the southern midi-Pyrenean region of France, is now the country’s true premiere annual blues music event, a title previously held by Cognac Blues Passions. Cahors has not succumbed to commercialization and is organized and promoted by Robert Mauries, President of the French Blues Association, while Cognac has become increasingly expensive and detached from blues (recent headline acts have included Iggy Pop and the Cranberries).
Cahors has previously hosted BB King, and is where Johnny Winter played his last gig, in 2014. This year billing included legendary gospel-blues singer Mavis Staples, Mister Sipp, Canadian multiple award winner Angel Forrest, Louisiana’s Kenny Neal, Dawn Tyler Watson——what a voice!—and a true show-stealer, singer-songwriter John Nemeth.
With Mavis Staples on the bill you always know you’re in for a real treat. Taking the stage only a day after turning 78, she again showed just why she remains a massive draw and crowd pleaser. Her voice was huge, warm, emotive and passionate as she belted out much of her mammoth catalogue of over 60 years’ work. “Wade In The Water” has become one of her must-do numbers and she pulled out the stops with her usual determined, fiery vocal delivery.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Kenny Neal produced a hi-energy, southern bayou blues set that rocked the joint one night while Ireland’s blues-rocker Johnny Gallagher ( joined onstage by UK guitarist Bernie Marsden) delivered a set that ran well into the early hours and celebrated France’s National Day on July 14, with firework displays crackling in the skies overhead.
A number of lesser-known French bands included a powerful duo with a keen eye for traditional, pre-war blues, Vicious Steel, fronted by Cyril Maguy, a guy with a powerful voice and some fine guitar chops. The Cotton Belly’s, a four-piece outfit from the Paris area, were straight-on rock-blues and gave more than a hint of why they’re fast being favoured as one of France’s finest young blues bands.
Leading US music photographer and ardent blues-lover, Laura Carbone, who is currently promoting some excellent blues events back home in Plattsburgh, NY, held a major exhibition and sale of her framed work, with many of the photographs signed by the artists themselves. A central position on the festival-site ensured a steady stream of visitors and attracted enormous interest.
With so much talent on offer, and Mavis Staples still clearly performing at the top of her game, it was a surprising delight to find another US bluesman with a high-energy, full-flow take on the blues and a widely admired confidence and power that took the crowd by both storm and surprise. John Nemeth was, for me, the true show-stealer. His set was blistering and perfectly pitched while his own songwriting talents were also clearly unmistakable, with much of the set featuring tracks from his current album, Feelin’ Freaky. Nemeth made the absolute most of his stage-time, ripping along with an assurance and style that was truly masterful. On this evidence, Nemeth is clearly a guy to catch and get to know. Photographer Laura Carbone and I will have to agree to disagree here to an extent, as she, on the other hand, was equally impressed by both Dawn Tyler Watson and Kenny Neal, both exceptionally hard acts to follow, for sure.
Vocals as well as souls soared when Dawn Tyler Watson took to the main stage. This Canadian vocal diva not only won top prize this year in the International Blues Competition as Best Band but has garnered prizes across the globe as a top female vocalist. She was backed by Ben Racine on guitar (also the winner of the Albert King Award for Best Guitar at this year’s IBC) and a tight seven-piece band with horns and keyboard. In a dazzling blue outfit loving the light, Watson ruled the large stage with an inner spark that beamed straight out into the hearts of the audience. Her vocal range sweepsi from gospel infused soulshine to twangy country to hip shaking R&B. Give her a phonebook and she can have you dancing to it.
Kenny Neal and his blood line Family Band turned southern France into Bayou country, taking it down home and dripping with real-deal blues. This year his band was deservedly honored with a Grammy nomination as well as winning the title of “Best Contemporary Male Artist” and “Best Contemporary Blues CD” at the 2017 Blues Music Awards. Kenny ruled the large stage, on top of his game accompanied by family memebers Darnell, Brandon and Fredrick as well as long-time drummer Byran Morris. Starting off with a Willie Nelson crooner leading into to his Grammy-nominated album set, then dancing Cajun and taking the audience to church and back with his slide guitar. This band enjoys playing music and the crowd in France adored them back. For an encore he put down the worn 1968 Fender guitar he has played for the last 40 years and picked up his brother’s bass to show the crowd just how funky he can get. This show surpassed all with its free flowing energy, vitality and pure fun factor, a real blues party!