For a quarter of a century now, the Music Haven has presented what is unquestionably the Capital Region’s most ambitious and culturally diverse free annual summer concert series. The concerts don’t always attract the big, Alive at Five-sized crowds, but the series always attracts great musicians from all over the globe, and it consistently lives up to the motto of its mission – “Come travel the world with us, one concert at a time.”
Due to the threat of inclement weather last Sunday, the Music Haven’s concert featuring legendary blues harmonica master James Cotton was moved to the rain site – Proctors – and when the show is moved to a beautiful site like Proctors nothing is lost in the venue shift. Not even the audience, apparently, as nearly 1,400 people packed the downstairs of Proctors’ Main Stage theater for what proved to be a very special celebration. Not only was it the biggest Capital Region blues event of the summer, but it was also the Music Haven’s 25th anniversary gala party, and the bash was well attended by a plethora of local political dignitaries, as well as staunch music supporters.
In a brief, pre-concert ceremony on the Main Stage, former Schenectady mayor Karen Johnson was honored for her support of the Music Haven throughout the years, and in a surprise proclamation, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy honored Music Haven’s founder, visionary and producing artistic director Mona Golub with the Patroon Award, the city’s highest honor. “It’s been a labor of love for me, bringing such a diverse, cross-generational audience together,” said an audibly choked-up Golub, as she accepted the award.
The concert also served a heartfelt memorial to Albany bluesman Tom Healey, whose death the previous Monday shook the Local 518 blues community. Guitarslinger Matt Mirabile and his band, fronted by vocalist-harmonicat Ted Hennessy, tore through a seven-song opening set that ranged from such blues classics as Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “So Sad to Be Lonesome” to a funky, cowbell-fueled rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” and they dedicated their performance to Healey. The Music Haven folks also joined in the tribute, playing selections from the Tom Healey Band’s two albums – Pearl Street and Tough Dog – during the between-band intermission.
Then the James Cotton Band rolled onstage in soul-revue style. First, guitarist Tom Holland led Cotton’s backing trio for a handful of tunes. Then Holland introduced James “Superharp” Cotton as “the man who IS blues harmonica today,” and the 79-year-old Cotton began wailing into his harp from offstage, carefully making his way to his center-stage chair, before settling in and blowing like a hurricane through a pair of blues instrumentals.
Following a bout with throat cancer, Cotton’s once powerhouse voice has been reduced to little more than grit ‘n’ gravel, so vocalist Darrell Nulisch ambled out soon after and sat down next to Cotton for the rest of the show, as the band offered up such gems as a sweet southern soul stroll through Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do,” a call-and-response audience sing-along on the old blues warhorse “Got My Mojo Working,” a romping rendition of “Rocket 88” and Cotton’s own autobiographical “He Was There,” the latter from his latest Alligator Records album, Cotton Mouth Man.
Unfortunately, Cotton’s harmonica was plagued by recurring bouts of feedback even after his monitor speakers were re-positioned and the crew switched out microphones for him. Though he was visibly frustrated, he persevered and managed to howl through enough wicked solos to prove that he’s still got the right stuff. And his band – also including bassist Noel Neal and drummer Jerry Porter – quite ably covered the downtime.
Despite his frustration with the sound problems, Cotton graciously wrapped up the night sitting onstage after the show, cheerfully greeting fans and signing CDs.
The Music Haven Concert Series continues on Sunday (August 3) with Louisiana zydeco great Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys in Schenectady’s Central Park. Opening the show at 7pm will be Ramblin Jug Stompers. Admission is free. And in case of inclement weather, Proctors is the rain site for the concert.