Harvest Time Blues Festival
Monaghan Town, Ireland
September 7-9, 2012
By David Scott
After you are finished reading David Scott’s review of the Harvest Time Blues Festival, click over to this week’s Photo Page to see photographer Jean-Christophe Arav’s photos of the festival.
With the traditional Gaelic greeting “Cead mile failte” (hundred thousand welcomes), a picturesque border town location, soaring temperatures, and glorious sunshine, this was the perfect setting for a weekend musical extravaganza. It also had a fairytale dimension in that the star of the entire festival was not a headline act but local singer/songwriter/guitarist Grainne Duffy from Castleblayney, County Monaghan.
Duffy’s band was confined to the pub trail and played to packed venues, often with larger audiences than the main marquee. Perhaps she will progress to the main stage next year, not that she needs to prove herself given recent appearances at Glastonbury, a worldwide touring schedule and an internationally acclaimed album, Test Of Time. Her live performances were sensational and went down a storm in her home county. Grainne has a voice that could ferment Guinness. Comparisons with other female singers of the genre are irrelevant because of her unique sound, songwriting talent, impassioned vocals, and beautiful feel for the blues. This is not Bonnie Raitt, this is Bonnie Raitt on speed! From “Rockin’ Rollin Stone” to the self-penned classical ballad “I Know We’re Gonna Be Just Fine,” Duffy mesmerized her legion of fans. Bassist Davy Watson contributed excellent harmonizing vocals as well as bass riffs that Jack Bruce would be proud of. Indeed, it is the tightness and intensity of the band collectively which is a major factor in the success story of Grainne Duffy. This is no “Sex and Strat” performer, to quote some recent accusations of blueswomen, and in any case it would be a brave person to say it to her face! However, do not be fooled by the moody looks of the publicity photographs, as the engaging Grainne spent hours happily chatting to fans and signing autographs. To misquote Julius Caesar, “She came, she saw, and she conquered.”
By contrast, the opening act in the marquee, Dutch band Mike and the Mellotones, played to a handful of spectators which was surprising given their claim to be at the forefront of the new blues in Europe. The set started well with a high-octane version of “Not Fade Away” with drummer Lorenzo laying down a brilliant rhythm. “Just A Dream,” from the latest CD 1 + 1 = 3, contained echoes of Walter Trout, and “Sensation,” the Freddie King classic, highlighted Mike Donkin’s guitar skills. Overall though, there was too much repetitive improvisation and it was a one–dimensional performance by a band which should be renamed “The Monotones.”
Headlining Friday night were Deadstring Brothers, the Detroit bluesy rockers, who livened up proceedings for an ever-expanding audience as the pubs closed. The set had a strong country element, starting with the driving “Are You Feeling Alright?” and moving into strong, catchy self-composed material from the excellent Sao Paulo album. The charismatic vocalist/guitarist Kurt Marschke took centre stage, orchestrating everything and looking and, at times, sounding like John Lennon in the process. This is a highly talented, energetic band who ensured a memorable ending to the first day.
The acoustic acts on Friday were in separate venues and the festival organizers had made inspirational choices, starting with 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Lazy Lester, the 79-year-old from Louisiana, former disciple of Lightnin’ Slim, and a contemporary of John Jackson. He defied his age by playing three consecutive nights, singing duets with his American colleagues and constantly mingling with the festival-goers. Few artists deserve the descriptor “real deal,” but Lester is one of them. From “Blues Come Knockin’ At My Door” and Professor Longhair’s “Ya Ya Blues” to country classics such as “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain” and “Your Cheating Heart,” Lester sang his heart out to the hardcore fans. His voice is becoming strained and the harp-playing was not always crisp and articulate, but the man is an institution.
Terry “Harmonica” Bean, the 51-year-old traditional Delta bluesman and one-time friend of Junior Kimborough. worked full time in a furniture factory until turning professional in 2008. He sounded like a one-man band at times, with his powerful vocals, piercing, explosive harp, and syncopated rhythms. From boogie to blues, with highlights including “Walking Blues,” “Telephone Blues,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Bean enhanced his growing reputation. He also played duets with Lazy Lester which were even better as it gave him further opportunities to show his harmonica prowess without also having to sing.
Marquise Knox, the young gun from Missouri, is a promising talent with a powerful tuneful voice and distinctive guitar style, albeit still very raw. His solo opportunities were limited by the enthusiasm of Lester and Terry to participate in his sets, and the trio triumphed with their superb rendition of Jimmy Rogers’ “That’s Alright.” Knox will have learned a lot from the experience and is already scheduled to come to the UK next year.
Sean Taylor, the highly acclaimed singer, lyricist, and guitarist from Kilburn, London, was a tour de force and the best acoustic performer at the festival by a mile. Blues Matters’ review of Love Against Death, his latest album, recorded in Austin, Texas, concluded, “Every note is musical perfection.” Comparisons with the veteran folk/blues singer Michael Chapman are inevitable, but Taylor has an even harder political edge. On “Stand Up” he makes the impassioned plea, “People of the world we have to unite, For the flame of the love we have to ignite, Wipe away the poverty, wipe away the greed, I’d rather die on my feet than live here on my knees.” Another highlight was the arrangement of “Raglan Road,” inspired by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. Lighter material included an innovative shuffle version of “Sixteen Tons,” Texas boogies, “psychedelic blues,” and a gentle interpretation of Skip James’ “Hard Times.” Taylor has a mellifluous voice, at times almost a whisper, with an incredible range when required, such as the anguish and heartache expressed during Richie Haven’s “Freedom.” Exquisite piano playing was evident on “Biddy Mulligan’s,” a tribute to the former Kilburn pub but it is Sean’s guitar craftsmanship which sets him apart, with beautiful slide technique and the innovative use of capos to produce a distinctive sound and unique style.
Texan Steve James proudly presented his new National steel guitar and proceeded to entertain the audience with his humorous anecdotes, eclectic songs, and considerable prowess on both guitar and mandolin. He skillfully weaved together the Leadbelly melodies from “Poor Howard” and “Green Corn” to produce a wonderful instrumental. James is a fine slide guitarist and produces a beautiful tone, not least on “Blues In A Bottle.” His creative songwriting and masterful ability as a storyteller were evident on “Greens” and “Galway Station Blues.”
The Memphis-based superstar and musical missionary Alvin Youngblood Hart lived up to his reputation on both sides of the pond with a selection of songs from Home Sweet Home and his extensive back catalogue. An even bigger legend since his role in Scorsese’s films about the blues, Alvin told stories about this experience in between treating the audience to songs from a range of influences, including Henry Townsend, Blind Willie Johnson, and the Mississippi Sheiks. The latter’s “Livin’ In A Strain” was about the 1930′s Depression but was just as applicable today. Another intriguing song was about “Bloody Bill” Anderson, which is part of the repertoire of Alvin’s acoustic supergroup, the South Memphis String Band.
Saturday and Sunday nights at the marquee were all -American shows well attended by Monaghan residents alongside the blues fans gathered from across the globe. The Chris O’ Leary Band from New York had the younger spectators dancing from the outset in a barnstorming set comprising classics such as “I Can Tell” and originals like “I Need You Like A Hole In The Head,” dedicated to O’Leary’s ex-wife! This six-piece creates a big band sound with its two saxophones and inspirational stand-up bass player. Chris Vitarello slowed it back down with some tasty lead guitar on “Blues Is A Woman” before O’Leary accelerated the tempo once more with his energetic singing and Chicago-style harp playing.
Wayne Baker Brooks is a chip off the old block with his strong vocals and searing guitar on “It Don’t Work Like That” and his extended version of “Telephone Blues,” which contained some brilliantly mimed dialogue. Wayne continued to up the ante even further with his sheer energy and “bayou swamp music meets Chicago” playing style in numbers like “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Watchdog.”
In many respects Sunday night was even better, with Tommy Castro and The Painkillers in outstanding form. The band blasted its way through “Love Don’t Care” and “Make It Back To Memphis” from the Hard Believer CD before moving on to material from the Painkiller album. Castro is rapidly assuming the mantle of Buddy Guy with his forays into the audience to connect with the fans. He exudes enthusiasm and fun whilst retaining the spirit of the blues. For example, in “Low Down Blues” before climaxing with “Right As Rain.”
Larry McCray drew the festival to a close with a stunning performance. Brought up on a farm in Arkansas, the second youngest of nine siblings, he moved to Chicago, brought out his first album in 1990, and has been touring ever since. Not a prolific recording artist despite an excellent studio CD in 2006, he is a musician’s musician and highly respected by his colleagues. McCray has immense stage presence, with Tommy Castro declaring, “I am going to stay around and learn some new licks from him.” McCray has a voice of pure velvet and his guitar playing is sweet and understated rather than flashy, so all in all, a fitting end to an excellent festival.
Every band on the pub trail also contributed to the festival’s success. Apart from the aforementioned Grainne Duffy, the other pub trail performer destined for great things was Giles Robson of the Dirty Aces. He sings and plays in the “talking blues” style of his idol Sonny Boy Williamson the second, and other influences include Norton Buffalo and Sugar Blue. Like Grainne, it was hard to find space in a pub to see the band but those who persevered witnessed a phenomenal talent. The wild and boisterous audience demanded fast and furious 100-miles-per-hour harp playing, and the faster and louder he played the wilder they became. The interplay between Giles and double bassist Ian Jennings was magnificent, whilst drummer Mike Hellier laid down the frenetic beat required for holding it all together. It was not all about speed and brashness, however, as Robson showed his versatility of range and phrasing across the registers of the diatonic harmonica. This was achieved through slower blues numbers and an amazing track called “Devil Led Evil” from the impressive new CD Crooked Heart Of Mine. Robson is leading the way in both popularizing the harmonica for the young generation and satisfying established blues fans who just love to hear a harp maestro at the top of his game.
The popular Ronnie Greer Band from Northern Ireland had a strong fan base and wrung the last drop of emotion out of blues classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” whilst keeping the audience’s toes tapping. Similarly, The Hardchargers from Belfast were an innovative and energetic power trio who remained true to the spirit of the blues through classics such as “Hideaway” and “Can’t Be Satisfied.” Crow Black Chicken lived up to their emerging reputation following Glastonbury with powerful versions of “Pride And Joy” and “The Hunter.” Unfortunately, the Friday night regulars in the pub were not quite so switched on and so most continued their conversations. However, the band was chosen to headline the “Survivors” post-festival party which was a great accolade for this rocking trio.
Another line up adversely affected by the venue was the Dana Dixon Band from Edinburgh, whose highly competent performance did little for the pensioners who had come to the pub for a quiet Sunday lunch and found themselves seated in front of the speakers. Nevertheless, Dixon persevered and came up trumps with her beguiling and evocative version of “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Dublin-based Pilgrim Blues had the advantage of the outdoor stage in the sunshine but failed to capitalize on one of the biggest audiences with a fairly low-key performance. The Wildcards from the southwest of England were cool guys who looked and sounded the part with their perfect harmonization and slick instrumentals. They benefited from the guest appearance of the Ace of Harps, Giles Robson, who brought the house down with his rendition of “Going Down Easy.” A refreshingly, alternative musical experience was provided by the Canadian group Andre and the J-Tones. Not many blues bands have a song list which includes “Do You Love Me,” “On The Road Jack,” and “I Feel Good.” However, a combination of clever arrangements, tasteful guitar work, and exceptionally talented saxophone and trumpet players, contributed to a jazz, pop, and soul fusion sound which the audience loved.
Finally, congratulations to the Harvest Blues organizers for this eclectic mix of music, generous hospitality, and tranquil location.
Dave Scott’s Awards
Best Overall Performance– Grainne Duffy Band
Best Blues Band – Tommy Castro and The Painkillers
Best Acoustic Performance – Sean Taylor
Best vocalist/guitarist – Larry McCray
Best harmonica player – Giles Robson
Next year’s dates for next year’s Harvest Time Blues Festival are September 6-8, 2013. For more information, go to their site, www.harvestblues.ie, or click HERE.
Based in England, Dave Scott is a contributing writer for BluesWax.
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