The Hats Off Music Festival in Saratoga Springs last Saturday night brought out thousands of spectators and shoppers despite the oppressive heat. Yet some of the hottest music to be heard in a town full of it wasn’t even advertised on the official brochure, and you might have missed it if you didn’t walk the extra block past the City Center where the Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society was hosting its fourth annual Saratoga Blues Celebration at the Stockade Oriental Rug Imports.
The members of SABS do their best to educate, as well as entertain their audience about the origins of the music they play. And they don’t stick strictly to, for instance Delta Blues, but mix up their set lists with everything from Appalchian folk to Dixieland jazz to vaudeville rags and even original songs. But where many listeners might be more familiar with the Rolling Stones or Stevie Ray Vaughn versions of songs, the Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society references the first recorded sources.
First up was harpist Dave Scheffel and Ubuntu, a quartet who roused the audience with a spirited version of Levon Helm’s “When I Go Away.” John Sciolino & the Blue Cheese Two added a Dixieland twist to “I Want To Be Seduced” and invited members of the audience to come up and contribute spontaneously mumbled verses to “The Mumble Blues.”
Ray Pashoukos played banjo on a string of traditional, mournful numbers, including “Shady Grove,” “Long Black Veil” and a medley of the surprisingly sad “You Are My Sunshine” and “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad.”
Bill Ackerbauer wound his way through “Milwaukee Blues,” a version of the Mississippi Mudsteppers’ “That Lonesome Train” and Tom Waits’ “Angels In Heaven Gonna Sign My Name.”
Sonny Speed – a member of the Resonators and sound man for the evening – was up next with the Toby Walker song “Oops,” Steve Goodman’s “Chicken Cordon Blues” and a favorite by his former band the Defibrulators, “Do It While You Can,” during which he further testified, “Any day on this side of the grass is a good day.” He wrapped up with Mississippi Fred McDowel’s “You Got To Move.”
Two Lonesome – the duo of Tom Benson and Joanne Siffle from the Dyer Switch bluegrass band – brought along Del McCoury’s “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone,” Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire,” Naomi Judd’s “Bad News Blues” and, with Joanne on Appalachian dulcimer, “Nothing In The Whole World (Like A Saratoga Boy).”
Gail Sparlin started with her original “Beautiful Kiss” and added Dave Scheffel on harp for the jazz standard “Summertime”. She switched to banjo for a very different version of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” And Phil Drum – one of the event’s organizers and a co-founding member of SABS – joined Gail and Dave for “Deeper Shade of Blue.”
Next was another of the blues society’s co-founders, Ray Giguere, who played the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Candy Man” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good (I Feel Like Ballin’ the Jack).” Scheffel joined in for Robert Johnson’s “32.20 Blues” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.”
Drum returned to perform a solo version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues,” followed by Rob Atkins, who started with his original “Down To Atlanta,” before sticking together an unlikely medley of Blind Blake’s “In The Jailhouse Now” with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” made famous by Dean Martin. Together, Atkins and Drum played the entire known catalogue of Blind Willie Walker from South Carolina: “Dupree’s Blues” and “The South Carolina Rag.” The duo also played Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” and Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks” without sounding much like Derek & the Dominoes or Led Zeppelin.
If any of these artists were really striving to achieve the vocal phrasings and sound of the early Delta blues, then Kyle Miller was the young man who best succeeded at the task. In a set with Michael Eck, the duo played “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late,” “Stones In My Passway” and Son House’s “Jimmy Bell.” Eck followed with a solo version of “One Meatball” by Josh White, before bringing back Miller, Drum and Acklebauer in a one-time-only group calling themselves the Hopeless Mountain Playboys. Fortunately, the music was not so hopeless – the traditional “Stealin’,” Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live” and Leslie Riddle’s “Step By Step.”
The Tequila Mockingbirds – the popular duo of Peter Pashoukous and George Fletcher – brought the guitar fire to the festival with Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” Fred McDowell’s “You Got To Move” (the only song that was repeated during the fest) and “Malted Milk Blues.”
Finally the staging area, surrounded by mounds of rugs, filled to capacity with an evening-ending jam featuring almost everyone on the old warhorse “Got My Mojo Working.”
Of course, it would have been possible to miss all of this music and still see and hear plenty of music out on Broadway: Sirsy, Slick Fitty, the Garland Nelson Ensemble, Joe’s Boys, Disposable Culture, Kelly Hurley & Party of Three, Rich Ortiz, Liam Geddes, the Sonny Daye Trio and the Racing City Chorus.
Not to mention the New York Dolls at SPAC.
Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson