It seemed almost pre-destined that Reading, PA would eventually get a blues festival. The Berks Arts Council has presented the very successful Berks Jazz Fest for the past 27 years, and that event has always incorporated blues acts. Banking on some crossover appeal and with the intent of focusing all events in downtown Reading, Jazz Fest general manager John Ernesto, points to a conversation he had with the late Albert Boscov, department store chief executive and philanthropist, last December as the catalyst. When Boscov passed away last February, Ernesto pressed forward, knowing he had little lead time to book acts.
With help from Michael Cloeren, founder and producer of both the Pennsylvania Blues and Pocono Blues Festivals, they landed headliners Samantha Fish and Kenny Neal for Friday Night, the Robert Cray Band for Saturday, and Jonny Lang along with Dana Fuchs for Sunday. Keeping with some of the key concepts Cloeren is known for, they gave local Pennsylvania blues musicians opportunities and incorporated educational events such as n Women in the Blues, with Teeny Tucker, into the proceedings. Events were held at the Doubletree by Hilton, the Santander Performing Arts Center, the Goggleworks Center for the Arts, the Peanut Bar, and the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, all within walking distance from each other downtown.
Friday night featured Samantha Fish and her six-piece touring unit playing the horn-infused selections from her latest release, Chills and Fever. Fish has tremendous stage presence and has been touring the record since the spring. She delighted the near-capacity Doubletree Grand Ballroom with a mashup of Detroit soul and garage rock mixed with her own bluesy guitar licks; the instant standing ovation at her set’s conclusion said it all. Grammy nominee Kenny Neal and his five-piece band featuring two of his brothers, mixed popular blues covers with selections from Bloodlines. Neal, with his broad smile, and affinity for audience interaction is one of blues best entertainers. He walked into the audience twice, once with his harmonica for “Since I Met You Baby” and on vocals for “When the Saints Go Marching In.” His contagious energy was palpitating.
The pairing of traditionalist Blind Boy Paxton and Robert Cray on Saturday evening was one of the strongest double bills ever witnessed in any festival. Paxton was mesmerizing, playing solo before a vintage microphone on acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica. As he told the audience, many of his tunes were over 200 years old, before we knew about the blues. Like many, I had never seen him perform before. His musicianship was dazzling. Cray was in top form Saturday, feeling something deeply soulful. Nobody is as precise as Cray: for him and his band, it’s all about delivering soulfully and accurately. Cray completely electrified the gorgeous, vintage Santander Performing Arts Center, a 1000+ crowd. His closing encore solo on “Time Takes Two” touched me as few have. I am still buzzing from the performance.
This festival had an auspicious debut. Stay tuned for next year.