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Review: PA Blues Fest 2014

PA Blues Festival 2014: A Perfect Lineup
by Charles James

The music flowed nearly non-stop over three days at this year’s PA Blues Festival at Blue Mountain Ski Resort.  The fourth year of the festival at this venue, just 30 minutes from Allentown, this was its 23rd year, starting as The Pocono Blues Festival at Big Boulder Ski Resort.

Friendly skies prevailed throughout the weekend at two stagesat the bottom lodge along the north side of the ski slopes that rose up from the festival site.   With the insurance of two covered venues, one of them tented, the other located indoors, rain was guaranteed not to be a factor.

For the first time in the festival’s history, an uncovered open-air outdoor stage was not used and a full-time indoor air-conditioned hall was added, complete with a bar and dance floor,giving patrons a respite during muggy parts of the days.  Camping accommodations were provided, including rental tents.  The Main Tent Stage, situated at the resort’s bottom lodge, featured canopies along one side and rows of priority seating at the front for VIP patrons. 

Festival promoter Michael Cloeren continued his formula of terrific talent perfectly sequenced, always changing the style of blues.  This year’s solo blues actwas Super Chikan, Sunday morning gospel featured the Como Mamas, and foot stomping zydeco came Sunday evening with CJ Chenier &The Red Hot Louisiana Band, among the many soul, funk, jump blues, delta blues, and Chicago blues style bands.

Tad Robinson and Jarekus Singleton were chronological bookends to another amazing festival on Saturday and Sunday.  Tad was one of several blues vocalists featured during the festival, unleashing slow soulful blues.  Jarekus played a hollow white Fender Clevenger guitar against a white shirt.  He and his band, hailing from Mississippi, spent the last eight weeks at #1 on the Roots Music Charts. The four piece band was working OT on Sunday with rocking electric blues sets in the mid-afternoon at the Main Tent Stage, indoors at the Adventure Center Stage to close the festival, and in between with a lively set backing SuperChikan, who closed with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom”.

During an earlier solo set on Sunday, Super Chicken (aka James Johnson), spoke about recycling out of necessity when growing up – he had a shoebox dresser then and was proudly playing two cigar box guitars at the festival.  A master entertainer, he clucked as he launched into “Little Red Rooster”, used a wahwahpeddle to make his guitar cluck.  As the tune ended, he crowed with a cock-a-doodle-doo.  Throughout his set, he clucked at the end of his songs and tossed in said, “Somebody shoot that thing!”Mississippian Super Chicken’s grandfather was a cousin to the legendary Robert Johnson. The Ursula Ricks Band played two indoor sets on Saturday and filled the dance floor both times.

Saturday, Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters played a soaring instrumental set of blues.  Starting his musical career in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a former lead guitarist for Roomful of Blues in the 1980s, he was clad in a red shirt and red jacket, playing a red guitar.  He started in a jazzy way, then slid into a slow blues tune, launched into a jump blues number, and then cranked out a blistering version of Doc Pomus’s “Lonely Avenue”.  After four tunes, in a moment of frankness and openness, he told the audience that he would have been to the festival years ago, but had been dealing with bipolar disorder and how now been sober for 25 years.  The crowd hung onto every lick for the rest of his performance.

Shawn Holt and the Teardrops, playing Saturday afternoon, recently won the Blues Music Awardfor “Best New Artist Debut” for their Blind Pig record, “Daddy Told Me”.  Shawn threw down great licks throughout his set, trading off with fellow guitarist Levi William from time to time.  He noted how his late legendary dad, Magic Slimloved the festival when he played it in 2011, the first year at its new home at Blue Mountain Ski Resort.  Shawn had only joined his dad’s band shortly before his passing in 2013.  Magic Slim must have been proud looking down from above during his son’s set as he carried on the torch in a wide spanning set of blues. 

The festival featured On-Site Showcase performances Friday and Saturday nights with BC Combo, and a host of performers sitting in including Lonnie Shields playing Friday, Dave Weld &The Imperial Flames on Saturday, and The Murali Coryell Band at brunch on Sunday.

Two artists were recognized with 2014 Lifetime Achievement Awards from the PA Blues Festival – sax player Abe Locke and blues harpist James Cotton.  James Cotton closed down the Main Tent on Saturday with a solid set, accompanied by an extraordinary vocalist, Darrell Nulisch who sat next to him.  Growing up listening to Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio in Arkansas, collaborating earlier blues legends to launch his career in southside Chicago, Cotton now resides in Austin, Texas.  Nulisch, who once sang and played harmonica with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets and then Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters left the harmonica playing to Cotton who blew away the audience