The 18th Annual
Tampa Bay Blues Festival
April 13, 14, & 15, 2012
Vinoy Waterfront Park
St. Petersburg, Florida
By Mark Goodman
Welcome blues fans and sun worshipers, or sun burners, whichever the case may be. It’s April in sunny South Florida and time for the 18th Annual Tampa Bay Blues Festival. The weather has been perfect for the last six weeks, low humidity, nice sea breeze, and plenty of sun. Perfect festival weather, unless you’re from Michigan and the color of bleached flour! Then make sure you bring a bucket of SPF 150 sunscreen. Just kidding, 50 will do.
As with years past, Chuck and Traci Ross, along with their festival team, enlisted a stellar group of musicians for the festival. In fact, Tampa Bay Blues Festival was the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping The Blues Alive Award for “best festival” in 2011, a well deserved accolade.
The festivities started on Friday at 12:30 p.m. with a promising crowd already on hand. In fact, it was the largest Friday crowd I’ve seen. Must have been a few workers playing hooky.
The event kicked off with the Alexis P. Suter Band. This 2012 Blues Music Award nominee (Best Soul Blues Female) did a great version of the Dylan classic “Knockin On Heaven’s Door.”
Up next was the “Mississippi Soulman” Johnny Rawls. This Blues Music Award winner (2009 Soul Blues Album) has been a staple of southern soul with his buttery smooth vocals and clean guitar. However, after checking for the kids, he showed he could “do the double” (entendre) with the best with his “really” blue “Lucy Gets Juicy”!
Delta Groove Records has been putting together showcases at many events over the years. “The Delta Groove Harp Blast” featured a trio of harmonica virtuosos, Mitch Kashmar, Al Blake, and Pieter “Big Pete” van der Pluijm, who comes all the way from the Netherlands. As testament to the warm weather, Big Pete asked, “Is it hot, or just me? When I left Holland it was freezing rain. I may never go home!”
Not to be left out, Delta Groove chief Randy Chortkoff put in a few licks of his own before the show was over. Something not usually seen on a festival stage occurred during Al Blake’s set. He stopped a song not once, not twice, but three times to correct a bandmate. A first for me!
Next up was one of the legendary bands of modern blues, Roomful of Blues. Believe it or not, this band is from Rhode Island. Quick, name me another band from Rhode Island!
This is an incredibly talented band that was formed in 1967 by Duke Robilliard and Al Copley. Roomful has been together in one form or another for more than forty years, and has had a swinging door policy with personnel. Current vocalist Phil Pemberton is reminiscent of former band vocalist, Curtis Salgado. Other memorable musicians to come out of Roomful of Blues are Ronnie Earl, Greg Piccolo, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Lou Ann Barton. Roomful of Blues is the quintessential horn band performing the best in Swing and Jump Blues, Soul, and R&B.
Friday night’s closer was the “Tres Hombres” of South Texas, Los Lonely Boys. This band of brothers burst on the scene with a bang around 2004 with a self-titled platinum record and #1 hit “Heaven.” The band features a Tex-Mex blend of rock, Texas roadhouse blues, and the sweet harmonies only siblings can generate. Over the years, the focus has shifted from singer/bassist Jojo Garza to Henry Garza, who captivates with fiery guitar and vocals. Ringo Garza keeps everything together on a drum kit that even Carl Palmer would envy.
Saturday kicked off hard and heavy with Florida’s own Albert Castiglia. This high-octane guitarist spent a year touring with the legendary Junior Wells before striking out on his on. If your morning coffee didn’t get your heart pumping, Castiglia certainly did.
Castiglia was followed by Toni Lynn Washington, then The Mannish Boys. East Coast to West Coast, The Mannish Boys is really a rotating roster of Delta Groove artists that come together for festivals and shows. The band today featured such gifted performers as Finis Tasbey and Bobby Jones on vocals, Kid Ramos and Frank Goldwasser on guitar, and one of the best drummers in the business, Jimi Bott.
Then a true legend took the stage. James Cotton, one of the harp masters and one of the last of a generation that helped define the genre of blues. Cotton was accompanied by Darrell Nulisch on vocals. Ever since Cotton’s voice was damaged by throat cancer and surgery, he has featured several different vocalists for his shows. Despite his years, he was looking spry and was hittin’ the notes sweet. Cotton and Nulisch make a great team.
I have never been a huge fan of Tower of Power (for no particular reason), but apparently many in the audience were. This unusual choice for a blues festival had many fans dancing and singing along. Even though I have not been a fan, I recognized many of their songs from radio play over their last forty-plus years of recording.
Saturday night’s closer was Jimmie Vaughan, a founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Jimmie Vaughn cut his teeth in the rough clubs around Dallas and Austin until the Thunderbirds were formed in 1975. This fledgling group became the house band at famed Antone’s in Austin, Texas. Since leaving the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1989, Vaughan has forged a solid solo career with his excellent guitar skills and style of Tex-Mex-spiced blues. His credentials include four Grammy Awards in an eleven-year span.
There was a little non-musical excitement at the festival this year. The venue is Vinoy Park, which is located on the waters of Tampa Bay. Many boaters will anchor up to enjoy the music, which carries quite well over the water. Saturday was a windy day with steady gusts that probably hit 25 knots. Unfortunately, one captain broke a golden rule of boating: Never anchor off the stern, especially in bad weather! Once wave height reached transom height, it was over quickly. Luckily, no one was hurt and a local boater was able to pluck the unfortunates from the bay. For the rest of the festival the protruding bow was a grim reminder that you don’t take Mother Nature for granted. Despite that bit of drama, the festival continued without hesitation.
Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges got things rolling on about 1:00 on Sunday afternoon. Man, this guy can sing! He can play guitar, too, but his vocals just hold you spellbound. We don’t get to see Bridges in the States that much and I sure can’t figure why. He has lived in Europe for many years and just doesn’t seem to work many festivals over here. That needs to change! This guy is too good to not have around all the time. When asked why he didn’t play in the U.S. more often, he said, “I don’t know, I’m just a phone call away.” Seems simple to me!
Jimmy Thackery & The Drivers came on early in the lineup because they had to head out for Colorado right after his show. Coming off a winter break, Thackery and the boys were rested and in fine form. Jimmy Thackery will admit that he’s more a rocker than a bluesman, but you wouldn’t know it when he does decide to go over to the “blue” side.
Jimi Hendrix was an obvious influence on Thackery as most of his shows, today included, feature his excellent version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” He mixes enough blues into his rock to remain a very popular act on the festival circuit. One simple reason: he can play the hell out of that ’64 Strat!
Relatively new to the Tampa Bay area, the next band was Trampled Under Foot. TUF features siblings Danielle (bass & vocals), Nick (guitar & vocals), and Kris Schnebelen (drums & vocals), from Kansas City. This band won the 2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. At that event, Nick won the Albert King Most Promising Guitarist Award. Since that time, the band has been taking the blues world by storm, and with good reason. With each record the band has shown a steady growth and maturity that is reflected in their material. Danielle handles much of the vocal duties with a voice and style that literally smolders with passion. Her brother Nick has the voice of a bluesman much older and road worn, a combination that will ultimately take this band to the top.
To close the curtain on the 2012 Tampa Bay Blues Festival was Mr. Delbert McClinton. Ironically, I ran into McClinton backstage before his show and didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt, and sucking on a chocolate Popsicle.
With his career spanning more than fifty years, McClinton is still touring and writing like a younger man. Probably known more for his songwriting than performing, this two-time Grammy winner still puts on a heck of a show. With hits such as “Givin It Up For Your Love” and “Everytime I Roll The Dice,” he continues to keep the fans rooted until the very end.
The festival also featured an after-party on Friday and Saturday nights, which were only a short walk from the venue. The parties featured performers such as Trampled Under Foot, Albert Castiglia, and Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges.
What a great weekend of music! The lineup left no one lacking for variety and talent. The gorgeous weather and beautiful people made it a totally wonderful blues experience.
Even as great as this festival was, I always feel a tinge of regret that it’s over. However, there is a surefire cure for that feeling – The Next One!
Based in Florida, Mark Goodman is a contributing editor and photographer at BluesWax.
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