When we talked with Lancaster Roots and Blues organizer Rich Ruoff a few weeks back by email, he noted that he doesn’t do things halfway. This past weekend, we got to see just what he meant when we and a few thousand other blues and roots fans descended on downtown Lancaster for the inaugural offering of the festival, which included an impressive two nights of live music featuring more than 50 musical acts across nine stages in five different venues.
As promised in its name, blues was a big part of the weekend: even bigger than on what we can report, in fact, with a number of quality acts running in overlapping time slots, forcing us, for example, to pass up performances from the likes of Steve Guyger & the Excellos, Big Joe and the Dynaflows, Clarence Spady, and Dr. Harmonica and Rockett 88 – and that was all just during the 10 o’clock hour Saturday night, while we were either waiting for or in the midst of taking in a set from the Johnny Winter Band with special guest James Cotton. We don’t regret for a moment our decision to stick with the headliners, but if ever there was a case to be made for human cloning, this surely was it.
Fortunately for us, each of the acts we did get to see throughout the weekend were solid ones, starting with a superb opening set from the Heritage Blues Quintet. After a 45-minute delay as a result of traffic into Lancaster, the band – made up of Chaney Sims on vocals and handclaps/tambourine, father Bill Sims Jr. on vocals, guitars, and handclaps, Junior Mack on guitars and vocals, Parisian Vincent Bucher on harmonica, and Barry Harrison on drums – took the Steinman Hall stage with the work song of “Go Down Hannah”, one of several numbers performed this night from its Grammy-nominated debut And Still I Rise, along with the slow, Mississippi blues of a Mack-sung “Clarkesdale Moan” and the much more uptempoed “Get Right Church”, “C-Line Woman”, and “Catfish Blues”, with the female and male Sims on vocals, respectively, for the last two.
Unfortunately, the late start meant that was all of the quintet’s performance we got to hear, as by then it was already time to make our way to the Convention Center for an hour-plus set from smooth-voiced Louisiana bluesman and guitarist Chris Thomas King that included such gems as the funky “Da Thrill is Gone (From Here)”, the slow, gritty “Baptized in Dirty Water”, and a more traditional “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store”, in addition to a short solo portion without his band.
From there, we headed just downstairs to the Convention Center’s smaller stage to catch a few songs from guitarist and singer Tom Principato, which reminded us that we really should spend a bit more time exploring his catalog, before we ventured off to a club called the Federal Taphouse for Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, featuring Monster Mike Welch on guitar. As great as they sound on recordings, this band is even more entertaining live, as they demonstrated on this night through a pair of terrific 45-minute sets. Kicking things off on the swinging “I’m Having a Ball” (Johnny Young), the band rolled through a nice mix of other great classics and originals, including Junior Wells’ “Hoodoo Man”, a more country-flavored “Blues Stop Knockin'” (Lazy Lester), and “What Have I DoneWrong” before Welch stepped up to the mic to sing and play Muddy Waters’ “Sail On”, with Anthony Geraci banging away on the keyboards.
After closing out the set on “Someday Someway” and a short intermission, the band returned for an equally energetic second set, starting on “You Give Me Nothing but the Blues”, followed by a fiery “Step Back” and the creeping blues of “Sad Sad City”. Along the way, they also hit on Otis Rush’s “You Know My Love”, the Robert Lockwood Jr. classic “Gonna Ball Tonight”, and Little Walter’s “Mean Old World” that allowed Norcia to show his chops on harmonica one last time before calling it a night.
The festival resumed Saturday evening with a smoking performance from Samantha Fish at the city’s Chameleon Club, where the blues-rocker blew through a bunch of songs from her latest album Black Wind Howlin’, including the fiery opener “Miles to Go”, groove-filled “Foolin’ Me” that saw Fish bring out her cigar box guitar for the first time, and in-your-face “Go To Hell” to the breezy country sounds of “Kick Around”, a rocking “Sucker Born” (also on cigar box guitar), and the crawling title track. Switching to an oil can guitar for “Gone for Good”, Fish then proceeded to offer a few solo numbers in Charley Patton’s “Jim Lee Blues” along with a sensitive take on the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” before the band returned to help her close out the show with such gems as a slowed-down, powerful version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and the Black Sabbath rocker “War Pigs”.
Much of the remainder of our evening was spent at the Convention Center, where we first caught a rare reunion appearance from 80s/90s rockers Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers, who we’re pleased to report can still put on one hell of an entertaining show, and then the evening’s headliner in blues guitar legend Johnny Winter and his band, joined on this stop by harmonica great James Cotton.
Somewhat a cross between fellow Philly pop-rock outfit The Hooters and their blues-rocking neighbors to the east George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Conwell and the Rumblers tore through an energetic 80-minute set that began on the shuffling “Tonight’s the Night” and hit upon such songs as “Everything They Say is True”, “I’m Seventeen”, “Gonna Breakdown”, “Walkin’ on the Water”, a “Workout” that saw Conwell venture out into the audience, and their biggest hit “I’m Not Your Man”, with the band returning for a two-song encore of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and the ballad “If We Never Meet Again”. (You can see the full setlist – as reported by none other than The BluesPowR Blog – at the Tommy Conwell-focused blog Audio Rumble).
That of course set the stage rather nicely for the Johnny Winter Band, which kicked things off in a rocking manner with “Johnny B. Goode” followed by “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” before James Cotton joined for a few numbers, including a “Got My Mojo Workin'” that was terrific once the stage crew got Cotton’s microphone working. On the eve of both Winter’s 70th birthday (from here, they headed to New York for a star-studded birthday celebration at B.B. King’s Blues Club Sunday night, complete with a Texas-shaped cake) and this week’s release of the four-disc box set True to the Blues: the Johnny Winter Story(which we’ll explore in more detail in the coming weeks), the band worked their way through a stellar set of blues and rock standards, including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”, “Bony Moronie”, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash”, a “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” that morphed into “Gimme Shelter”, and another Stones classic in “It’s All Over Now”, with plenty of fine contributions from guitarist Paul Nelson (as well as bassist Scott Spray and drummer Tommy Curiale) along the way. Winter switched to his signature Firebird guitar and welcomed Cotton back to the stage for the last two songs of the nearly 90-minute set, Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”.
We closed out the festival at a new club called Tellus Three Sixty, where we listened to a few Delta soul-filled tunes from the “Arkansas Tornado” Lonnie Shields, backed by a seven-piece band of two guitars, drums, keyboards and three horn players. After a couple of swinging instrumentals from the band, the guitarist and singer kicked off his set with the funky title track off his Keeper of the Blues album, followed by songs like the feisty “Everyman Needs a Good Woman” and the slow blues of “Man is Under Pressure”.
As busy as the festival was for us, it’s pretty astonishing to think that what we saw accounted for less than one-fifth of the weekend’s schedule, which also included acts like Edgar Winter, Loudon Wainwright, Lake Street Dive, the Tim Warfield Organ Band, Bill Wharton the Sauce Boss, James Day & the Fish Fry, Sweet Leda, the Martini Brothers, and Beth Sorrentino, to name just a few. Whether future years will offer quite as extensive a range of performers is ultimately up to Ruoff and his fellow organizers to determine, but we’d have to think that the number of acts is one area where Ruoff can easily afford to go halfway, especially if he’s able to continue bringing in the kind of musical talent and crowds that he did last weekend.