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Dark Season Blues Festival lights up the top of the world

Hot blues in a (very) cold place

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Photos by Laura Carbone

What better than international blues and a party of polar proportions to herald in the “dark season,” when the sun leaves the arctic circle without daylight for four long winter months? We travelled to the town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard Norway, where the polar bears outnumber the residents, for the Dark Season Blues Festival.

Initially started as a intimate event in this mining town, and now in its 15th year, the festival has grown to glacial proportions with visitors from around the world making a music trip to this remote town of only 2,000 human beings. Twenty bands and 40 concerts fill pubs, hotels, large music venues, churches, schools, even down in an old coal mine.

This year the impressive lineup mixed US artists with the top of the European blues scene. Rick Estrin and the Nightcats was a perfect headliner (get it?) for the dawn of this endless night. Estrin, playing harmonica with no hands, was accompanied by hair-flying Norwegian-born guitarist Kid Anderson. Sugaray Rayford and his band was so appreciated by the music-loving passionate Norwegians that they will come back to herald the return of the sunrise in Svalbard’s Sun Festival, in March.

Sugaray Rayford Band and Polar Bear Crossing Sign

Native New Yorker Dave Fields returned for his sixth year and glorified this festival in his song “78 Degrees North,” named for the coordinates of this event. Soulful blues vocalist Terry Hanck (also a multi-award winner for his tenor sax) collaborated with the Finnish band, the Tomi Leino Trio. Jimmy Carpenter and Deanna Bogart shined in the midnight blue as guest artists all over the town backing up on brass and keys as well as highlighting some originals. On Sunday, Diunna Greenleaf, this year’s recipient of the BMA’s Koko Taylor Award, bought on her southern gospel to a local church. Rumor had it that her voice captivated a polar bear which had to be scared away from the church before people could safely leave the concert.

The Norwegians are some of the most fervent blues lovers and music festival aficionados in the world; Norway is home to the world-class Notodden Music Festival, where one of the two non-US Blues Trail Markers stands. The Dark Season Blues Festival showcased Norway’s own upper blues crust as well as internationally recognized European artists including JT Lauritsen and the Buckshot Hunters, one of the hardest working and most loved bands in Europe. JT is an incredible performer on accordion, harmonica as well as Hammond organ, organizer of the European Blues Cruise as well as spotlighted in Memphis as a semifinalist in last year’s International Blues Challenge.

Two Danish performers were also musical highlights; Big Creek Slim with a voice that parallels the strength and passion of Howling Wolf and Mike Anderson, a phenomenal guitarist and poetic songwriter of statuesque status. The festival was packed with international talent including Norwegian based, Eric Slim Zahl and the South West Swingers and Irish artist Grainne Duffy.

The festival marks the start of the dark season when the sun stops its ascent over the horizon and will soon herald complete darkness, begging the question “What, exactly, is a midnight jam, when it’s nighttime all the time?

In the three-hour twilight of “day” in late October there is much to see and experience. The surrounding mountains around the town were formed by repeated ice ages, strangely flat-topped; glaciers coexist with fjords, valleys and mountains. Polar bear crossing signs on the outskirts of town remind you that a high impact weapon is needed to travel beyond the town limits. One can take dog sled rides across polar tundra and trips to a Russian settlement to get a Soviet stamp on a passport. Here, close to the top of the world, research stations, NASA and GPS satellite positionings dot the landscape, facing skyward. Svalbard is also home of the Global Seed Vault, where vegetation seeds from all over the world are held, protected by a gigantic bunker buried below the permafrost in a mountain.

Restaurants and hotels boast “Aurora Borealis” forecast boards to alert when the electrically charged sun spots are interacting with the polar magnetic fields to produce Heavenly neon-colored shows. But even without the sun or the lights, the sky gleams with a color that is the origin of “Midnight Blue” like the music that fills the town.

Put this festival on the top of your bucket list for  many reasons: its end of the world location, the passion and love of the Norwegians, and the international artists that travel just to perform in this special place.

—Laura Carbone

This festival is organized by Gry Sneltvedt and the Longyearbyen Blues Club.

Click HERE for Information regarding the Dark Season Blues Festival.

 

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