BWW Exclusive: Reading Blues Festival Kicks Off Fall Tradition
For nearly three decades, the Reading Jazz Festival has been one of the premier events for the Northeast Pennsylvania city. Now, there's one devoted to the blues. The center of Reading is undergoing a business revival, anchored by the Santander Arena, and the spot is perfect to carry on with what will hopefully be a new tradition.
The blues, both the traditional, or "heritage" style as some call it, is coming on with an influx of younger artists, and the newer generations are infusing their influences into the music. What that's done is give the music a shot in the arm, without taking away anything from its roots.
The organization of a fall, standalone event fell to John Ernesto, and he's quick to credit the late Albert Boscov, of the famous department store chain. "There (was) talk about doing a second festival," Ernesto explained. "Mr. Boscov said, 'Why don't we do something in the fall?' So we did our homework, did some planning, and he gave the green light. It's a new challenge for us, a different genre of music. We've done blues during the jazz fest every year, but this is an expanded presentation."
Across the street from the arena was the main venue, the Doubletree Hotel, where I quickly fell in with my old friend Ginny Buckley, organizer, manager, publicist and all-rounder for the event. The lead-in to the ballroom saw the presence of the Berks Arts Council, which has been at the forefront of the festivals.
Now the Doubletree is not precisely roadhouse quality; the higher tone fits well enough, but you hope very much this does not become something that prices people out. That perhaps ties into the audience.
I certainly do not mean to denigrate anyone, but the audience was solidly my age and up. I was born just after the Baby Boom period, and the Boomers were on hand. They know good music when they hear it, and the crowd that filled up the ballroom came in enthused, but as some noted through the weekend, quite respectful.
They got what they paid for, to be sure. The Deb Callahan Duo opened in the bar and got an already well-oiled crowd warmed up. The local/regional level cannot be stressed enough, concerning the talent that doesn't get its proper attention.
I caught up with Kenny Neal during the load-in; after a break of about two years, Neal moved back from California to his native Louisiana. His return home was also a trip back to his roots with the release of Bloodline, which resulted in a Grammy nomination, and the Blues Foundation's Contemporary Blues Album award, plus the BMA for Male Artist in the same category.
"I just kind of pulled back for a bit," Neal explains in an easy, laid-back tone of voice that never changes. "I took that time off, wrote the Bloodline CD and decided to come back to work. What a wonderful way to come back--it's nothing new to me, I'm just glad to be back on the circuit seeing all the newcomers out here as well, and it's a pleasure to be back."
Neal also offered insight into the changes above, as a younger generation draws influence from more than the blues. "Some of the kids spin-off from Stevie Ray Vaughan," Neal observes, "(they) like to rock out a little bit more and Stevie was the best to me, he was badass. I noticed that we do have some young kids who stick with that delta tradition blues as well, and it's great to see that, 'cause we don't want to those the roots of that. Sometimes you have to bring it back home to the roots. So it's balanced itself out."
The festival kicked off in high gear with Samantha Fish's performance, someone Neal knows well. "I've been watching her develop throughout the last eight to ten years, I guess, and I think she's wonderful. I have a great time sharing the stage with her; she's like a little sister to me."
The past several years have seen the Kansas City native pay her dues, and that is not just a platitude. Her total package of singing, songwriting and guitar skill is evident, and perhaps now is getting attention beyond the blues world.
Her Ruf CD Chills and Fever is a throwback ride through blues, rock, and R&B, and she showcased most of the album in the opening set. A tight six-piece unit, Fish blazed through the set, foot to the floor the whole way. The songs, pretty much presented as on the recording, had an energy level rarely captured in studio.
There's a Pulp Fiction feel if that is a fair analogy on first glances in Fish's, but don't let it fool you. Fish more than holds her own in the technical department; her voice at times sultry and sensual, then a wail when need be. A new album drops the first week in November, Belle of the West.
Then Neal took the stage. At ease on stage as much in person, Neal tore through tracks from Bloodline, plus standards. The band stretched out on several numbers, and Neal took a long stroll through the crowd on a medley of Jimmy Reed tunes.
Tireless, Neal took the crowd on a ride of his own, to an appreciative audience. He also introduced his aged Fender Telecaster, "Bessie," his companion through four decades.
Back in on Saturday, fans could attend a power point presentation on women in the blues, hosted by veteran singer Teeny Tucker. Host Michael Cloren, founder of the Pocono Blues Festival, says Tucker's 75-minute presentation takes the viewer through, "the first generation of women, from Ma Rainey, to Lucille Bogan, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton. She would talk the history, and also do one song or snippets of a song, the way they projected their voice."
I headed to the Speckled Hen Pub for one of the performances going on in the venues around the festival. The pub is dark, tight, and intimate; imagine having a pint or a meal in someone's old house, and that would be about right.
The three-piece version of the Benjamin Vo Band held forth, crunched into one corner. The blues were solid from the young performer, and the talk around me showed every person there was paying attention.
Vo has four home-produced recordings, the latest of which shows incredible promise. Largely self-taught, Vo picked up guitar around age ten. He says his initial influence was funk, but the blues also spoke to him. There will be more on Vo shortly, that is certain.
With a decidedly non-blues concert going on the same night at the Santander Arena, the Performing Arts Center of the same name just a few blocks away hosted the main event. Cloren says one thing festivals like these need is someone who does "hard ticket" sales, or one who puts people in those seats.
This brings us back to cost. While individual events had their own price tags, VIP access could be got to the whole weekend for $240. I can see some crying foul over that, but considering all that could be seen and heard, it's not a bad deal. "We need this VIP component," Cloren explains, "because (the VIP buyers) are the ones that are showing up (to) all the venues. They're putting up the seed money, that's real important."
The aging center was off the main track, but only a short walk. The frills of such a theater are few, but its architecture has been reasonably preserved, and there's not one bad seat. I ended up front and center for the night, and watched the opener make his mark in the traditional way many fear will soon die.
Not at all; Boy Paxton could well have stepped out of his Louisiana home from decades past. An old-fashioned (looking) microphone before him, Paxton delivered throwback tunes on guitar, harmonica, fiddle and a nylon-string banjo. He told stories, and engaged the crowd with humor, and earned a well-deserved standing ovation.
Then came Robert Cray. From his early Pacific Northwest days, Cray slowly but surely made his mark, not only for his guitar, but his songwriting and his voice, which reminds of Sam Cooke. I do not make that comparison lightly; through numerous albums, there is a musical solidity, with the variations that show Cray's continued growth.
His latest Hi Rhythm recording united Cray with members of Memphis' famous rhythm section of that name. The result was a more soul/R&B project, but it stands up well to Cray's previous catalog.
The regular touring section (including Cray's longtime bassist Richard Cousins) turned in a dominant set that mixed familiar songs such as "The Forecast Calls for Pain," "Foul Play" and "Poor Johnny." The new album was a bit of unfamiliar ground for some of the crowd, I think, but tracks from Hi Rhythm were included, such as Bill Withers' "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh," "I Don't Care" from Sir Mack Rice's catalog, and "You Had My Heart." The encore predictably was "Smoking Gun," Cray's one major flirtation in the pop charts.
Certain things make specific artists the "stars" they are, and a lot of that has to do with focus and attention to detail. With Cray, no one note, either of a phrase or a solo is wasted; every singular thing is done for a reason. I saw this time and again in the festival. Point being, Cray and most of the top-line artists are meticulous about their work. It is right down to the very note that sets them apart.
Sunday brought me back again as Slam Allen held forth at a Sunday blues brunch. Allen is one who has a connection to the masters of the craft, having logged years with James Cotton. His real introduction came, no surprise, through his family. "My dad and my uncles, they played, they were the ones I wanted to be like," Allen explains. "One day the drummer didn't show up, so I said, 'I'll do it,' so I sat in on the drums. Basically, I was a guitar player; my dad played multiple instruments, and I was trying to pattern myself after him. For me, it just blossomed more and more, and I said at 13 this is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I held true to it.
"People don't know their history," Allen says, "a lot of young people they only start at Jay-Z," he adds with a chuckle. "Long before him, you know, the blues started it all. It's the founder of all American music, a lot of things blossomed from it. To understand where you're going, you gotta know where you've been. So I put it out there to people. Prince, James Brown, George Benson, they will all make a reference to the blues.
"I have a son," Allen continues, "he's into hip-hop and stuff like that, so I'm feeling it in real time. I can go all the way back to Muddy Waters, but I can stay current also. I can understand and hear what's happening now. The kids today only hear what they hear now, so what I do is just put the message out in a way they can understand it and feel it."
The discussion of an aging audience, and what will replace it was taken up in part by my old XM Satellite Radio colleague, Bill Wax. Hosted by Cloren, Wax gave a talk about his long career, and especially over his relationship with B.B. King. That came in stories about meeting King; I don't know if you can call King a tech geek, but he was always interested in new gear, and he had XM installed on his tour bus, about two months after the satellite lit up.
That friendship helped expand blues music to a broader audience, and for Wax, King saw the ability to hear his music all over the country, wherever he felt like recognition of his work and that of his fellow artists. Questions and observations during this seemed to confirm a feeling in the blues community: younger artists are perceived to be leaving the blues, or not getting exposed to it at all.
Wax noted the Blues in the Schools program; most kids might not be immediately interested, but you only need two or three to be taken in for that to be a success. The need, as Cloren noted for programming, was to give them that choice.
The matter of hip-hop was also taken up. Wax spoke of a talk with Chuck D of Public Enemy, who, he noted is a blues fan. What Chuck said, I've heard as far back as the late eighties from NWA members: paraphrasing, hip-hop is the blues of the 21st century.
That does not mean the world of blues is going to end. The tradition is alive and well, and I heard plenty of that. If anything, the argument, the back and forth about what is blues and what is not is fodder for discussion, and later thought.
That said, I prepared for a late-afternoon starter with the Dana Fuchs Duo. The New York-based Fuchs' two-member version included Jon Diamond on the guitar and harp, and the pair tore up the ballroom with originals and rock covers, including versions of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Helter Skelter."
Then came the Sunday closeout with Jonny Lang. Since his break onto the music scene as a teenager. Twenty years on, anyone who had not seen Lang since then needs only to look at the long string of albums, and his performance.
There's an old saying of leaving it all onstage, and like his fellows, Lang did just that. An intense, sweaty set, proved Lang's skills have only improved with age, along with a solid backing band. Lang proved again what's not a theory: the professionalism of doing nothing extraneous.
I don't know what the final figures were, but there's no doubt the inaugural Reading Blues Fest will have its place as a fall staple for the city, the local economy, but also the music and the fans who support it.
(All photos by the author-special thanks to Ginny Buckley, John Ernesto, Michael Cloren and all those who gave of their time.)