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Originally Published Stepember 1, 2004
Heritage Music BluesFest ’04
Wheeling, West Virginia
By Gary Miller
It isn’t exactly the bluesiest place on the planet. It hardly qualifies as a Blues city at all, but for three days each year promoter Bruce Wheeler has crafted a Blues Mecca in the city of Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeler’s first few years were rough with a fine musical lineup, but mixed response from the weather and ticker buyers. But this year the Heritage Music BluesFest became one of the best Blues festivals in America. Each year Wheeler has been able to assemble one of the best lineups around, and this year he undoubtedly had one of the best in the Blues.
The third time was a charm for the Heritage with advance ticket sales up 225% over last year. The Friday night crowd was bigger than the Saturday crowd last year. Rooms in the local hotels went quick.
Wheeling is a town of about 30,000 that sits right on the Ohio River. In fact the festival takes place at Heritage Port in the amphitheater, which is right downtown on the river. The audience sits in amphitheater seating or on the surrounding grass looking down at the stage on the river. Throughout the festival massive barges are pushed up and down the river. At night a large suspension bridge is lit up over the river by the amphitheater creating a beautiful effect.
Bruce Wheeler provided the working folks downtown a bit of a festival preview on Friday afternoon and it seemed that much of white collar Wheeling showed up to have a lunch of vendor food and free Blues first from Mark Lemhouse, and then Nick Moss & the Fliptops. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith also jumped in on harmonica for a couple of numbers. Many locals voiced their sadness when the music ended and a sunny Friday afternoon in the office awaited.
The real festival then ramped back up at five o’clock with Nick Moss & the Flip Tops taking the stage. Nick and his band are one of the best bar bands in Chicago, and he is very impressive live. Their latest album, Count Your Blessings, got them picked by the Blues Foundation for a nomination of Best New Artist Debut at this year’s Handys. This was my first chance to see them and Nick is one helluva guitar player!
Next up was the “Southern Songbird,” E. G. Kight, who always casts a spell over the first timers. She is always a gracious and talented performer, with her infectious smile and strong voice and guitar. Despite some technical difficulties, Kight and guitarist Lee Anderson pleased the crowd with some favorites and some new songs off of Kight’s new release, Takin’ It Easy. Next, Sonny Landreth made his second appearance at the festival and bowled everyone over with his adept slide guitar work and swampy, beat-driven sound. Landreth’s The Road We’re On was nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album. This guy is amazing!
Besides the Main Stage in the amphitheater, over on the grass in the park there was also the Volkswagen Stage featuring local acts that perform between sets on the Main Stage. On Friday night we got two sets from Guitar Zack Weisinger.
The headliner on Friday was Bob Margolin’s Blues All Stars. Bob’s good friend and bandmate Hubert Sumlin was listed among the All Stars, but was absent due to a heart attack and surgery only a couple of weeks prior. Leave it to Bob to come on stage with a cell phone and to call the recovering Hubert Sumlin up while he is resting comfortably and reassure him that several thousand fans from Wheeling were sending him their best wishes for a full recovery. There was no doubt that Hubert could hear the enthusiastic crowd wish him the best and a quick recovery. [Word is that Hubert will be back with Bob performing select dates in September.] But despite the missing guitar legend, Bob brought some sterling talent with him. Jerry Portnoy on harmonica, Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums, Mookie Brill on bass, and the very talented Janiva Magness on vocals. She is a treasure too and is climbing fast up the ladder with the fans that dig great female singers. Jerry Portnoy took a great solo that included the harp classic “Juke.” What a treat! The ninety-one year-old Perkins took a long solo that featured several of his classics and a lot of big smiles from both Pinetop and the appreciative audience. Pinetop’s new album is a set of duets with female artists entitled, Ladies Man. We got a little taste of that when Janiva Magness joined in with Pinetop and then featured him in her solo time. It all came together into a great big “Got My Mojo Workin’” that featured everybody including Nick Moss who jumped in and Matt Hill, a 19-year-old Blues guitar player from the Greensboro, North Carolina area, to whom Bob handed his guitar leaving him with a mike and big smile as the classic chorus came around again and again. What a jam to end Friday night! This was fast becoming Blues Heaven.
The official hotel for the festival was the Ramada Plaza City Center and the party was continued with two jams being held afterwards. Most of the action took place in the Club Rio bar. There was also an electric jam held on the second floor in a ballroom, which was hosted by the Adrian Niles Band with Ford Thurston. Downstairs the bar was packed and we were treated to several cool combinations of acoustic artists including a young local Bluesman Izzy, Mark Lemhouse, Dave MacKenzie, Nick Moss, Tim Gonzalez, and several others. The evening was closed down with a fine duet of Bob Margolin on acoustic with Janiva Magness singing. Things lasted until well after closing time and luckily most only had an elevator ride home.
On Saturday morning I hooked up with my friend Tim Gonzalez and his band, who were doing their first big festival. These are some great players from Nashville and Bruce Wheeler agreed that they needed to be heard outside of the great Nashville Blues circle. This was obviously good thinking, because when they got going to open up BluesFest on Saturday, the people had their mouths open at Tim’s harp playing. Getting to see new artists is one of the best things about the festival experience and it’s funny how a new artist affects people. Tim is different from most harp players today in that he is melodic and very inventive.
Mark Lemhouse [Check out our interview with Mark HERE] jumped the stage next. Mark is one of the hardest going, tough-love fingerpicking guitarists and roughshod ramblers I know of. All he has done for the past year or more is ramble around and play as hard as the fans saw at Wheeling. This guy is balls to the wall, a dark side takes us back with old classics of his style and jerks you forward to the present with his originals. He has learned the craft quickly and made it his own. Watch for big things from this great young player.
Earlier in the morning, the great player Dave MacKenzie held a workshop on “Open Tunings.”
When Tab Benoit shows up, the girls melt. His quiet good looks and thorough understanding off what it takes to rock a crowd is innate. He is intelligent and confident, and this all comes out in the music he plays. He is too cool and now I understand why he has such great appeal. His music is right out of the swamps and the Bayou where he lives. Tab is also very active in work to save these important wetlands and the people who live there. He will be holding a benefit concert in October (more about that soon). Tab is the real thing and so young to have such deep soul. The best part was this was just his first set. After warming up the crowd with his own band in the afternoon. Tab and his band would be back with the Whiskeystore. More on that later …
Once again the VW Stage was activated just as the artists on the Main Stage stopped. On Saturday on the second stage we were treated to two sets each from the Lost Souls, Dave Chisolm, and the young player who had caught everyone’s attention in the acoustic jam the night before, Izzy. Who is that kid?
Anders Osborne is a Scandinavian import to the Crescent City. I had heard him before, but this time he was truly amazing. From his unique perspective as a foreign-born artist, he has blended the Blues with Rock beats, New Orleans Funk, and Avant Garde Jazz. When I told him that I understood his vision and he told me about Folk, World music, Blues, and modern Jazz. Brother, I am a believer. I don’t consider myself a purist, and I’m glad I wasn’t when I heard Anders this time. In fact, it was a small respite, no matter how turbulent, from what is considered “the Blues.” By the way, his bass player, Kirk Joseph, plays a Sousaphone not the bass. He just dumps a mike down that big-throated tuba and plays the hell out of it. I don’t know where he gets the breath from, but he must have lungs of iron. I never missed the string bass or bass guitar once. Combine that with the endlessly searching path that Osborne throws down over the bass lines, and you’ve got one of the most unusual things I’ve ever heard in the Blues. While he played with a quartet here, I heard that when in his hometown he features many more musicians. Whoa, I wanna see that!
Robert Jr. Lockwood – what can I say? Back from last year, he is so great that it brings tears to my eyes. He knows how to play all this music, be it Jump, Swing, big band, Delta, or down-in-the-groove Funk. His band is always a delight to see and hear. He didn’t play a particularly long set, but he got the audiences attention and won more new fans as he has been doing for more than fifty years.
When Roy Rogers got out of the van, I was there to greet him. I told him-”Thanks for leaving California and coming out here to play for your fans.” I really meant that as he almost never leaves the West. He is a real treasure and one of the greatest slide guitar players and songwriters who needs to be heard all over America. I was humbled by the opportunity to hear him and he didn’t disappoint. It was some truly intense playing.
Then, as mentioned above, it was time to open the Whiskeystore, the combination of Tab Benoit’s and Jimmy Thackery’s bands and talents. The concept has spawned two albums and many shows, mostly in the South and East. These two play with a massive passion and let lose some awesome call and response jams that obviously even delight these two masterful players, not to mention the audience whom they brought along for the ride. When the music stopped there was an amazing second there where only the ringing of the sound system filled the amphitheater, before being replaced by the huge response of the stunned crowd. This is a not-to-be-missed combination, find it before the Whiskeystore closes. It is truly a delight and was a fine ending to the evening.
But it wasn’t the ending, because once again there was an After Jam at the Ramada. This night, West Virginia’s Dennis McClung Band hosted the electric jam. The band is a regular on the regional Blues circuit. There were a few players sitting in with Dennis and dancing was happening. Downstairs in the bar, Tab’s bass player, Carl DuFrene, was playing acoustic guitar along with a string of others. Tab Benoit was chatting with Dave MacKenzie and a good time was had by all. The After Jam was clearly one of the most popular and fun parts of the Heritage.
For a brave few, Sunday morning began early as there were two workshops. Mark Lemhouse hosted “Thumbpicking” and Tim Gonzales led “Harp Styles and Techniques.”
After weather being an issue in the past it seemed that Mother Nature was making up for lost Blues time as Sunday proved to be the finest of the three days. With the warm sun shining down on the Ohio River the Dennis McClung Blues Band, the only Blues band from West Virginia at the fest, opened this fine Blues morning. As is tradition at the Heritage, the most popular band on the second stage gets to open on Sunday the following year. Last year Dennis wowed the second stage audience and thus here he and his band were dropping his brand of Blues on the fans at the Main Stage and he was really psyched! They played some top-flight Blues and turned the stage over to Dave MacKenzie. Dave is one of the most knowledgeable and astute single guitarists in the country. Truly a master, he jogs forth with tremendous songwriting and deeply adept playing on the guitar. His songs are masterful and thought compelling. When they’re not funny as hell, they’re playful, deep, and wise. One crowd favorite was “If Jesus Came Back As A Mexican Man.” There was no one in the crowd that wasn’t ready for another song when Dave finally walked off.
What can I say about Reneé Austin, who, with a range that shames most Blues singers, manages to whip that whole mess up into a frenzy for the fans. She is a tough little lady who can belt it out. More than that, she writes here own songs. Her “new” band highlighted by Baby Jake Torkelson on guitar and Jon J.C. Coleman on keyboards has been road-tested and are becoming a finally tuned machine. Watch for Reneé Austin, you will come to your knees when you hear this lady sings the Blues.
Michael Burks staggered the crowd. He is so intense that I felt Albert King was walking the grounds, but no, it was Michael Burks who took a rip-roaring walk through the crowd playing some great King and Burks licks. Burks is in his apex, his prime, and he usually will close down any place he plays. There was no doubt that he was going over his time and nobody complained as he raged through Hendrix classics with a funky beat. His guitar playing is where he earned his reputation, but voice is often his instrument now, and boy is it working. I could hear it right away. How beautiful the whole thing is when it comes together; it’s like being visited by the masters.
Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue is a knockout and it was perfect for the last act. Kim is truly a master and after his last album, Trouble, he is intent on making music happen in a familiar, comfortable way. This shows true ambiance is his ability to sidle up to what is real and true. This isn’t the Thunderbirds, this is Kim’s band and Kim’s show. And Kim makes the whole thing come together with his sheer ability and showmanship. This year’s Handy Award winner for Best New Artist Debut, Nick Curran, showed up to sit in with Kim. And more news came with that appearance. While Nick is going to keep his solo gig, Kim Wilson told our publisher, “Nick is a T-Bird now.” Tonight the normally flamboyant Curran laid it back, after all, it was Kim’s show. And what a show! There are few harp players today who can take massive solo time and completely entrance the audience the entire time. There may be none who do it better than Kim Wilson. Ending with a roaring version of Chuck Berry’s “Livin’ In The USA,” the Sunday night crowd wasn’t walking without a little more from Kim, which he gladly provided with a solo performance with just his harp and a spotlight; a truly amazing sight for any harp enthusiast.
As the last notes played and Bruce Wheeler was on the stage thanking everyone and enticing them with promises of next year, it was truly obvious to all involved that this had been an awesome weekend of Blues. While you may never have had Wheeling on your map before, they are now on the Blues map, when it comes to making your plans for Blues Festivals next year, you can’t go wrong with this one. And book early! Because we are coming back and we are bringing our friends … and their friends.
By Gary Miller
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