You know it’s probably a pretty blues-packed program when you’re only able to catch short segments of such talented acts as Albert Castiglia, Nikki Hill, Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues, Peter Karp and Sue Foley, and Dana Fuchs in order to be able to see other artists like Joe Louis Walker, Corey Harris, Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown, Blind Boy Paxton, Popa Chubby, and the Mark May Band.
And that’s not even considering the many other blues and non-blues acts we would have liked to see but just didn’t have a chance to, including the likes of Joanne Shaw Taylor, Jason Ricci, Live, Iron Butterfly, Jay Farrar, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, Amy Hart, Clarence Spady, and Charlie Gracie.
That’s exactly the situation with which we were faced a few weeks back at the second annual Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival in eastern Pennsylvania, where there’s clearly way more going on than any one person can ever expect to take in. Organizers have already announced that they’ll be moving from the current two- to a three-day format for 2016 (Fri.-Sun., Feb. 26-28), but it’s unclear at this point whether they’ll be using that extra day just to spread out a similar number of acts, add even more performers, or a combination of the two.
That said, we can’t imagine anyone ever being bored at this festival; if one act is slow or not quite what you expected, there’s nearly always another one or two that might be of interest taking place.
For us, the highlights of the weekend were probably the sets we heard from former Muddy Waters bassist Mac Arnold and his band Plate Full o’ Blues, rising traditional blues star Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, electric guitarist Popa Chubby, and British blues rockers Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown, in addition to the somewhat lesser-known names of the Kelly Bell and Mark May bands.
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Our weekend started with a solid, often funky set from veteran bluesman Joe Louis Walker, who offered songs ranging from “T-Bone Shuffle” off the companion DVD to B.B. King’s early 1990s Grammy-winning Blues Summit album to the title track off Walker’s latest CD – the 25th in his name – in “Hornet’s Nest”, including some delightful slow numbers in the Elvis-like “Don’t Let Go” (also from Hornet’s Nest), a creeping “I Won’t Do That”, and the biting “You Don’t Love Me Girl”, as well as rockers like the opening “I’m Not Messin’ Around” and “Do You Love Me?” a bit later in the program.
Having already seen Walker several times live didn’t make it any easier to leave his show a little early, even to catch a few fiddle tunes from Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton during his first of two sets for the weekend. From there, we moved on to the Elks Lodge for a couple of songs from the talented singer and guitarist Albert Castiglia – including some ripping instrumentals and Solid Ground‘s “Searching the Desert for the Blues” – before we headed to the Ware Center for South Carolina bluesman Mac Arnold and his band Plate Full o’ Blues, who kicked off their set with Arnold’s autobiographical “Ghetto Blue”. That was followed by a nice mix of covers – including a tribute to his old boss Muddy Waters in “Walkin’ Through the Park”, along with B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen – and originals like the rolling “Train Smoke” and gritty “Nickel and a Dime”.
We weren’t able to stick around long enough to see Arnold pick up the gas can guitar he had standing by – and are sure we missed one heck of a rest of a set – instead heading across the street to the Trust Performing Arts Center to catch a portion of traditional bluesman Corey Harris’ show, which included a variety of country blues, spirituals and African songs such as “Sweet Black Angel”, the title track off his latest CD Fulton Blues, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, “Too Tight Rag”, and Son House’s “Preaching Blues”.
From there, we made our way to the Federal Taphouse for some selections from pen pals-turned-couple Peter Karp and Sue Foley, including Karp’s “Arson’s Match” and several duets from the duo’s new album coming in June in “Who’s Gonna Save You When the Wolves Creep In” and “Don’t Have a Life Without You” before closing on a breezy “Goodbye Baby”.
We capped off Friday night at the Chameleon Club – the sixth different venue we visited that evening – with a set from the hugely entertaining Kelly Bell Band. A seven-piece outfit from Baltimore, this band got its start two decades ago as a backing group for the great Bo Diddley, and with its own unique “phat blues” sound, has been voted the Mid-Atlantic’s best blues band for the past dozen years.
That includes some rather smooth vocals from bandleader and percussionist Bell, complemented by the occasional rapping of trumpeter and vocalist Word, on a variety of mostly originals, from the swaying opener “Headliner” to the swinging “Talkin’ in Your Sleep” and groovy, Darius Rucker-sounding “Dear Maggie”, as well as a few choice covers including a take on Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” that featured Bell on washboard and vocals, starting just as you’d recognize it before slowing down and getting a bit funky. We weren’t able to stay for the band’s whole set, but with Bell promising to play as long into night as people were having fun, we can only imagine that this show went on for quite a while!
Things kicked off for us again early Saturday afternoon with Tom Principato and Jim Weider (The Band) together for a Masters of the Telecaster show that included songs from Little Richard, Roy Buchanan (“I’m a Ram”), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”), and Little Walter (a rocking “My Babe”), the latter two featuring keyboardist Brian Mitchell on vocals, in addition to originals like the country-flavored title track off Principato’s latest album Robert Johnson Told Me So.
Next, we headed to the Ware Center for a well-attended return appearance from Blind Boy Paxton that started with a few jokes and remained humorous with songs like “Foolish Questions” (Johnny Cash) and “Ugly Woman Told Me No”, which the 26-year-old Paxton described as “the truest blues ever sung” with its chorus of “nothin’ makes you feel quite as low, as when an ugly woman tells you no”, along with a mix of Nola rags, country blues, Hawaiian and other songs, with Paxton rotating on violin, acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, and piano throughout the set.
Working our way up the street to the Chameleon Club, we caught a few minutes from another artist returning for a second night in firecracker Nikki Hill, who moved effortlessy between strong Tina Turner-like and smooth R&B vocals with numbers from her own catalogue like “Ask Yourself”, “Gotta Find My Baby” and “I Know” as well as songs from Irma Thomas and Little Richard, among others.
Then, we were back to the Convention Center for a set from British blues-rocker Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown, who kicked things off with the title track off their latest CD Goin’ to the Delta before diving into gems from throughout the band’s 50 year history including “A Hard Way to Go”, “I’m Tired”, and the slow blues of “Baby Please Change Your Mind”, as well as a few more tracks from their new one in “Nuthin’ Like the Blues” and the boogeying instrumental “Cobra”.
From there, we returned to a packed Chameleon Club, where we found the smoky-voiced Dana Fuchs already deep into an impassioned set. Although we weren’t able to push our way close enough to the stage to get much in the way of pictures, we did arrive in time to hear a few of our favorite songs from Fuchs, “Set It On Fire” and “Long Long Game” among them.
After taking in a bit of Homesick James protégé Johnny Long‘s acoustic show at the nearby Trust Performing Arts Center that included such numbers as “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Person to Person”, we visited the Chameleon Club for a third time that day, where we heard most of the set from guitarist Popa Chubby, including covers such as “Looking Back” (John Mayall, Johnny “Guitar” Watson), a “Hey Joe” (Jimi Hendrix) dedicated to the troops, a tribute to the late Johnny Winter in his version of “Rock Me Baby”, and perhaps the rockingest “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” we’ve heard, along with songs like “Working Class Blues”, all filled with plenty of great solos.
We closed out the weekend listening to the smooth blues-soul sounds of Columbus, Ohio’s Mark May Band at the Federal Taphouse, featuring former Dickey Betts guitarist and singer Mark May along with two other guitarists, three horn players, and a drummer. Together, they worked through a solid set of tunes like “If You Love Me Like You Say” (Albert Collins), Delbert McClinton’s “Givin’ It Up for Your Love”, and from May’s Telephone Road CD, “Back in the Joint”, “Don’t Give Up” and the slow blues of “Lights Are On But Nobody’s Home”.
With a schedule this tight, we’re not sure we actually got to see anybody’s set in its entirety, giving us a good excuse to catch each of the acts again individually next time we have the chance. But we did get to take in our fair share of great blues music.
If you didn’t make it to the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival in either of its first two years, you might want to do yourself a favor and make sure you’re there to catch what you can of it in year three!