Western Maryland Blues Festival
May 31 – June 3, 2012
By Mark Goodman
Photos by Alan Grosman
Welcome to the 17th annual Western Maryland Blues Festival. This event, put on by the City of Hagerstown, has consistently provided blues fans with incredibly strong and diverse lineups since 1995.
Unfortunately, the festival has seemed to draw at least one day of bad weather ever since I started attending in 2008. This year proved no exception. It was like a baseball game on an iffy day. After the opening act, The Skyla Burrell Band, finished their set, the rain began. There were a few drops at first, but then the bottom fell out. Most people just went to the parking garage across the street to ride it out, quickly! After a short rain delay, The Billy Thompson Band got their set in without any problem.
Next up was Walter “Wolfman” Washington, featuring Jimmy Carpenter on saxophone. Only a few tunes into his set the rain started again. There was a good half-hour delay and the stage was flooded. It looked dubious as to whether the show would go on, but minutes later the band took the stage amid some rather large puddles. Washington was able to finish his set, but almost immediately the stage crew sent people to cover as the wind picked up and the sky opened.
At least an hour later, the sky dried up enough to host the last act of the evening. Having waited patiently for his turn, Matt Schofield Blues Project was ready to “kick the tires and light the fires.” This highly rated Brit can indeed light the fires. At any second you expect him to rage into a Hendrix or Vaughan guitar free-for-all, but he never relinquishes that tight control. He truly understands that sometimes less is more, or just right. His precision and tastefulness sets him apart from many players his age, actually many players, period.
Luckily, Saturday was forecast to be a fine day and besides some cooler temps early, was just that.
Hard Swimming Fish, a local band out of Frederick, Maryland, got things rolling with a roots/jugband sound slightly reminiscent of the The Whyos. They were followed by The Mike Westcott Band, then another local favorite, The Moondog Medicine Show from Hagerstown.
First up for the touring acts was midwestern dynamos Moreland & Arbuckle. This dynamic trio out of Topeka, Kansas, has been working the countryside hard with their brand of Hill Country and raw Urban blues. They featured the songs from their latest Telarc release, Just a Dream, which features a tune and collaboration with the legendary Steve Cropper.
The band had an obvious and immediate affect on the crowd. While the fans had been receptive to the previous acts, they let these guys know they were appreciated. Said one fan, “This is my new favorite band.” With guitarist Aaron Moreland prowling the stage like a caged lion, the guys powered through a set that seemed way too short. The crowd was still screaming for more even after their encore.
Western Maryland’s festival site is a parking lot in the center of town. They utilize two stages at opposing ends so there is a constant migration between shows. There is one distinct advantage of the paved location considering how often it seems to rain.
Even after a twenty-minute deluge, the water disappears in minutes with no mud or soggy grass.
So it was off to the west end stage for yet another powerful trio from the Sunflower state. Trampled Under Foot, for those who may have been residing in a cave this last four years, have enjoyed a career trajectory rivaling the space shuttle.
Composed of brothers Nick (guitar/vocals) and Kris (drums), along with sister Danielle Schnebelen (bass/vocals), this tight-knit family band caught the blues community’s attention when they ripped through the competition at the 2008 International Blues Challenge to take the crown. Nick Schnebelen also won the Albert King Most Promising Guitarist Award.
As with most of their shows, it started with Nick seated at the drums with his National Steel and doing a few one-man band tunes. Then it’s a roller coaster ride of driving rhythms and heartbreak emotions. Danielle Schnebelen has few rivals, especially among bass players, when it comes to vocalizing hurt and heartache. The band has already started to headline smaller festivals, and it won’t be long before they will be headlining the majors.
Next up was the sound of “Sacred Steel” with The Lee Boys. The band consists of brothers Alvin Lee, Derrick Lee, and Keith Lee, along with three of their nephews. Sacred Steel is a genre cultivated in the church and born of gospel but with a relentless blues-based beat. High energy it is and the Lee boys bring it!
Next up was a man I have been waiting years to see and who probably has more space on my iPod than any other artist, Ronnie Earl. With his band The Broadcasters, Earl held the crowd in devine rapture without singing a single word. I think it is the only pure instrumental blues show I’ve seen. Unfortunately, Ronnie Earl noted in an earlier interview that this would be his only show outside the Boston area this summer.
Earl looked as though he was not in peak shape when after sinking to his knees for an impassioned solo, he held his hand out to the lady that signs the lyrics for some help getting to his feet. She completely missed it so he struggled to his feet alone, then had to sit on the drum riser for a little while. Dispite this, Ronnie Earl gave the crowd a lesson in musicianship to be remembered. If it’s true he plans to stay close to home, then it might be worthwhile taking a trip to Boston.
From the subtle jazz/blues virtuosity of Ronnie Earl, we switched gears and stages for closer Walter Trout & The Radicals. Playing many of the tunes from his latest release, Blues For the Modern Daze, Trout was his usual animated self as he joked about the weather and whether he would get to play or not.
Not a single song went by without a resounding roar from the crowd. After the delays and dampness of the previous day, they were here to enjoy the sun and the blues. The latter was supplied in monster fashion by Trout and his band.
Friday and Saturday are billed as a “Downtown House Party” where adult beverages are served along with a variety of great food. On Sunday, the festival is relocated to the city park where it is billed as a “Blues Family Picnic.” No alcohol allowed! This year the schedule was filled with bands from the region and included several workshops.
The City of Hagerstown does a great job of providing something for the whole family and despite some battles with the weather, always manage to get every act on stage. To borrow a favorite phrase from our chief Chip Eagle, they’re “Bringin good blues to ya!”
Be sure to check out this week’s Photo Page where Mark Goodman shares some photographs from the Western Maryland Blues Festival.
Mark Goodman is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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