One of the fundamental differences between rock ‘n’ roll and blues is rock’s dogged denial both of our vulnerability and the inevitable onset of aging. Blues embraces nicks, bruises and backsliding as part of life. Instead of spitting in the eye of life’s vicissitudes, blues makes love to them and incorporates them into a reality that shouts “We will overcome, and, if not, we’ll go down shouting and dancing.”
The 23rd annual Pennsylvania Blues Festival brought that distinction into sharp focus the last weekend in July. Promoter Michael Cloeren does not book rock and roll acts that pay homage to the blues. He doesn’t give a nod to crossover acts that bring in people who listen to rock radio. Instead, he books blues acts, most of whom at one time or another have had the shit kicked out of them but refuse to give up or give in. And both the fans and the artists at this festival know firsthand what that’s about. We’ve been there, our eyes are wide open. We appreciate the struggles these artists sing about, and we’re all dancing to the same tune. Every act I write about here has a back story that contributes to the “authenticity” of their original music.
“If somebody tells you you can’t do something, you tell ’em to go to hell,” shouted Jarekus Singleton Sunday afternoon from the main stage as he launched into “Hell,” one of 12 songs on his Alligator Records debut Refuse to Lose which has topped the blues charts for a couple of months. Singleton was the only act to perform on both stages at the Pennsylvania Blues Fest, and as good as that debut album is, his live performance is better, as charismatic as B. B. King was on stage in his prime.
Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer stood next to the sound board wearing his perennial black denim jacket with his label’s logo on the back in 90-degree heat intently listening to Singleton levitate the Sunday afternoon crowd. I half expected the tent to pop its moorings and fly straight up.
If you listen to Alligator’s recordings of the late Michael Burks, you know that in him Iglauer was looking for the next Luther Allison, the Chicago blues powerhouse who died in 1997 just as he, Luther, was challenging Buddy Guy’s throne with his Live in Chicago album. Burks’ “Iron Man” delivery lacked the creamy guitar sophistication of Allison. Luther had a certain poise. His dynamics captured the bouquet of fine wine with the hard line of a West Side switchblade. Singleton at age 30 has it, too. Iglauer 45 years into his career has found his next Luther Allison.
The album jacket cover which Iglauer tells me was shot in 30-degree cold, doesn’t begin to capture the feral sensuality of this guy. He’s flat out a hotty by any standard, and yet his original songs capture the aching vulnerability that sets blues apart from other American music genres. A former top-seeded national basketball player in college, he sings on the album’s title song about a sidelining injury that caused him to switch careers.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a young blues act that could bring all the elements together in a package that makes you forget how old the form is. His sound appeals to traditional post-war Chicago blues enthusiasts and contemporaray blues fans a like. His lyrics grab you by the throat with their refusal to let personal troubles hold you down. His band has Red Bull energy, and he adds just enough new twists to his songs to make me believe that when he’s 78 like Pennsylvania Blues Fest headliner James Cotton, he’ll still be able to command attention sitting on stage in a chair.
First up Sunday on the main stage were three ladies who sing a cappella gospel. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, they’re beginning to realize they’re not in Kansas anymore, except their Kansas is Como, Mississippi.
Things began to change for them when a white van showed up in Angela Taylor’s driveway. The men in the van were scouting her rap singing son Kevin for Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, but when they heard Angela do a Shirley Caesar gospel song, things started to happen. She and her two “sisters” calling themselves the Como Mamas recorded one album for Brooklyn’s Daptone Records and are about to release another. Promoter Michael Cloeren had heard them last year at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and booked them for this year’s Blues Fest, turning the main stage into a revival tent.
The three ladies in white sang for Jesus in a contagious mantra: “I got Jesus, and I know he’s mine, all mine.” Angela wiped her face with a towel and leaned into the crowd. “I’m ready. I’m packing up, gettin’ ready for the room upstairs. He may not be there when you want him, but he’ll show up. Yes, he will.”
Como sister Effie filled in for Della who is a phlebotomist and couldn’t get the time off from work to come to Pennsylvania. Angela couldn’t remember the name of their second CD due out any time now, but she remembers recording 23 songs in a stifling church. They had to turn the air conditioning off so it wouldn’t be heard on the record. The Daptone house band backs them on the new one, but the first, Get An Understanding, was a cappella like their tent revival in the Poconos.
It was Sister Esta’s 64th birthday and even though all three go to different churches in Como Mississippi – Church of Christ, Baptist and Methodist – they all closed with a traditional version of “Amazing Grace” that made us believe they are indeed sisters in Christ.
Ronnie Earl earned the only encore I experienced at the festival with a 10-minute tour-de-force that reminded me of Charlie Musselwhite’s “Cristo Redentor,” levitating the crowd into a collective high that pushed back headliner James Cotton’s set by 20 minutes. Talk about embracing life’s hardships, Earl is a bi-polar Diabetic with depression deep enough to have taken him off stage for years, but in the last three months I’ve seen him three times grab an audience like a wind tunnel sucking in smoke. At The Blues Music Awards in Memphis he entranced an audience of blues industry heavyweights. At the Freihoffer Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York he stood his ground with one of the largest and most informed crowds of jazz heads in the world. In Pennsylvania he did it again.
When a deejay from the local PBS affiliate WBAI droned on about James Cotton’s early history with Sonny Boy Williamson on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, the audience began clapping loudly over her long winded introduction. She fled the stage and Cotton’s band went into a 15-minute, three-song lead-in to Mr. Super Harp. Cotton was only on stage for 52 minutes, and Darrell Nulisch covered all the vocals through standards like “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “Honest I Do” and Cotton’s autobiographical song “He Was There” from his Grammy-nominated 2013 album Cotton Mouth Man.
A deep purple swath splashed across the sky and kissed the top of the Poconos horizon like a Velcro painting come to life as Cotton’s band ripped into “Mojo.” Swirling insects swarmed the flood lights that gave an other-worldly sheen under the tent. Bill Wax (formerly head of Sirus/XM’s Bluesville channel) and I looked at each and grinned as kids of all ages danced to the Muddy Waters standard. Cotton was there with Muddy when he turned the song into a classic in the ’50s and ’60s. The lines seemed to disappear from Bill Wax’s face, his health challenges for a moment a mere memory. We shared one of those speechless moments when you know you’re in a sweet spot that erases time.
Cotton turned the chorus into a lie. “I got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you.” For more than a moment he took me back to 1965, and I remembered him ripping up the room at Paul’s Mall in Boston in 1965. He may be sitting in a chair now, his voice a whispered rasp, his body bloated at 78, but the mojo was still there.
Lonnie Shields stood out like neon at midnight during the Friday night jam hosted by Allentown’s own BC Combo led by vocalist Bev Conklin. Originally from Helena, Arkansas, Shields got his start with the Jelly Roll Kings and has been largely off the radar since moving to Media, Pennsylvania a few years ago and booking himself. Sitting in with five regional heavyweights, he went into overdrive on guitar and vocals, reminding me of just how hot the Helena Delta scene can be. He will be at this year’s King Biscuit Blues Festival on Friday, October 10th.
Sean Holt & The Teardrops proved Sean is a chip off his father Magic Slim’s back with searing raw guitar grinders from his Blind Pig debut, Daddy Told Me. Tadd Robinson’s wonderful soul blues on CD did not translate as well on the big stage. Both Ursala Ricks and Barbara Carr carried on a rich Michael Cloeron tradition of featuring soulful female vocalists, and Slam Allen proved he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand with covers ranging from early B. B. King to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sly and the Family Stone. Rip Lee Pryor celebrated a victory over cancer with acoustic Delta magic that echoed his dad Snooky Pryor’s legacy.
This review is dedicated to Tom Healey, an upstate New York band leader and history teacher who recently died at 58 a month after retiring. He died with his guitar strapped around his middle, fronting two shows the weekend before the Pennsylvania Blues Fest. He and his band had represented the Northeast Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge in 2002.