Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PT Blues

Early in August I attended the annual Blues Festival in Port Townsend, WA. The festival took place in a WW II balloon hangar on an old military base, now a beautiful state park.

To my surprise, but not disappointment, all of the eight acts offered “traditional” acoustic blues from the deep south, and a selection of piedmont blues, a mid-Atlantic east coast style from the early 20th century that mixed black African and white styles. There were no amped-up Chicago sounds, no Kansas City crooners, no R&B, no rock or funk crossovers. I might have seen only one electric guitar all afternoon. Instead it was acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano, and the odd gospel singer. The festival was advertised as “country blues” and maybe I didn’t know what that meant, but the selection was excellent nevertheless.

Rick Franklin strummed a modern looking Dobro steel guitar (it looked like it was made of pewter or even hi-tech composites) and sang humorous country songs from traveling shows in the piedmont region in the early part of the 20th century. It was a good way to warm up the crowd with laughter, and his guitar picking was subtle, sophisticated and impressive. Sample his work at http://www.hokumblues.com/.

The reverend John Wilkins sang spiritual blues and used a steel slide. I love slide and was disappointed there was so little of it in this festival. Wilkins did have one of the rare electrics of the day but it was way over amped, losing much of the music’s definition. The sound engineer got that fixed about halfway through but then the harmonica was fuzzed out, so overall, there wasn’t much to recommend this show. There were two performers in the festival titled “Reverend,” and while both gave heartfelt performances, I thought they were more focused on singing to Jesus than on the music for its own sake, to the detriment of the music. Prayer and gospel singing is a part of the genuine blues heritage, of course, but I was there for music.

Mike Dowling played some very precise ragtime tunes on a mirror-finish, modern-looking steel guitar with sound holes in a mathematical grid up near the neck. The music was not so much foot-stompin’ but very professional and accomplished. Sample him at http://www.mikedowling.com/music/index.html

Jerron “J-Dog” Paxton (aka “Blind Boy Paxton”), got a huge sound to come out of a tiny guitar. He might have been using steel picks on all his right hand fingers. His picking was excellent and his songs light hearted. One I remember was “Po’k Chops Is Best!” an authentic snapshot of a certain way of life. His presentation was intimate, as if he were in a small bar instead of a thousand-seat auditorium. The audience was amazed when he put the guitar on the floor, turned around on the piano bench and played a very hot boogie rendition of “Exactly Like You.” Afterward, he remarked, “You should try that with your eyes closed!”

Ari Eisinger played some hot licks on acoustic and treated the audience to one Leadbelly number on a huge 12-string. His voice was a bit high and nasal, but that worked well for his renditions of several Blind Blake tunes. He also covered Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version of Frankie and Johnnie, and it was interesting to hear it as a natural folk song. For example, “He done me wrong” is all sung on the same tonic note. Eisinger clearly knows the blues literature.

The Reverend Robert Jones opened with a very moving gospel song that kept the audience in a hush. The rest of the act, full of bible stories and prayers, “Lawd! Deliver me from the flood” kind of stuff, did not live up to that opening promise, despite Jones’ remarkable vocal range and a voice that reminded me of Lou Rawls. He did one brief harmonica number, a train song with lots of lonesome whistles. I am a sucker for those. He was joined by “Sister Bernice” who sang some gospel tunes that didn’t do a thing for me.

Cephas and Wiggins are a killer act. That’s John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, who have been playing Piedmont style together since 1977. Cephas has a deep but clear voice that he uses methodically, like an engine plowing through some terrific old blues numbers. His expression of emotion is subtle, but perfect, with well-placed grunts and moans that remind me of John Lee Hooker. Against that backdrop of barely restrained feeling, the Wiggins harp bursts out like a flock of escaping birds. The overall result is so expressive it makes you crazy. Sample some of this amazing sound at the bottom of the screen at:
Wiggins is also the artistic director of the festival, this being the final of his five year tenure, so we have him to thank for this fine selection of music.

Ending on a high note were Arthur Migliaza and Daryl Davis, two boogie piano players, who do not normally work together as an act, as far as I could tell. Migliaza electrified the crowd with a fast tempo rendition of the classic, Clarence’s Blues. Bowing off the stage, the young, thin, delicate frame of Migliaza was replaced by the hulking Davis who bounced into some wild and woolly boogie tunes, even resorting to the Jerry Lee Lewis style of slapping the keyboard now and then. Sample his work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmpgxPqh_m0 . After a couple of alternations between these two artists, they did a four-hand duet, fooling around as if they were fighting over the keyboard. It was great showmanship, great music, and the audience left the festival dancing on tiptoes

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