2012 Knology Sea-Blues Festival
February 17-19, 2012
Review and Photographs by Mark Goodman
To see more of Mark Goodman’s photographs from the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival, check out this week’s Photo Page.
The clouds looked a little ominous as I headed down US19 to Clearwater’s Coachman Park for the sixth annual Knology Sea-Blues Festival. This event holds a coveted spot on the Blues calendar in that it is more than likely the only major festival in the month of February. In fact, it may be the first major event of the season, certainly east of the Rockies.
Last year the City of Clearwater, for whatever reason, moved the event to May. This clashed with the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, so I, for one, missed it. As any blues fan swill attest, Memphis is the “Mecca for the Blues” come BMA time. Luckily, the “Blues Gods” worked their magic and it’s once again in February.
Presented by the City of Clearwater, the Knology Sea-Blues Festival has, since its inception, offered very strong lineups; 2012 was no exception! The festival also offers a spot in the lineup for the local International Blues Challenge (IBC) representatives. This year it was The Selwyn Birchwood Band, and solo/duo representative Franc Robert (pronounced “row bear”).
Kicking off the festival was IBC finalist The Selwyn Birchwood. Although he didn’t bring home any hardware from Memphis, he did make it into the band finals.
Well rounded as a vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter, Birchwood’s set was dripping with slow, dirty blues, his rhythm section providing a solid groove for him to work over. In his version of “Crawlin’ King Snake,” he actually did, crawl, that is.
Next up was The Michael Williams Band. I profess to having no prior knowledge of this particular artist before now, but will correct that soon. His set was sprinkled with mostly blues rock, but he sat and played his guitar like a lap steel for a few cuts. Interestedly, he did a Latin-infused song that was a reminder of the Carlos Santana of old, before John McLaughlin got hold of him. It was obvious though, that Michael Williams had listened to quite a bit of Jimi Hendrix in his formative years.
The next band is one I have been waiting anxiously to hear live. Although I’ve seen Jonn “Del Toro” Richardson and Rich DelGrosso play many times individually, I had yet to see them as the cohesive unit they form as the Jonn Del Toro Richardson/Rich DelGrosso Band. Their 2011 release, Time Slips On By, is a wonderful collection of mandolin blues punctuated by Richardson’s incredible guitar tone. Both musicians live in Houston, and have played together informally for years. However, this focused effort has led to a solid CD that Downbeat magazine voted as one of the top 12 recordings of 2011. Richardson is also a 2008 Grammy winner for his work on the Pinetop Perkins release Last of the Mississippi Delta Blues Men.
Their live show is chock full of original tunes with Richardson on electric guitar and DelGrosso on his familiar resonator mandolin; both artists contribute on vocals. It’s mesmerizing to watch a man as big as Rich DelGrosso play a solo on an instrument more suited to hands half his size. Another unique experience to me was hearing Chicago blues on the mandolin. The fans paid them a solid comment at the end of their set with a standing ovation.
Portland “Soul Man” Curtis Salgado followed with his vibrato-laden vocals and sharply controlled harp. Unlike a good many harmonica players, Salgado uses his instrument as the accent and icing to his stellar voice. Since a bout with liver cancer several years ago that required a transplant, he has shown no signs of slowing down. His voice is as strong as ever and his live shows are a soul fan’s treat. Salgado has played with some heavyweights over the years, people like Robert Cray and Carlos Santana, but seems to be happy right were he is. Just like fine wine, he just gets better with age.
The headliner for the festival’s first day is one of the legends, Buddy Guy. His career is like a who’s who when you look at some of the musicians he has played alongside. The big one of course is Muddy Waters, then Junior Wells. He also played on some of the great Chess releases such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and “Wang Dang Doodle” by the Queen, Koko Taylor.
In the decades following, Guy forged a career that landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But tonight, it was all Buddy. Guy was in “showman” mode this evening and he pulled out all the tricks. He spent little time on storytelling, as he sometimes does, but came to play. He didn’t only play guitar the old-fashioned way, with his hands; nope, he used his teeth, belly, and butt, too! Hell, he even used a towel to strum his trusty Strat, twirling it like the windmill right arm of Pete Townsend.
As his set time was getting short, he invited Ronnie Baker Brooks up to play. After trading licks back and forth on “Going Down,” Guy strode off stage and let Brooks close it down.
Looking out over the crowd near the end, no one was heading to the gates early, he had ‘em, and he kept ‘em, right to the very last note.
On Sunday, it looked like a crap shoot as to whether we would get rain. The wind was blowing right off the gulf at a good 25 knots. Even if it didn’t rain, there was enough H2O in the air to put some serious curl in your hair.
Kicking it off was 2012 IBC Solo/Duo contestant from the Sun Coast Blues Society, Franc Robert. One nice thing about his National steel guitar, the humidity didn’t have him retuning every other song.
Following Robert was an IBC solo winner back in 2006. Since that time, Eden Brent has gone on to win multiple Blues Music Awards for her CD Mississippi #1 (Best Acoustic Album, Best Acoustic Artist) and as Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year.
Today, Brent was backed by Janiva Magness’ rhythm section, featuring Gary Davenport on bass, and Mat Tecu on drums. To add even more interest to the sound was a guest trombonist, who unfortunately I only know as Bob. This combination gave Brent a new sound that was very different from her usual solo or three-piece presentation. Unfortunately, Brent was struggling with a cold and you could see the effort on her face as she tried to hit some of the higher notes. She did the best she could and had the crowd singing along and clapping hands by the end of her set.
For any fans of the television show The Voice, the next artist should be very familiar. Beverly McClellan made it to the final four before loosing to eventual winner, Javier Colon. Today she was performing in her home state and surrounded herself on stage with a dozen fans from the audience.
McClellan, a multi-instrumentalist, really does have an incredibly beautiful voice. She delivers blues, soul, roots, and rock with equal talent.
This next act, in my opinion, is one of the best Chicago Blues acts on the road today. Ronnie Baker Brooks never fails to get the people on their feet, and tonight was no exception. His guitar skills are honed to a fine edge and slice through you like a hot knife through butter. On the other hand, his rhythm section, led by bassist Carlton “BA” Armstrong, pummels you like the right hand of George Foreman.
To close down the sixth annual Knology Sea-Blues Festival was the “Queen Diva” of the blues and Alligator recording artist Janiva Magness. This multi-award winning performer can hit you with sass or break your heart with hurt. She is the complete package as a blues vocalist and performer.
Her show started with an intro by the band led by Zac Zunis. Zunis is a fine guitarist and his slick showmanship almost makes you forget this isn’t his band. His fiery licks and choreographed footwork mesmerize you and get the crowd whipped up for Magness to stroll onto the stage. Despite the rather cool night air and 25 mile per hour wind, she kept the heat at a simmering level until the very end.
Due to that barely less-than-gale-force winds, I have not included any pictures of Magness. Out of professional courtesy, it would not be fair to post photos with her hair plastered across her face like one of those hurricane reporters on CNN. Like the pro she is, she handled the adverse conditions as just another day on the job.
The sixth annual Knology Sea-Blues Festival was a resounding success. The park was filled almost to capacity with blues fans eager to break out of hibernation and start the season with a bang. Put this one on your calendar folks! Where else can you go in February to get a tan and a blues festival all in one? So come next February, dig out some summer clothes, scrape the ice off the windshield, and come on down to Clearwater for some “Winter-time Blues!”
To see some of Mark Goodman’s photographs from the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival, check out this week’s Photo Page.
A photographer and writer based in Florida, Mark Goodman is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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