The PA Blues Festival began its third year at Blue Mountain Ski resort on Friday night with a Lehigh Valley PA Blues Showcase featuring a line-up of local favorites presented by WDIY. The festival featured national acts Saturday and Sunday at an outdoor stage and under cover in the tent stage. The tent provided shelter from the hot sun on Saturday. With some early morning rain and an 80% chance of rain, Sunday appeared to be a washout, but the gospel start on Sunday by Alexis P. Suter and the 40 piece Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir brought answered prayers to Sunday festival goers. Except for a brief spell of mid afternoon light rain, the weather broke through and proved to be more beautiful than Saturday.
An astute planning and operations team planned to move the outdoor Main Stage performers to the tent and the tent performers to an air-conditioned indoor venue with a dance floor. Mississippian Johnny Rawls, backed by Vermont performer Dave Keller and his band brought a soulful blues sound that filled the dance floor and packed the house. Keller and his band, who won this year’s IBC in Memphis, opened the indoor set with 3 tunes before Rawls took the stage. Johnny Rawls, with his trademark red Fender guitar with a ‘No Mustang Sally’ sticker, a bright red monogrammed red guitar strap, white hat, black shirt, and a bright baby blue suit was in style and in control as the crowd dug his sound. Since the sun came out again and remained out, this Mississippi performer ended up playing the only indoor show of the day.
Michael Cloeren, assisted by Levi Landis, books all the bands for the PA Blues Festival and The Philadelphia Folk Festival selected an amazing line-up for both days, which included Robert Randolph & The Family Band, The Slide Brothers, Sista Monica, Bonerama, Guy Davis, and John Primer on Saturday. Sunday’s performers included Alexis P. Suter (two entirely different types of shows), Johnny Rawls, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Ruthie Foster, Bobby Rush, and The Elctro-Fi Records Canadian showcase with Harrison Kennedy, Diana Braithwaite, and Chris Whiteley.
John Primer and his band kicked off the festival on the Main Stage on Saturday with a great mix of Chicago blues. Primer played two Gibson hollow body electric guitars and a classic Gibson Les Paul, which he referred to as the little guitar. Primer and his band which included harp player Russ Greene.took played a second ripping set that afternoon in the tent to an enthusiastic crowd.
At the Tent Stage, acoustic blues and storyteller Guy Davis, played songs from his new CD ‘Jubba Dance’, some tunes not released like ‘Blackberry Kisses’ which he wrote last week, and classic songs like Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and ‘Statesboro Blues’. While introducing ‘Can’t Be Satisfied’ from his 2009 ‘Sweetheart Like You’ recording, he talked about his experience playing in London for the queen and having to stand up to a backstage music critic challenging Davis’s banjo blues. Davis then pulled out his banjo for a couple of tunes to prove it could be done, but stuck with acoustic guitar for most the solo acoustic show. He was joined for a couple of tunes by Harrison Kennedy as he closed out the first of two sets.
New Orleans band Bonerama featured brass funk rock on the Main Stage. Three trombone players, Mark Mullins (also lead vocal), blond-headed Craig Klein, both who performed with Harry Connick Jr, and Greg Hicks, drove the horn section with solid energy. Among others in the band, Bert Cotton was featured on guitar.
Sista Monica (Parker), whose latest CD released in 2011 was ‘Living in the Danger Zone’, continued the funky blues, getting the crowd to join along with ‘Put it in a Crock Pot’ - her Mom used to slowly cook soul food that way. Sista Monica then slowed it down with the tune, ‘Tears on My Pillow’.
The Slide Brothers, mentored by Robert Randolph, featured three of the four lap steel players that normally make up the band: Aubrey Ghent, Chuck Campbell, and Calvin Cooke. Darick Campbell did not appear. These sacred steel players played churches for years, but rocked the festival on Saturday night, later joining Randolph towards the end of his set.
Shamekia Copeland introduced Robert Randolph and The Family Band. Breaking into a sweat in no time, Randolph opened with a burning rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ and closed the final Main Stage performance with ‘Foxy Lady’. The show included ‘Born Again’ from the pedal steel player’s just released ‘Lickety Split’, the band’s first album in three years. Rain lightly began to fall Saturday night as Randolph and the Family band finished up and the indoor jam began.
The most amazing show of the festival was a Sunday noon performance that was moved from the Main Stage to the tent - The Gospel show by Alexis P. Suter and the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir. The 40 piece group made it a spiritual tent revival, at one point with Suter asking everyone to hold their their neighbor’s hand. Suter, who was influenced by her mom who sang opera and gospel, also featured daughter Carrie Suter as well as Vicky Bell and a couple of Alexis’s normal band members. Suter was emotional as the sun came out and the clouds rolled back halfway through her set. In her characteristic baritone voice, she belted out ‘John The Revelator’ and the Beatles ‘Let It Be’. Just before the choir returned after a short break, an audience member knelt down to make a wedding proposal on stage and was accepted by his bride-to-be. Starting her set a bit late due to the early morning rain, Suter and the choir were allowed to close out with 3 gospel tunes, leaving the audience mesmerized.
And so went the remainder of the day, with mesmerizing performances by Bobby Rush, Ruthie Foster, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, and The Alexis P. Suter Band. Dumpstaphunk, based almost entirely out of New Orleans featured Neville Brother heirs, keyboardist Ivan (son of Aaron), guitarist Ian (son of Art), Nick Daniels III on electric bass, Tony Hall on electric guitar and bass, and New Jersey resident Nikki Glaspie on drums for the last 2 years. Their set varied between electric funk with a heavy (twin) bass funk line, power guitar, and a funky groove soul sound. At one point, Tony Hall said, ‘If you’re feeling any negativity, it’s time to let it go’, then dove into ‘Put It In The Dumpsta’. Dumpstaphunk’s new recording ‘Dirty Word’ comes out Tuesday, July 30th. The band closed with George Clinton’s ‘One Nation (Under a Groove)’.
Later that evening, The Alexis P. Suter Band from Brooklyn closed out the festival with soul, rock, and blues. Last year, the band that regularly opened at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, played for and is featured on the CD to benefit Hurricane Sandy survivors.
Charles James Aka Carlos Benjamin