Photos by Laura Carbone
Yes, there is indeed a Blues Heaven on Earth! For the last 12 years Peter Astrup has gathered the top names in Blues and Soul to Denmark for the Frederikshavn Blues Festival for the first weekend in November. This year the festival officially changed its name to what it rightly is, The Blues Heaven Festival, and stretched its wings to bring in bigger stars to the city’s large arena.
Peter Astrup runs this festival based on vision, rapture and dedication to bringing true blues to Europe. It does seem like Heaven when Sugaray Rayford, Wee Willie Walker, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, John Nemeth, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Marquise Knox, Eric Gales, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Zac Harmon, James Hunter Six, Mike Ledbetter, Dona Oxford and Kilborn Alley gather together, then add a European artists Thorbjørn Risager & the Black Tornado, and Pascal Geiser to slate. Astrup bought the “Voice of the Blues,” Big Lou Johnson, the deep sultry voice of Sirus Radio’s BB Kings Bluesville—dressed in diamond earrings and slick suits which we never see on the radio—to MC.
The main acts started with a bang and just kept coming. First was John Nemeth in his signature jumpsuit, dark glasses, cutting harmonica and smooth-as-soul voice. Large productions dominated the stage with Wee Willie Walker, abetted by a 14-piece band (complete with four horns and three backup singers) to give this velvet voice staging reminiscent of the large soul shows of the classic blues crooners. Sugaray Rayford came on with another large production, backed by his hard working band, including maestro guitarist, Gino Matteo, a bevy of background singers and Amy Winehouse’s horn section. Sugaray’s got a voice to match his stage presence, and he shook the building; out in the audience, singing off mike, he could still be heard like a lion.
Ronnie Baker Brooks bought real-deal Chicago blues into the house. Sugar Ray Norcia united with Little Charlie Baty for an ethereal performance of both harmonica and guitar. Rick Estrin is always classically hip, and cool with a guitar groove by Kid Anderson that can’t be beat. It was also great to see young Marquis Knox recognized by this festival for the legend he will become—a guitar blues master. Kilborne Alley was a special soulful surprise, with special guest Mike Ledbetter and his operatically perfect vocal styling. The closing act, Eric Gales played a right handed guitar upside down with his left hand, and melted people’s faces off —true gale force.
The phenomenon of this festival had to be the little 12-year-old guitar whirlwind, Toby Lee. Cute as a button, he dressed in Mick Jagger duds and held a solidbody Gibson Firebird that was just about as big as he was. This little dude stood firm beside the big players in the festival like John Nemeth, Mike Ledbetter, Sugaray Rayford and Ronnie Baker Brooks and matched their riffs blow-for-blow, managed to be as cool as ice. Video taken of him and Ronnie Baker Brooks with d dueling guitars have hit the 50-million view mark and has been shared more than 1.4 million times. Yes, that happened at Blues Heaven.
The setting of this European Festival is the picturesque harbor town of Frederikshavn, situated in Northern Denmark. Ferry service to Oslo and Gothenburg, Sweden brings in the passionate blues travelers from Northern Europe, plus special blues buses pick up from the Aalborg Airport directly to the center of town. From town, a blue line painted on the street guides music lovers straight to the large Arena Nord. The main event there takes place on two stages. The larger, Royal Stage area offers stadium seating, a larger open floor and tables to gather and dine, and a full bar within reach. The large stage has a bump out for artists to touch the audience—what fun! Between the stages was a large area to have a meal or peruse the blues art or photographs or just hang. Late night jams at Freddie’s, the local bar in town, included Wee Willie Walker, Mike Ledbetter and Toby Lee all playing together on one stage. A special Blues program, “Talkin Blues” was a highlight with the artists swapping blues war stories while having a bountiful American brunch.
Heaven is a state of extreme bliss, especially in November, when the best in the blues and soul converge at for a stellar lineup for one of the most respected and prestigious blues festivals in Europe, the Blues Heaven Festival.
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