Bucolic Bliss: Tab Benoit, Joe Louis Walker and Mississippi Heat at 2019 Chenango Blues Fest August 16 & 17
While there are hundreds of blues festivals throughout the world, The Blues Festival Guide lists only five in New York State. The Chenango Blues Festival south of Albany in Norwich, New York this weekend Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17, is one of my favorites for several reasons. Presented by the husband and wife team of Eric and Pam Larsen, the event is nestled in a bucolic setting in a grassy field. Never overcrowded, it attracts a laid-back crowd with a continuous barrage of music that zigzags between the main stage and a tent stage from 11:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. on Saturday with a free concert Friday night.
The Larsens have been doing this for 26 years. In 2016, they won the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for US Blues Festival. They run the show like clockwork. The sound systems on both stages are very professionally run and sensitively tweaked for the individual needs of each band presented: never too loud or too soft. And if you have a particular act you want to experience up close and personal, you can easily make your way to the front of the stage without fighting a mosh pit.
They also do not clog the schedule with mass appeal blues rockers who sell tickets but only pay lip service to the genre. Instead, they put their money where the creative muses are and present a roster of contemporary masters of the art from around the world. Geographically, this year’s acts come from Chicago, Louisiana, Canada, San Francisco, and Kansas City.
Headliner Tab Benoit is a veteran Louisiana-based singer-songwriter whose guitar playing proffers the kind of eclectic gumbo we’ve come to expect from New Orleans musicians in the fine tradition of Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, The Meters, and Mem Shannon. “The Voice of The Wetlands” conservation advocate, he has carried the preservation flag with The Voice of the Wetlands Allstars that included the likes of Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich, Johnny Sansone, and Waylon Thibodeaux. A nine-time Blues Foundation Blues Music Award winner, Benoit brings to the stage a repertoire that includes originals from 19 albums recorded in a 26-year career.
The above-mentioned Johnny Sansone all but stole the show at the 2017 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. At six foot four with a mane of white hair that makes him look like Buffalo Bill Cody on steroids, Sansone cuts an imposing figure on stage before he opens his mouth. A college graduate who swam his way through school on a swimming scholarship, he was once known as Jumpin’ Johnny. He moves with the lithe spirit of a panther and hammers home his original music with a sense of purpose and grit that’s as imposing vocally as Howlin’ Wolf whom he saw once at age 12. Like The Wolf, he has a take no prisoners attitude toward performing. “I think there’s too much candy in music now to my liking,” he says. “Think about food as music. Food is for nourishment, and it makes you who you are. Your body is built from what you eat, and I think music should be consumed the same way. If you listen to sugary music, you’re not going to be able to understand this beautiful thing that exists in this world.” He’s toured with Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, and Robert Lockwood, Jr. and mixes fierce Mississippi delta blues with swamp rock and zydeco.
Joe Louis Walker performed a way too short opening set for Robert Cray at The Egg in Albany in March that included a cover of an Earl Hooker slide guitar tour de force that may just be the best slide work of any living guitarist I’ve seen short of Roy Rogers. Not that that is primarily what Walker is about. He’s a master generalist with one of the most unusual backgrounds in blues.
This guitarist/singer/songwriter has released 23 albums since 1986 for labels as varied as Alligator, Telarc, Evidence, and Provogue. He’s won one Grammy, been nominated for 52 Blues Music Awards and won four. His crossover appeal is wide, having recorded albums with everyone from Huey Lewis to Ike Turner, Branford Marsalis to James Cotton, Bonnie Raitt to Taj Mahal. He plays on two Grammy-winning albums by The King of the Blues B. B. King, Blues Summit (1993) and Deep in The Blues (1996). He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. He plays Chenango with his trio.
French-born harp player Pierre Lacocque has headed the Chicago-based blues band Mississippi Heat for decades with a revolving cadre of singers and instrumentalists. Known for his super-tight arrangements, he brings to his band Lurrie Bell, one of my favorite Chicago blues guitarists, harp players, and vocalists. The son of first-generation Chicago blues harp master Carey Bell, Lurrie was Koko Taylor’s lead guitarist in the late ’70s and remains a woefully under-recognized musical genius whose best material can be found on the tiny Chicago label that could, Delmark Records.
The Downchild Blues Band is the brainchild of Donnie” Mr. Downchild” Walsh who is like the John Mayall of Canada. For 50 years and 24 albums, this band has rocked our northern neighbors with hard-driving boogie that influenced fellow Toronton Dan Aykroyd and became the inspiration for the Blues Brothers.
If that’s not enough to entice you to Chenango, there’s more.
The Danielle Nicole Band led by the founding member, lead singer, and bass player of Kansas City blues-rock band Trampled Under Foot. Her 2018 Concord Records CD Cry No More won her a Grammy nomination. in 2019. This year Nicole has also been nominated for three Blues Music Awards in the categories of “Instrumentalist – Vocalis,” “Contemporary Blues Female Artist” and “Instrumentalist – Bass.”
Brian Golden Blues Experiment features Syracuse Golden Novak Band singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian Golden and his gospel singer and wife, Aletha Golden. The group “bridges the gap between blues, soul, and Americana.”
Pokey LaFarge is an Illinois native whose “influences are as multi-hued and wide-ranging as the rhythms that buoy his starkly poetic songs — rhythms that are steeped in the very essence of jazz.”
Jontavious Willis is a 21-year-old bluesman hailing from Greenville, Georgia. He grew up singing gospel music at the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church with his grandfather. His style ranges from Delta, Piedmont, and Texas to gospel. He’s a fingerpicker, flat-picker and slide player who also plays harmonica, banjo and cigar box.
Friday night performers include Rick Estrin and the Night cats and Joanne Connor.