Blues From the Top
June 29 - July 1, 2012
Winter Park, Colorado
Story and Photos By Mark Goodman
Blues From the Top comes by its name righteously. First, it’s way up high. I mean thin air high! The festival is located in Winter Park, Colorado, and the elevation is 9,110 feet above sea level. That’s where I live, sea level, and the impact on the body is major. The altitude can make for some physiological challenges for some, yours truly being a prime example. Pay attention when the locals tell you to stay hydrated and take it slow.
Second, this is one of my favorite festivals of the summer, and I don’t think I am alone in that feeling. Fans and musicians alike sing the praises of this small festival near the clouds. Much of it is due to John Catt and his crew from the Grand County Blues Society. First and foremost, John takes care of the artists. Many of the musicians come for the weekend and bring their families if they have the time in their schedule. The backstage area is like a family reunion. It’s not unusual for an artist to be there for three days and sit in with half a dozen bands over the four days of festivities.
Festival weekend actually started on Thursday with a free concert in scenic Hideaway Park where the festival is held. The acts for this year’s opening ceremony were Ryan McGarvey and Kate Moss with a bevy of friends sitting in.
On Friday night before the festival there are two more shows. One is held in an open mall area outside Smoken’ Moe’s restaurant and bar and features any number of artists that get into town early. This year it featured Andy Irvine (Eden Brent, Mike Zito Band), Bobby Walker (Eden Brent), Kate Moss, and Jimmy Carpenter, along with many local musicians sitting in.
The official Pre-Fest Party followed in Smoken’ Moe’s with Dana Fuchs, followed by Shane Dwight and special guest Bekka Bramlett. Then, as with every year, the show turns into an all-star jam till the doors close.
Day One of Blues From the Top got started with The Current, a band comprised of up-and-coming talent from the region and featuring Tomarra Conrad.
This festival is known for promoting young blues players and their participation in the Blues in the Schools program (BITS). In fact, Colorado musician and educator Dan Traynor won a KBA (Keeping the Blues Alive) Award in Memphis this year for his work with that program. For those less involved, the KBA is the highest award presented to non-musicians by the Blues Foundation. It’s basically a lifetime achievement award for work in preserving and promoting blues music. Something all blues fans should aspire to do anyway.
Following was the Killborn Alley Blues Band from Chicago. This talented quartet has emerged as a major talent on the blues circuit and with four releases on Blue Bella Records. The band was nominated for Best New Artist this year at the Blues Music Awards.
Next was Ryan McGarvey, an up-and-coming guitar slinger from Albuquerque, New Mexico. This young man has an amazing command of his instrument. He has the fiery licks of a SRV, and the depth of Joe Bonomassa, but does not rely on these obvious influences for his material. He has plenty of his own licks to entice the audience to stop talking and listen, a true sign something special is happening on stage. This is a young artist that will be a force in the near future.
Then we jumped from the up and coming, to the sublime. Shaun Murphy brought one of the purist voices in the business to Winter Park. With a resume that includes being the first white female artist signed to Motown Records, sixteen years as the featured vocalist for Little Feat, a continuing membership in Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band (since the early 1970s), and has work with Eric Clapton (including his performance at Live Aid). Shaun Murphy has always been a lover of the blues and finally has the chance to make that her main focus. The fans were treated to an amazing show of vocal prowess as Murphy led her band through a range of blues and soul numbers. One special moment happened when Murphy was joined on stage by Bekka Bramlett. To close out her set, she chose the John Hyatt tune “Let It Rain,” a song that really showcases this lady’s amazing voice.
Following was Shane Dwight with special guest Bekka Bramlett. Dwight is a fiery guitarist and strong songwriter who I experienced for the first time this weekend. His style is hard, lean, and clean. With the addition of Bramlett, he adds the soulful lyrics and harmony bred of a couple generations of the genre. Bekka Bramlett is the daughter of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who also did some work with Eric Clapton.
To close Day One was a young lady who has a multitude of talents including acting, voice-over, and, obviously, singing. Having performed in movies and on stage (where she played Janis Joplin), Dana Fuchs’ heart lies with the blues. Her set was filled with both original tunes, written with guitarist Jon Diamond, and classic blues tunes from her influences. It’s not difficult to see why she was chosen for the role of Joplin. She has the voice and style to resurrect the late blues rocker, yet she doesn’t rely on that ability to carry her. She has plenty of talent and style of her own.
After the final act of the day, everybody strolled up the street to Smoken’ Moe’s for the Category 5 Showcase. Tonight featured the legendary Nighthawks with guest Jimmy Carpenter on saxophone. They were followed by 2012 BMA winner for Best New Artist, Samantha Fish. Fish was joined on guitar by Kate Moss and by Jimmy Carpenter. Early in their set they called up Shaun Murphy for a rousing version of “Someone Else is Stepping In.” After the Fish/Moss set it turned into another all-night, all-star jam.
This is where the altitude starts to take its toll. After two late nights of music and all day at the festival, you start to feel the effects. However, when you get to the park on Sunday and the music starts, you get a second wind and all is right with the world for another day.
As usual, Blues From the Top started off Sunday with a Gospel set featuring the talented Delores Scott. She has an incredible presence and delivery, and gets the people up and moving early. She was joined by singer Peaches Staiton and guitarist Jack Hadley. As a special guest this morning, she was joined by young Sadie Mae Moss (daughter of Nick and Kate Moss) for “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Sadie made her big stage debut here a couple years back, just one month past her sixth birthday. Then her band included Curtis Salgado (harmonica and backing vocals), Nick Moss (guitar), and the late Bob Carpenter (drums). I have no doubt young Sadie Mae will be gracing stages worldwide before she’s old enough to rent a car.
Next up was the legendary Nighthawks. Making music for near forty years, this hardworking band shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Even after playing the after-party the night before, the “old” guys from D.C. were ripping and roaring. Original member Mark Wenner (harp/vocals) formed the band in Washington, D.C., back in the early ’70s with a young Jimmy Thackery. Ironically Thackery’s longtime drummer Mark Stutso is now the Nighthawk’s drummer.
Following the “ole timers” was a bevy of beautiful young ladies that have earned a reputation for excellence in their craft as well as for their eye-catching good looks doing it.
First was former International Blues Challenge winner and multiple BMA winner Eden Brent. Brent spruced up her lineup of Andy Irvine (bass), and Bobby Walker (drums) with the addition of Jimmy Carpenter (saxophone) and Eric Steiner (flugelhorn). I’ve always found Brent to be entertaining as much solo as with a band, but hearing her with a horn section takes it a notch higher.
Then 2012 BMA Best New Artist Samantha Fish took the stage to tantalize both eyes and ears. This young lady has only been playing since the age of 16 (she just turned 24) but has been winning the admiration of fans and peers alike. Last year she was one third of the Girls with Guitars trio featuring Cassie Taylor and Danni Wilde. Seeing her for the first time here at Blues From the Top a few years back, it’s interesting to watch as a young artist matures and grows ever stronger.
To round out the eye-popping segment of the schedule was the European “Goddess of Guitar” (and sexy shoes), Ana Popovic. Only four weeks from delivering daughter Lenna (who was also in attendance), she looked and sounded as though she’d never left the road. No rust on those fingers, or any obvious remnants of her recent maternity! Popovic has few contemporaries when it comes to mastering the intricacies of her instrument. She can deliver power and subtlety with equal aplomb. She doesn’t yield to the temptation to just blast away with gazillion note runs, although she is certainly capable of it.
The final act of the 2012 Blues From the Top Festival was one of the most-talked-about new bands in years. Royal Southern Brotherhood, or RSB for short, has been getting rave reviews on their maiden tour. Comprised of musicians that have been well established and/or bandleaders in their own right, it didn’t take long for these guys to gel into a formidable musical force. Founded by Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, and Mike Zito, the band is rounded off by the rhythm section of bassist Charlie Wooten and drummer Yonrico Scott. There is not one member who stands above the others, they all bring strength and diversity to create their own unique blend of blues, southern soul, and some southern rock thrown in for good measure. Trust me, these guys are going to continue to make waves all the way to Los Angeles.
In closing, I’d like to point out something that they do here at Blues From the Top that I have yet to see anywhere else. They provide a stage for the younger blues players that are just getting their chops. These kids are products of the BITS program (Blues in the Schools) and the Grand County Blues Society makes a huge effort to give these kids a place to show off their skills while being a part of the festival. I can’t think of another festival that does this. If our mission as blues lovers is to promote and preserve this music we love, then we need to make a place for the newcomers to start spreading their wings. At BFT, even some of the pros went to the kid’s stage and sat in. Mark Stutso from the Nighthawks, Jimmy Carpenter, Andy Irvine, and Kate Moss all jumped in to broaden the horizons of these young players. One young man who started on this stage just a few years ago will be on the main stage at the upcoming Blue Star Festival in August. This is the future of the blues people! We need to embrace them, nurture them, and set them free to create what we love most, THE BLUES!
Mark Goodman is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax.
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