This past weekend, we had the honor of attending our second Project Blues Review show in Columbus, Ohio. Still pretty amped after having seen a fantastic performance from Taj Mahal and Keb Mo’ the previous evening at the Heritage Music BluesFest in Wheeling, and with fond memories of our first Project Blues experience back in 2014, a tribute to Muddy Waters that featured John Primer, Bob Margolin, Bob Corritore, Bob Stroger, David Maxwell, and others, we had a sneaking suspicion this was going to be another great night of blues music at the LifeCare Alliance Center. And once again, the organizers of this fine event didn’t disappoint, treating the audience to a superb seven-hour show that included some of the biggest local and national names in the blues.
The evening started with a set from Drivin’ Home, a local band featuring Project Blues Review producer Mike “Bear in the Chair” Berichon joined by International Blues Challenge winner Sean Carney and members of his band and vocalist Shaun Booker. Together, they tore through a set that included such classics as “All Your Love”, “You Belong to Me”, “Further on Up the Road”, and “Pack It Up”, with Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff of The Texas Horns also joining on harmonica for part of the program.
Next up was the Project Blues Review, featuring local keyboardist Bobby Floyd, local bass player Lenny Paul Fatigati, The Texas Horns, and a rotating cast of guitar-playing frontmen, starting with a shuffling set from Chicago’s Tom Holland that included “Sugar Sweet” and Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time” before Holland conceded the stage to fellow Project Blues host and 2017 Blues Music Award (BMA) Best Emerging Artist Album winner (Tengo Blues) Jonn Del Toro Richardson.
Soon enough, it was also time for Richardson to move on, turning over the mic to another 2017 BMA recipient, Traditional Blues Male Artist winner and former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin, who showed just how he earned his “Steady Rollin'” nickname with a terrific set that again included Kazanoff on harmonica for several numbers, beginning with Snooky Pryor’s “Peace of Mind”, Margolin’s own, more rocking “I Shall Prevail”, and a storming “Got My Mojo Working” featuring both Margolin and Kaz on vocals before they finished up with Kaz back in the horns line on what, according to Margolin, was Waters’ favorite of the songs from his own catalog, the slow blues of “Screamin’ and Cryin'”.
Headliners Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters took the stage a half-hour earlier than scheduled, promising from the outset to play for a long time. And that’s exactly what the band did, not finishing the night until three hours later.
After warming up with some expressive instrumentals including a soulful “Heart of Glass”, Earl dedicated the night’s show to Margolin and Kaz, then introduced his “soul sister” vocalist Diane Blue, who dug deep immediately with a powerful take on Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” and grooving “Before You Accuse Me” that brought Kaz back to the stage on harmonica.
Giving the rest of the band a short breather, Earl, Blue and Kaz delivered a lovely “Take a Little Walk with Me”. With the band’s return, Earl first dedicated the next song to, and then invited to the stage, Tom Holland for “I’ll Take Care of You”, with Earl making the first of several visits into the audience, a place he spent much time playing from during this program, seating himself either on the front edge of the stage or in an empty chair for a song or two at a time.
That was followed by a terrific “A Change is Gonna’ Come” that Ronnie played sitting on the steps of the stage, just inches from the front-row table where Margolin was seated with his guests. Indicating he’d much rather play with Margolin than at him any longer, Earl invited his fellow guitar slinger to the stage for a few numbers, starting on the slow, heavy blues of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” and then the uplifting, again grooving “Higher Love” before Blue took temporary leave from the stage for a mostly instrumental “Catfish Blues” featuring just Earl, Margolin on vocals and guitar, Kaz, drums, and keyboards.
Blue returned to the stage — along with Jonn Del Toro Richardson — with Gladys Knight’s “(I’ve Got to Use My) Imagination” as well as “I Don’t Want No Woman”, then helped to finish out the night with a few more gems in “In the Wee Hours”, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”, and “As the Years Go Passing By”.
Though the musical line-ups are always terrific, and were of course what initially drew blues fans like ourselves to the annual event, it’s also important to note that all of the proceeds from these Project Blues Review programs goes towards helping people in the local community who are impacted by cancer, making the involvement of a growing number of these musicians year after year even more commendable. And it looks like Project Blues has a new fan in Earl, who asked at the end of the program if his band too can come back next year.
Regardless of whether Earl & the Broadcasters actually do make a return appearance, Project Blues Review 2018 is really someplace you should probably plan to be, for all the right reasons.