There were plenty of stars to see across the West Virginia-Ohio region this past weekend, and we aren’t talking about the ones you may have spotted while watching for the Perseid meteor shower. There’s really no telling what all we might have missed taking place above us, with our eyes having been so transfixed on the stages of two of our favorite summer blues gatherings, beginning Friday night at the Heritage Music BluesFest in Wheeling and then trekking further west to Columbus the next afternoon to catch the annual Project Blues Review benefit show. We’ll have more on Project Blues in the coming days, but in the meantime, here’s a recap of the first leg of our weekend musical adventure, the opening day of the Heritage Music BluesFest.
Somehow making his very first appearance at Heritage (but most likely not his last judging by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction), Pittsburgh’s Billy Price and his seven-piece band kicked off the 2017 edition of the festival with a soulful, energetic set that included songs from his new album Alive and Strange and earlier Blues Music Award-winning collaboration with Otis Clay (This Time for Real) as well as classics like “Can I Change My Mind”, “A Nickel and a Nail”, and the closing “I Don’t Want No Woman”.
Guitarist and singer Rory Block was the next act to take the stage, joined by slide player Cindy Cashdollar. Together, these self-dubbed “Sisters of Slide” worked their way through a wet and windy set of songs from the likes of Tommy Johnson (“Big Road Blues”), Son House (“Death Letter Blues”), Reverend Gary Davis (“Lo’, I Be With You Alway”), and Mississippi John Hurt (“Frankie”) along with originals like the gospel blues of “Declare”, soft, soulful “Lovin’ Whiskey”, and tender “Mama’s Blues”, with Block’s covers of Willie Brown’s “Mississippi Blues”, Reverend Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way to Get Along”, and the encore number of Hurt’s “Stagger Lee” being perhaps the biggest highlights of the performance.
A highly entertaining, often mischievous set of traditional blues from twenty-something Atlanta bluesman Jontavious Willis followed, including such classics as “C.C. Rider”, “Trouble in Mind”, “Big Leg Woman”, “I’m Gonna Move to Kansas City”, “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” and “She Might Be Your Woman (But She Comes to See Me Sometimes)” and clever original numbers like “Luxorious Man” much in the same style. With a strong, powerful voice well beyond his years, Willis, like his contemporary Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, puts on one heck of an impressive show!
Between each of the performances on the main stage, local act Sutton & Barath (Chris Sutton and Charlie Barath) entertained the crowd with short sets of country guitar and harmonica on the second stage.
That led us to the evening’s final performance, a fantastic, hour-and-a-half show from the legendary Taj Mahal and fellow guitarist and singer Keb’ Mo’, together known as TajMo. Back in the spring, we told you about how great the duo’s album was, plus we had the chance to see these two perform together at the most recent Crossroads Guitar Festival in New York, so we knew this was going to be something special, but have to say that it turned out to be even better than we expected, easily one of the very best and most powerful live shows we’ve been fortunate to see (and we’ve seen some good ones)! Not only did the pair and their accompanying five-piece band and two backing singers (both of whom are Mahal’s daughters) hit on several songs from their new joint album — “Please Don’t Leave Me Here”; “That’s Who I Am”; “All Around the World”; a “Diving Duck Blues” that featured the duo alone on stage, just as we saw them at Crossroads; and the encore song of “Soul” — but they also mixed in some terrific numbers from each of their catalogs, including, for example, Mahal’s “Senor Blues”, “Honey Bee”, “Take a Giant Step”, “She Caught the Katy”, “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Leavin’ Trunk” as well as Mo’s “Government Cheese”, “Every Morning”, “Am I Wrong”, “The Worst is Yet to Come” and “Gimme What You Got”, with the two frequently switching off on instruments, including Mo’ on harmonica for a couple of songs in addition to several nice guitar solos throughout the night and Mahal on guitar, harmonica, ukulele, banjo, and more.
Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to return for the second or third day of this year’s festival, which included such other stars and rising stars as Joe Louis Walker, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kenny Neal, Toronzo Cannon, Dana Fuchs, International Blues Challenge winners Al Hill and Dawn Tyler Watson, and many others, but we did get to see another spectacular show the following night, which we’ll tell you all about soon!