The 2011 New York State Blues Festival was a reminder to Syracuse why it collectively needs to hold close to its summertime institutions. The magic that happened on Friday, July 8, to Sunday, July 10, at the Inner Harbor, at the intersection of Solar and Kirkpatrick streets, was necessary and welcomed by enthusiastic crowds, made obvious by their standing ovations, yelps, yells, clapping, dancing and consistent desire for encores.
Energy built throughout the weekend: first with Dana Fuchs’ explosive Janis Joplin-channeling performance on Friday, followed by Magic Slim’s return performance—after 20 years away—on Saturday, July 9, and finally Ronnie Earl’s tremendously intense closing set on Sunday.
Blues lovers left exhausted yet exhilarated and it showed in late night turnouts at downtown’s Crowne Plaza on Friday and Saturday and Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge on Sunday. Once you start feeling the blues, there’s no stopping. And that hunger was palpable all weekend long.
The fest began on Friday at 5 p.m. just after a quick downpour passed, giving way to a clear and hot Saturday and Sunday. Funky Blu Roots out of Pompano Beach Fla., opened The New Times stage with tunes new, old and cover, but especially from their album released in May, Owasco Highball (Independent). Local wonder Tom Townsley ripped on the harmonica and Hammond B3 player Steve McNally, wearing his dark shades, black shirt, gold chain and pulled back pony-tail, let his riffs drip with the blues.
Married couple, guitarist Mikal Serafim and bass player Nancy Giannone, have a special New York connection—she is from Auburn— and they were proud to show it off. Their big sound permeated the set as they played through songs off the new album, including “Trouble,” “Please Me” and “I Know What’s Goin On” while sax player Dave Prince threw Frisbees out to the small, but growing, crowd. As music died on one stage, it came to life on the opposite and crowds ping-ponged between them all weekend.
As Funky Blu Roots closed up, the audience could hear a ferocious blues guitar hurtling through the air from the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que stage. Although doubtlessly many expected to see a seasoned professional working out the blues, instead they saw a baby-faced, red-cheeked, fireblazing red-haired, 15-year-old boy, Mojo Myles Mancuso, who looked like he should be getting off a school bus, not busting out bluesy versions of The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You” and Bill Perry’s “Fade Into Blue.”
Murmurs circulated through the crowd— “He’s only 15!”—as sweat dripped from Mancuso’s chin and nose to his axe, and his flying fingers seemingly smoked. He’s young, and noticeably learning the craft, but presented himself as a professional and demonstrated a keen understanding of the instrument and the blues as he played with tempos and let some real emotion and depth come through.
But the show-stealer of Friday came at 7 p.m. on The New Times stage as a tall, lean, blonde, curly-haired powerhouse strode onto the platform. The audience collectively took heed of Dana Fuchs. “You all ready for some rock’n’roll?” she demanded before letting out a growly Jim Morrison-like shriek that filled the still, humid air. Even if the crowd wasn’t ready, she didn’t care; her performance blew like a hurricane in the form of flying curls and a powerful, impassioned voice.
Fuchs commanded everything around her as she directed the band, coaxed the audience and pushed out every tune with a brutal intensity that undoubtedly stems from her personal life. She talked about the anniversary of her sister’s suicide and the recent death of her oldest brother from brain cancer. She was there to watch him fall asleep and never wake up.
Fuchs and her band played original material for the main part of the set and, although the band was tight, she remained undoubtedly the center of everyone’s attention. Her music draws obvious comparisons to Janis Joplin—especially after she performed in the off-Broadway show Dear, Janis—with some Melissa Etheridge thrown in. But Fuchs is most well-known for her role as Sadie in the 2007 Beatles-flavored film Across the Universe in which she gave blistering performances of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and others. For the end of the set, she broke out an a capella, audience-inclusive “Don’t Let Me Down,” a devastatingly powerful “Helter Skelter” and an equally explosive “Whole Lotta Love” for the encore.
The Super Delinquents took the Dino stage following Fuchs and brought a contrastingly cool energy. Guitarist and vocalist Mike DeLaney proved why he was picked to recently tour with Sunday’s act Terrance Simien with his passionate, yet perfectly controlled solos, using the whole range of his guitar. His velvety voice complemented the beats behind him as well as solos from the modest, incredibly talented Gerry Neely and the smooth singing, harp-melting Pete McMahon.
Highlights included McMahon’s singing of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “A Real Mother For Ya” and drummer Liz Strodel’s striking vocal interpretation of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
Friday’s closer, Hadden Sayers, brought a serious dose of Texas blues to The New Times stage. There was a country tinge to his songs that alternated from explosive bursts to mellow old-time blues. Hammond B3 player Dave DeWitt added some soul with his emphatic style, pounding on the keys.
Sayers shined on songs like “Fallin’ For You,” letting his voice drop to deliver a sultry “C’mon baby” in the middle of the tune and “Inside Out Boogie” off the new album Hard Dollar (Blue Corn Music) showed that he could make the people dance. He closed the night leaving the crowd anxious and awaiting the next two days.
Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers opened Saturday’s festivities with their charming, old-timey, swinging blues. Harpe displayed a cute contradiction with a Gibson Les Paul devil-horned guitar hanging around her dainty little body in an off-the-shoulder sheer black dress cinched with a tight black belt around her waist, black fishnets, short heels and a flower headband. She sweetly told the audience how much she loved them and sang her songs with equal sincerity.
The next act, Ben Prestage, was the anti- Harpe. Growling and gritty with a dark sense of humor, overgrown beard and mess of equipment surrounding him, he played through true blues tunes, covers and originals, singing about not payin’ bills, not sayin’ prayers and takin’ all dares. He played bass lines, snare drum, bass drum, harmonica and a variety of guitars, including slide and Diddley-bow and even lit up a cigarette on stage. Although security scolded him, he kept right on puffing, which seemed appropriate given his gruffness.
Local talent Mike Roberts followed, not quite as polished as the young Mancuso the day before, but still brought the blues with the help of his band, Brett (bass) and Corey Hobin (drums) and Erika DeSocio (vocals), engaged to marry Corey. Roberts focused on his own original material until the end when the band closed with The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Then, heads turned to the Ottawa, Ontario, trio JW-Jones, led by guitarist and vocalist Jones, with Jeff Asselin on drums and Jesse Whiteley on organ. Dressed up in a skinny tie, button-down shirt and dress pants, the cleancut Jones and crew brought some class to the stage with swinging blues and blistering solos from each musician. The band played tunes from their latest record Midnight Memphis Sun (Ruf Records), which they recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.
Jones was a charming front man and showed off throughout the set, using a drumstick to tap out notes on his guitar neck, tossing his hand off the neck of his guitar like it was a hot potato and back on for quick riffs and at times throwing in musical quotes including a little ditty from “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
But the band really stood out when they performed “French Toast,” an instrumental jam where the boys each took turns on each other’s instruments, without ever pausing. Finally they all jammed together on guitar…the same guitar, hung around Jones’ neck as Whiteley pressed the strings, Asselin picked and Jones added flourishes.
2 Kool 4 Skool got the party started and people dancing on the far stage with their tight, funky, New Orleans-style jams before the legendary Bryan Lee took The New Times stage to perform his acutely perfected blues guitar, which helped him garner a 2010 Grammy nomination for his work on Live! In Chicago (Roadrunner Records) with Kenny Wayne Shepard. Lee’s precise guitar work and impressive backing band, featuring captivating slide guitarist Brent Johnson, drove through the blues with Lee wailing both vocally and on his bright yellow guitar.
Moments later, Mark Doyle and the Maniacs started with their British Invasion-inspired blues rock, bringing down the house with their powerful rock anthems and polished, energetic delivery. The impeccably tight group allowed jam space within the songs, switching between solo sections and main riffs, twisting genre and style transitions all together. A bluesy jam would slam into straight rock, slow down and rev up again with total precision. As Doyle jammed on his Union Jack guitar, the crowd got up and started shaking, giving back the energy pouring off the stage.
But the final act of the night brought a different kind of energy to the audience and, appropriately, crowds returned it with a reverent upward stare to the stage where the legendary Magic Slim sat.
His backing band, The Teardrops, set up a long intro for the entrance of the 73-year-old bluesman and drummer, Brian Jones informed the crowd, “Not many people who were here when they were making the blues are still here, but he is,” and then prodded, “what’s his name?” The crowd exploded, shouting “Magic Slim” as he hobbled to his chair, front and center, taking his seat, gazing at the shouting masses.
An assistant helped strap the guitar around Slim and he played a few soft, delicate little runs as if he were testing out his fingers and/or the guitar. But the moment he got comfortable, the world knew it as he broke into a passionate solo reminding everyone that he was here when the blues began, he’s still here and, 73 or not, he can bring it just the same. His big, smooth voice boomed over his intricate, seasoned guitar work on tunes like “Bad Boy,” “Crazy Woman” and “Give Me Back My Wig” that had the crowd dancing right until the end of the set.
Although Friday and Saturday had their highlights, Sunday took the festival to a new level in terms of energy, musicality and intensity. It began at 1 p.m. with the beautiful and slight Danielle Miraglia, who packs a whopping punch with her big, strong voice. Her passion came through her guitar work, harmonica and voice as she sang, “No one was listening, but the choir,” inviting the crowd to join her.
Dave Fields took The New Times stage following Miraglia and exploded into funky rock blues with his energetic performance style and solid backing band led especially by Russian keys player, Vlad Barsky with whom Fields traded solos. The group played a mix of swing ing, jumping tunes like “Let’s Get Shakin’” beside painful, soulful blues, performing both convincingly. Fields tossed sweat from his long hair that he shook throughout his solos and pointed frantically at the crowd, provoking responses through driving jams like the hard blues rocker, “Train to My Heart.”
Local all-Native American band Corn-Bred took the Dino stage, performing both what they called “Indian Blues” with definite undertones of tribal drum beats as well as traditional blues tunes like the ever-popular T-Bone Walker’s “Call it Stormy Monday” with guest singer Miss Marie, who tore the head off of the song, pushing out all the emotion the lyrics call for. The band went over so well with the crowd and with Kyle Shirley (co-founder of the fest) who sat in on harp for a tune, that even though they were getting the hook, Shirley insisted they play a final encore.
Peter Karp and Sue Foley were next up with their infectious love songs and fun-to-watch stage show. Foley, with her bouncy, bright, short red curly hair and eyes hidden behind dark shades, playfully smiled at Karp and shot back guitar solos whenever the scruffy Karp let one rip. Her Southern-tinged, Sheryl Crow-like voice harmonized perfectly with Karp’s and the two bounced through songs including “Rules of Engagement” and “Mm Hmm,” from their letter-inspired album He Said, She Said (Blind Pig).
But the day didn’t fully heat up musically until the climactic, mighty and much anticipated return of Jose Alvarez with local favorites Los Blancos.
The energy on and off the stage was tremendous as the group performed both originals and covers from Muddy Waters, Elizabeth Cotten and Santana. Mark Nanni destroyed on the keys, holding onto one end of the board as he smashed the other. Conversely, Colin Aberdeen’s smooth vocals iced the top of the tunes like frosting on a cake and Jose Alvarez reminded everyone why Syracuse misses him so much with his painfully perfect intermittent solos. He doesn’t need to fly around the guitar (although he can), but rather depends on his ability to perfectly place and bend notes, landing on them with control and purpose. Pete McMahon shared the stage for a few tunes and the interplay between him and Alvarez was entrancing as they each had their moments taking the spotlight.
The buildup was a perfect lead-in for Terrance Simien, the unboundingly energetic and upbeat Zydeco master. His set was relentless, fun and absolutely massive in sound with both Alvarez and DeLaney on guitar, keys, bass, drums, steel washboard and Simien singing and on accordion. The sun set behind the bead-throwing band as they broke into Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and continued their Zydeco/reggae mix, working the crowd into a total frenzy by the time they closed with a monstrous version of “Like A Rolling Stone” that had members of the audience on stage and playing.
Umbrellas bopped in the audience, people danced, sang, shouted and while the day cooled down the night rose to a fever pitch.
The all-star band Soul of Syracuse (SOS) didn’t let the energy drag. Carolyn Kelly’s full, emotional voice split through the air and Mark Hoffmann’s revered guitar work stood out as the group performed a song from his 1970sera group Jam Factory, “Talk is Cheap.” Phil Petroff dedicated the tune, “You’re All I Need,” to his wife before lighting up his guitar and Tom Townsley delivered a playful and swinging “Casino Katie.” The SOS band also gave president of the Blues Festival Todd Fitzsimmons a chance to finally jam out on guitar as he had anxiously desired to all weekend.
Finally, the crowd migrated one last time to The New Times stage for the most anticipated act of the weekend. Even musicians commented that they would stay to see the legendary Ronnie Earl take his post as a guitar god with his band, the Broadcasters. He didn’t disappoint. If anything, he surpassed expectations.
Earl is soft-spoken, gentle and worn by less clean and healthy times, although he’s been proudly sober for 22 years. But when he gets a guitar in his hands, he’s purely fierce, channeling something through his fingers that makes for a staggeringly powerful performance.
He had complete control over every note that came from his beat-up Fenders and commanded his band to follow his every move with gestures and shouts. He would pick out audience members, stare vigorously into their eyes and play before them, even kneeling on the speakers in front of the stage inches from their faces. He played through Jimmy Smith and Freddy King tunes among others, some of the most genuine blues of the weekend.
He invited his “son” to the stage and Alvarez made his third appearance of the night.
As the two jammed back and forth, trading emotions through solos, it was like watching the father and son, mentor-and-student cycle, come full circle. Earl still rose above Alvarez, but he has uplifted his son throughout the years and doubtlessly will continue as the connection between the two was clear.
At the end of the set, he invited several guests including Harpe, Fitszimmons and a 22-year-old audience member, Nick Tabarias, who had traveled all the way from Detroit, on stage. Tabarias had written a letter to Earl’s manager expressing his love of Earl’s music and the inspiration he provided, both musically and spiritually, and received word back that if he came to the fest, he should give Earl a call. He did and found himself on stage beside his hero by the end of the night.
the circle continues. Mentor and student, father and son, the blues
connects on deeper levels than music bound to charts or scores. The 2011
New York State Blues Fest encapsulated that idea by bringing so many
things full circle: the return of Magic Slim, the homecoming of Jose
Alvarez, the rejoining of Alvarez and Earl and the new inspiration of
Tabarias and doubtlessly hundreds more. Long live the blues.
For more, see The Upbeat Blog.