September 16, 17 & 18, 2016, blues returns to the Split Rock Resort in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Blues Festival. Among the acts on the two stages at this year's Festival will be Ronnie Baker Brooks with special guest Eddie Clearwater, Zac Harmon, Ronnie Earl, Toronzo Cannon, The Delmark Chicago Blues Revue and Gaye Adegbalola & the Wild Rutz.
It was August 1 and 2 of 1992 when the Big Boulder Ski Resort hosted the very first Pocono Blues Festival with a lineup that consisted of Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Kenny Neal, Big Jack Johnson & the Oilers, Willie Kent & the Gents with Bonnie Lee, Johnny “Clye” Copeland, Bobby Radcliffe, The Bob Margolin Blues Band, George “Mojo” Buford, The Clarence Spady Band, Queen Bee and the Blue Hornets, and the The Dukes of Destiny. I first attended the Pocono Blues Festival in 1994 for the third festival whose lineup included Johnny Clyde Copeland, Denise LaSalle, Carol Fran & Clarence Holliman, Larry McCray, Sugar Blue, Billy Boy Arnold with Bob Margolin, Long John Hunter, Honeyboy Edwards, Fruteland Jackson, Fenton Robinson and others.
For 19 years Big Boulder hosted what became known as the Blues Lover's Blues Festival. Most every significant blues act (many no longer with us) with the exception of B.B. King performed at the Festival including Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, Guitar Shorty, Lowell Fulson, Little Milton, Otis Rush, koko Taylor, Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women, Shemekia Copeland, Ruth Brown, Smokey Wilson, Mavis Staples, Jerry McCain, Eddie Clearwater, Trudy Lynn, Robert Lockwood Jr, Phillip Walker, Bobby bland, Artie 'Blues Boy' White, Texas Johnnie Brown, Long John Hunter, Otis Clay, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and many more.
After 19 Festivals, the owners of Big Boulder decided for a change in the off-season activities and the Festival, rechristened the Pennsylvania Blues Festival moved to Blue Mountain Ski Area for 4 years and presented such performers as Otis Clay, Shemekia Copeland, Lil' Ed&The Blues Imperials, Magic Slim &The Teardrops, Kenny Neal, Bettye LaVette, Brooks Family Dynasty, Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues with Lurrie Bell, Demetria Taylor & Carlos Johnson, Joe Louis Walker, Teeny Tucker, Otis Taylor, Eugene Hideaway Bridges, Corey Harris, Bobby Rush, Ruthie Foster, Sista Monica, John Primer, Alexis P Suter, Guy Davis, Eddie & Vaan Shaw, James Cotton, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, Barbara Carr, Jarekus Singleton and many more. Then in 2015 the Festival moved to Split Rock with a line-up that included Shemekia Copeland, Lil' Ed &The Blues Imperials, Walter "Wolfman" Washington & the Roadmasters, John Nemeth, Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Selwyn Birchwood, Vaneese Thomas, and Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers.
Mikey Junior Revue helps the Festival Get Underway. Here he is seen from 2015 Festival
This is an impressive history of performers that will be celebrated by this year's event. Friday night's line-up in the Split Rock Galleria Governor's Ballroom features the Mikey Junior Revue starring the marvelous harmonica player and his band and a number of blues performers from the Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Northern Delaware region. It should be quite an enjoyable early evening event for blues enthusiasts.
On Saturday the Festival gets into full swing. At 11;00 AM in the Galleria Governor's Ballroom, Ronnie Earl will offer a guitar master class (separate charge will apply). At 1;00PM, Slam Allen opens the Main Stage with his highly entertaining set. The guitarist and vocalist fronted James Cotton's band for a number of years and on his own puts on a superb live show. Reviewing his album "Feel These Blues" I wrote "There is nothing fancy about Slam Allen with his rocking, B.B. King influenced guitar and his strong vocals. His vocals strike me as his greatest strength although he is no slouch as a guitarist." Up next on the main stage is Zac Harmon. Harmon, a former winner of the International Blues Challenge, certainly has established himself on the blues circuit, becoming a favorite attraction, especially on the Festival circuit, with his hot guitar, varied repertoire and gospel-soul rooted vocals.
Zac Harmon always puts on a great show
Pianist Anthony Geraci may be best known for being with Sugar Ray & the BluetOnes, but last year he put together a wonderful album with the Boston Blues All Stars and they follow Zac Harmon on the main stage. Reviewing his Delta Groove release "50 Shades of Blue" I wrote "Anthony Geraci is a first-rate blues songwriter and a terrific keyboard player." I expect his live revue will certainly be as entertaining as that terrific recording. Geraci is followed by Kenny Neal who will bring us his his own very personal style, rooted in the swamp blues of his father Raful and the likes of Slim Harpo. A threat on guitar, lap steel and vocals, Kenny Neal always delivers strong deep blues.
Closing the Main Stage on Saturday will be the high energy blues of Ronnie Bake Brooks who will have a full horn section and also special guest, Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Eddie 'The Chief' Clearwater. Son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie helps keep the family blues tradition alive and replaces the originally scheduled Buckwheat Zydeco who has health issues.
Guy Davis will be a highlight in Saturday's tent stage performers
In the Tent Stage will be performances by the marvelous singer-guitarist Guy Davis along with Canada's Blackburn Brothers who will be joined for one set by Harrison Kennedy. Slam Allen will also perform a set in the Text Stage. After the main festival acts conclude, there will be performances by Beareather Reddy and Zac Harmon in a special showcase at the Resort.
Gaye Adegbalola & the Wild Rutz perform at the Blues Brunch
Sunday, September 18 opens with a blues brunch that features music from Gaye Adegbalola & the Wild Rutz. Gaye, a founding member of Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women, founded this vocal quartet (with occasional guitar and percussion accompaniment) that is focused on their marvelous vocals and harmonies. There debut VizzTone album "Is It Still Good to Ya?" only hints at how wonderful this group is.
After the brunch folks can head to the Main Stage for the spectacular sacred steel of The Campbell Brothers who present the opening Sunday afternoon gospel blues set. They are followed by the Andy T Nick Nixon Band bring the solid guitar playing of Andy T and the strong vocals of Nick Nixon. About this Nashville based band, and their debut recording on Delta Groove, "Drink Drank Drunk," I wrote "Andy T impresses with his fluidity, tone and taste while Nixon brings pretty of heart and soul to his nuanced vocals." I am looking forward to finally hearing this band.
Alligator artist Toronzo Cannon plays today's Chicago Blues
Chicago takes over the main stage next with Toronzo Cannon whose Alligator album, "The Chicago Way" is getting much well-deserved praise. Cannon, who is a bus driver in Chicago, brings together his life experiences and what he observes to his powerful songs. After two terrific albums on Delmark, he signed with Alligator and about "The Chicago Way" I wrote, "As a songwriter, as well as a singer-guitarist, Toronzo Cannon brings grit and passion. His playing is varied ranging from blues-rock to jazzy flavored while his singing is robust resulting in the mostly compelling performances here. "The Chicago Way" is one of most striking recent new blues releases."
Following Cannon will be the Delmark Chicago Revue featuring The Mike Wheeler Band with Jimmy Burns & Peaches Staten. Wheeler is a wonderful singer-guitarist who brings in a deep dish of soul and funk to his blues. A veteran of Big James Montgomery and the Chicago Playboys, his 2013 Delmark debut "Self Made Man" was quite impressive and indicated a very distinctive talent. Appearing with Wheeler is the marvelous singer-guitarist Jimmy Burns who also mixes rhythm and blues with his Chicago (and delta) blues roots. Vocalist Staten is a tough vocalist with influences from Koko Taylor, Mavis Staples and Etta James amongst others. She had a wonderful album on the short-lived Swississippi Records label that Mike Wheeler played on.
Ronnie Earl closes Sunday's Main Festival Stage
The Main Stage closes with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters.Earl's career included stints in Sugar Ray & the Blue Notes, then replacing Duke Robillard in Roomful of Blues before his own solo career leading the Broadcasters. Among the most accomplished guitarists, Earl is not simply known as a virtuoso, but a player of impeccable taste, tone, nuance and imagination. Recently listening to some of the legendary Earl Hooker's club recordings, Earl was one of the few contemporary guitarists who evokes Hooker's style without copying or imitating. His most recent recording was a tribute to Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and his sterling playing on it similarly calls to mine their originals while coming out as all Ronnie Earl.
The Tent stage opens with Harrison Kennedy for the first of his two sets. Kennedy a former member of The chairman of the Board is a compelling singer and astute songwriter. Also performing with be singer saxophonist Vanessa Collier who this writer has heard great things about along with additional sets from The Campbell Brothers and the Andy T Nick Nixon Band.
Michael Cloeren, who puts together the Festival, has certainly does it again with this sterling line-up. For more information on the Pennsylvania Blues Festival including videos of the performers, ticket and lodging information, visit http://www.pennsylvaniabluesfestival.com.
It should be noted that six weeks after the Pennsylvania Blues Festival, Split Rock will host the first Pennsylvania Music Festival. Also produced by Michael Cloeren, this festival brings a variety of performers from assorted musical genres including blues, roots rock, bluegrass and the like. Notable performers of interest to blues fans includes the zydeco of CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band, the riveting singing of Alexis Suter, and the blues-rock of Devon Allman and the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Other performers include the country roots rock of Girls, Gun and Glory, and roots-rock songwriter Paul Thorn. For more information on the Pennsylvania Music Festival visit http://www.pamusicfestival.com.
This preview of the Festival appeared originally in the July-August 2016 Jazz & Blues Report. There are more videos of the performers and a more detailed preview of the Festival on the Festival's website which is linked above. One month from the date of this post, the Festival will be in full swing.