The Sixth Annual Bonita Blues Festival
Bonita Springs, Florida
March 9 & 10, 2012
By Larry Lisk
If springtime in Florida makes you think of sun, sand, spring-breakers, and strawberries, you are only half right. Springtime in Florida is the unofficial kickoff of the blues festival season and there are several choices, including the Clearwater Sea Blues Festival and the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, but don’t overlook one of the nicest little festivals you could pick to kick off your season. The Bonita Blues Festival in Bonita Springs in southwest Florida is the perfect example of the idea that bigger is not necessarily better. Kevin Barry and his staff have done this for six years and just keep getting it right. A beautiful site combined with a perfect mixture of locals, up-and-coming touring acts, and national acts make this festival a veritable diamond in the rough. The 2012 version of the Bonita Blues Festival, held March 9 and 10, was no exception.
The festival kicked off on Friday afternoon to a surprisingly large crowd, obviously playing hooky from wherever they were supposed to be, ready to get their blues fix. Mudbone with Rick Howard got the day started with a first-rate set of funky, New Orleans-infused blues. This is no garage band folks, these guys have the experience and chops to play with anyone as guitar/vocalist Mario Infante‘s regular tours with Grammy-winner Chuck Mangione will attest. Deb and the Dynamics were up next and laid down a very polished set. Deb is no stranger to the blues scene having toured internationally with Deborah Coleman for many years and appearing on several of Deborah’s Blind Pig recordings. Her dueling sax players were a big hit as they took multiple crowd walks, much to the delight of the audience.
Florida favorite and Blind Pig artist Damon Fowler was next up and, as usual, did not disappoint. Fowler’s Americana-influenced, jam-style blues are always a big hit. He has become a master of the lap steel as evidenced by his “Best Slide Guitar,” “Best Lap Steel,” and “Best Dobro” awards. Fowler has emerged as one of the rising stars on the national scene and continues to impress with his superb playing and songwriting. After a brief shower, barely enough to wet the ground but just enough to make folks raise their umbrellas, Karen Lovely took the stage. I had heard Lovely’s music and was told about her mind-blowing performance at the 2010 International Blues Challenge, but had never seen her perform live. I was totally unprepared for her what I heard. In a word, her vocals are powerful. If the soundboard had taken a direct lightning hit and was totally inoperable, it would not have matteredas she can carry the day. Mixing contemporary and old-school blues along with her original songs, Lovely is a performer to be reckoned with. Her band has to be good to keep up and they certainly are; this is not an act to be taken lightly, the lady belt out the blues! Anyone following KarenLevely might have been intimidated but venerable Alligator recording star Tinsley Ellis was not phased in the least. I spoke to Tinsley before his set and he volunteered that this was his first 2012 festival. If this set was indicative of what to expect in 2012, it will be a banner year for this six-stringer. Tinlsey flawlessly worked his way through his extensive catalog of recognizable material and pulled several lesser-known gems from his multiple releases to dazzle the crowd. Truly a master at his craft, Tinsley delivered yet another electrifying performance and solidifies his position as one of the most intense bluesmen playing today.
Partly cloudy skies and a small chance of rain did not deter blues fans as the Bonita Blues Festival kicked off Day Two with Gator Nate and the Gladezmen. Gator Nate Augustus looks like he just stepped out of the Everglades so his swamp-a-billy sound was not unexpected. Nate’s slide work greased up the performance and his between-song stories set the tone for a fun day. Growling and prowling the stage best describes the front lady of the Kim Page Blues Band. With her long blond locks flowing, Page delivered a set of soul/jazz-tinged blues that had the crowd in a laid-back state of mind. Her band is top notch and kept the groove going her entire set.
Stringtown was up next and my guess is that the name came from lead man Rick Russell and his mastery of any instrument with a string attached. Mandolin, banjo, dobro, and slide guitar were mixed into a set of low-key, Americana-based blues. Skyla Burrell was scheduled next, but due to an emergency appendectomy could not perform. The blues spirit of helping our own came to the forefront as festival producer Kevin Barry announced that the band would be paid half of their fee to help defray Burrell’s surgery and a bucket was passed through the crowd and blues fans responded with another $961 dollars, which was sent to the band along with our good mojo for a speedy recovery for Skyla. This is what it’s all about folks, hats off to everyone who contributed.
Mel Melton and the Wicked Mojos picked up the pace and turned the festival grounds into a old-fashioned roadhouse with their spicy mixture of cajun, zydeco, and New Orleans funk-based blues. The house was rocking, the dancers were up and shaking their collective booties while Melton and the band kept the energy level at a fevered pace. This is without a doubt a serious party band!
What can I say about Trampled Under Foot (TUF) that hasn’t already been said. Since winning the International Blues Challenge in 2008, this band has been on a meteoric rise to the top echelon of blues performers. Brother Nick Schnebelen displayed his Albert King Award-winning guitar licks, sister Danielle rocked the bottom with her stellar bass and put the vocals over the top while brother Kris kept everything in the pocket on the drums. There are many family legacy’s in the blues world, the Brooks’, Neals, and Allmans, to name a few, put the Schnebelens on that list, too, they’ll be there for a long time. Blues fans are a hearty breed and one of the heartiest was in Bonita specifically to hear a band he had not seen yet. Andy Kreinz traveled from Lampertheim, Germany, after hearing about TUF from a friend in Warsaw, Poland. That’s dedication, folks, think about that next time you don’t drive across town to hear the blues. It’s not that far to go; ask Andy. (In the photo below Trampled Under Foot uber-fan Andy Kreinz gets a little time with the band).
The legendary Magic Slim and the Teardrops capped off a great day with his signature Mississippi-to-Chicago-style blues. Slim’s groove was as infectious as it’s always been as he laughed and joked with the crowd that had packed up to the stage to be near the legend. Tight as ever, the Teardrops moved effortlessly from one tune to the next as Slim absolutely mesmerized everyone. Small wonder that they are one of the busiest and best loved blues bands around.
Larry Lisk is a blues radio personality booking agent in Tampa, Florida. This is his first article for BluesWax.
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