Review and photographs by Eric Gleason
One of the greatest sounds known to man is the natural reverb of the drums and screaming guitar of a hot blues band careening off the canyon walls deep in a city. That sound returned to Albany’s Pearl Street for the first time in recent memory Friday night as 13 bands participated in the Business Improvement District’s inaugural Blues Music Competition. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, blues around Nippertown was at its peak, and on any given weekend you could easily have a hard time choosing between any number of great local acts, not to mention the regional and national acts that would often roll into town. The scene started to slow down several years ago, but if Friday night’s event is any indication, we are witnessing a resurgence.
Playing for pride and an opportunity to play on a larger stage at Alive at Five this summer, it was clear that each of the contestants came ready to strut their stuff, none more than perennial Schenectady blues man George Boone. Boone has always been a passionate performer and entertaining front man, but he was clearly playing for keeps to a packed crowd at the Pearl St. Pub. The George Boone Blues Band was the obvious top contender, with everyone else playing for second place, and he was rewarded by being voted one of the three winning artists.
Joe Lowry & the Second Mile Blues Band were also deserving winners, delivering a guitar-driven heavy blues-rock sound to the packed Blue 82. Blackboard Blues brought a more traditional sound and did an impressive job of keeping the crowd’s attention in the huge hall at Jillian’s, the biggest venue in the competition.
In addition to the three winners, downtown Albany was literally packed with great blues acts. With only three hours to see all of them (I took the fourth hour of the night to enjoy myself), I only got to spend about 10 minutes or so at each venue, so I can’t offer a real review of all of the bands, but here’s what I saw: Led by Mark Emanatian, Folding Sky held off the rain playing an outdoor stage at Taste with a pair of screaming guitars and a solid rhythm section. JV & the Cutters deserve respect for opening the night with original songs – always a tough sell in this area – and for hauling a genuine B-3 organ downtown for the gig. George Fletcher’$ Foldin’ Money paid respect with some solid blues standards (and props for having a young guitar player in the band. Nothing against the older crowd and musicians, but we need to start infusing some youth into the scene before the blues winds up retiring with an aging crowd.) Cheers to Blackboard Blues for rising to the tall task of filling Jillian’s, one of the biggest halls on the block. Collette & the Mudcats brought a modern blues sound to Figure 10, and Blues Sanctuary used their classic sound to get the people dancing at McGeary’s.
Kenny Briggs and his Nite Train band worked hard to entertain the crowd at Legends. With Luke McNamee sitting in on sax, Sly Fox & the Hustlers showed the Bayou what they can really bring, and it must be said that accompanying vocalist Donna Tritico had one of the most powerful and soulful voices on display at the competition. Charlie Smith and Rob Aronstein played the Merry Monk as a duo – a big risk in a competition like this – but a task they were clearly up to. The Bent Rail Blues Band played to a packed house at the Olde English Pub, while Sir Winston Churchill watched over them sternly. My apologies to Kylie & the Sympathetic Strangers, but they hadn’t started playing by the time I was at Franklin’s Tower, and I was on a tight schedule. I did hear that they were very good and earned votes from several people who had never heard of them before.
The owners of all of these clubs deserve big praise for hosting these bands. I know that blues bands don’t draw the big crowds they once did, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a few owners have seen that there are plenty of blues fans that would love to come downtown to see a good band. I know that some of the clubs had smaller crowds, but there were easily 1,000 people in combined attendance, and that certainly has to represent a market worth trying to court.
And whattup, Savannah’s? The blues isn’t good enough for you anymore? I know it’s a different place with different owners, but there was a time when your club was the epicenter of the Albany blues scene. Maybe you’ll pay homage to your heritage next year and participate.
The Downtown Albany Business Improvement District deserves credit for organizing a fantastic event, which seems to only have potential to grow and improve each year.
The three winning bands – the George Boone Blues Band, Joe Lowry & the Second Mile Blues Band and Blackboard Blues – will perform at the Alive at Five Blues Night in Albany’s Riverfront Park at 5pm on Thursday, July 5. Admission is free.