If you’re a fan of the blues, then you may have heard of the big-little blues festival that unfolds every year at the Chenango County Fairgrounds in Norwich. Unlike those huge, chockfull-of-artists blues fests where several stages are going on simultaneously, the Chenango Blues Festival doesn’t force you to strategically map out your day with the precision of an Army General planning a military offensive in hope to see at least some of your favorite bands.
At Chenango, the main electrified infield stage and the nearby acoustic tent stage don’t compete with one another in the same time frame. They alternate presenting performers and give people time to stroll from one stage to another.
Another well thought out attribute of Chenango is the placement of the merchandise tables, situated between the two stages and featuring an autograph-signing meet & greet with nearly all of the artists – from newcomers to full blown blues legends – after each performance.
Under rain-free, sun-drenched skies the 19th annual Chenango Blues Festival kicked off with a tremendous line -up that included legendary blues headliners James Cotton, John Hammond and the North Mississippi All Stars Duo.
At 12noon on the main stage, Philadelphia-based newcomer Gina Sicilia started the ball rolling with a mix of originals and forgotten blues classics. The tent stage followed with Suspicious Hats, a regional outfit playing a mixed bag of tunes fusing rock, reggae and bluegrass with the blues.
Moving along into the afternoon, the main stage started to sizzle with a fine set of New Orleans-fuelled originals by the city’s native sons, the Honey Island Swamp Band.
Up next on the tent stage, long-time acoustic blues veteran Doug MacLeod brought out his resonator guitar, singing a distinctive patchwork quilt of his originals. Woven from the historical fabric of the Piedmont, Texas and Louisiana acoustic blues styles of long ago, MacLeod’s self-penned songs were beautifully performed with masterful guitar-slide playing and humorous, story-filled introductions that connected with the audience right from the get-go.
Strolling on the main stage in high heels with a Fender Stratocaster slung around her neck, tall, leggy Ana Popovic looked more like a runway fashion model than a blues-guitar disciple of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. But from her first power-guitar riff to the last screaming note, Popovic’s set had the audience eating out of her hand and wanting more.
With a huge smile and a bevy of his own hand-crafted guitars, James “Super Chikan” Johnson sat on the acoustic stage and proceeded to delight the audience with stories and tunes drawn from his Mississippi Delta childhood and years of touring.
Legendary blues harpist and singer James Cotton brings the richness of his early experiences playing with both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to every performance. Now in his late 70s, Cotton is now an elder statesmen, one of only a small handful of survivors from the early days of the creation of the Chicago blues style. Sharing the spotlight with him was harp legend in-the-making Darrell Nulisch, a veteran frontman for the horn-driven Roomfull Of Blues and long ago partner with blues guitar-monster Ronnie Earl.
Back at the tent, the dignified and stately John Hammond wove together a powerful set of classic blues with his mesmerizing vocals and acoustic guitar finesse. For well over three decades, this interpreter of the acoustic-blues canon has spread the word on long ago blues legends from Robert Johnson to Skip James and signed up new converts to the music wherever he has played.
The Chenango Blues Fest came to a close with the explosive blues pyrotechnics of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson. Better know as the heart of the North Mississippi All Stars, the duo is a scaled-down version that’s no less dynamic in their in-your-face blues-rock. Luther’s guitar wizardry with the slide, pick or his fingers is world class, and Cody is no slouch on the drum kit, either. Together that night under the spotlight the North Mississippi All Stars Duo’s fire-brand performance brought back memories of such legendary performers from ’60s era as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy.
Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Photographs by Warren Linhart at The Syracuse Post Standard