We weren’t able to take in quite as much of the recent two-night Highmark Blues & Heritage Festival at Pittsburgh’s Highmark Stadium as we had hoped, but the bit we did catch was certainly impressive, thanks to the likes of Fantastic Negrito, Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster, and Walter “Wolfman” Washington and their bands.
Even missing the start of Fantastic Negrito‘s set, we were still able to hear such favorites from him as his unique take on the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” and the powerful closer “Lost in the Crowd” — two quite different numbers that represent nicely the range of the GRAMMY Award-winner’s capabilities — along with tracks including “Highest Bidder” and the rhythmic, “freedom will come”-filled “Virginia Soil” from his latest album White Jesus Black Problems and the rocking “Plastic Hamburgers” from his 2018 album Please Don’t Be Dead.
Next up, New Orleans-based Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his band the Roadmasters focused their set largely on some funky jazz but did squeeze in a familiar blues number in B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have the Blues”.
After an introduction from longtime Pittsburgh-based soulman Billy Price, a solo Ruthie Foster started her short set on the breezy “Brand New Day”, followed by songs that included the swaying “It Might Not Be Right” (co-written with the great William Bell), a plucky cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues”, the catchy, uptempo country ‘Smalltown Blues” and the soulful, Bobby “Blue” Bland-inspired “Singing the Blues”.
Then Ruthie turned the stage over to Shemekia Copeland and her band, whose set ranged from the gospel sounds of such songs as “Barefoot in Heaven” and “Walk Until I Ride” to the slow powerful blues of “It’s My Own Tears” and creeping “Done Come Too Far” to her slightly rocking cover of her late father Johnny’s “Nobody But You”, with plenty of other messages coming through in songs like “Clotilda’s on Fire” and “Ain’t Got Time for Hate”.
At that point, Shemekia invited Ruthie back to the stage for a few numbers, which was every bit as much the treat as you’d expect and more, with Ruthie joining along on Shemekia’s traditional-sounding “Gullah Geechee” and then the fun, uptempo country “The Wrong Idea”.
With Ruthie again exiting the stage, Shemekia and her band wrapped up the set and first night of the festival with John Prine’s “Great Rain” and then another of her dad’s songs in the extremely soulful “Ghetto Child”.
Our plans for returning the following night to see hometown band The Commonheart and acclaimed young blues guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, among others, unfortunately didn’t work out, but even one night of this festival was quite fulfilling, with the three-stage side-by-side set-up helping to minimize delays between artists and of course loads of great music!
We’ll be posting more photos from the festival soon.