Ladies Sing the Blues: The 24th Annual Chenango Blues Festival

In 1956, Billie Holiday wrote her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Sixty years later, Holiday would be pleased to know that ladies still sing the blues most impressively, as four female band leaders wowed the crowd at the 24th Annual Chenango Blues Festival, held August 19-20 in Norwich, New York. Davina Sowers of Davina and the Vagabonds, singer/saxophonist Vanessa Collier, sisters Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson of Southern Avenue, and Carolyn Wonderland all displayed powerful vocals and musicianship, as well as overwhelming stage presence that was met by thunderous applause from more than five thousand fans in attendance over two days.

Brian Cornish - Southern Avenue (1)

Festival attendees enjoyed perfect weather in a comfortable outdoor setting, and were treated to a variety of roots and blues music styles from more than a half dozen other outstanding acts, leading up to the headliner, New Orleans’ Anders Osborne.

The festival began Friday evening, with the traditional free performances on the tent stage. The crowd grew quickly, with hundreds of fans setting up chairs and pop up tents on the lawn for the following day, as Central New York’s Funky Blu Roots played the fest’s first notes. Fronted by the husband and wife team of guitarist Mikal Serafim and bass player Nancy Giannone, the group included Tom Townsley on harmonica and vocals, drummer Phil Leone, and special guest George Rossi on keyboards. Serafim and Townsley traded lead vocals, backed by Rossi, on primarily original material of blues, light rock, and up-tempo numbers.

Flying in from London the night before the show, exuberant Englishman Laurence Jones next took the stage for his first performance in the United States with his own band. Just twenty-four years old, Jones led his power trio, including bassist Roger Inniss and drummer Phil Wilson, through a high energy seventy-five minute set, featuring his brand new Ruf Records release, Take Me High, produced by the legendary Mike Vernon. Yet again, the Chenango Blues Festival secures its reputation for presenting the very best emerging artists for their Central New York debuts.

Returning to the Chenango Blues Festival was Friday’s featured act, Davina and the Vagabonds. The group was a smash hit on the main stage in 2012. Due to return last year for Norwich’s Thursday Summer Music Series, that performance was canceled after the band was involved in a tragic accident on the day of the show. A man named John lost his life in that incident, and an emotional Davina Sowers dedicated her set Friday night to his memory. Piano, stand-up bass, trombone, trumpet, drums and four vocalists combine for rollicking, barrel house piano songs, a show-stopping cover of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and her own crowd favorite tunes, including “Pocket,” “Start Running,” and “LipsticknChrome,” all from her release Black Cloud.

Brian Cornish - Davina and the Vagabonds (7)

Following the tent stage show Friday evening, fans were treated to a jaw-dropping preview performance by Saturday’s opening act, Noah Wotherspoon, at a small local tavern.

At high noon on the main stage, Noah Wotherspoon, the 2015 International Blues Challenge Best Guitarist winner, led his trio through a set that included “Going to Mississippi” from his debut release Mystic Mud, and a handful of cover tunes. The diminutive Wotherspoon, who appears to be much younger than thirty-four, proved that a small band and a small guitarist sure can make a mighty big sound. In addition to gaining new followers, Wotherspoon and bandmates Rob Thaxton (bass) and Brian Aylor (drums) were unabashed fans of the other musicians, chatting up old friends and making new ones. Thaxton commented that he couldn’t believe all the talent he got to hear, and Wotherspoon had a smile a mile wide while talking to Carolyn Wonderland following her set.

Acts alternated between the main stage and the tent stage throughout Saturday’s schedule, and first up under the big top was Berklee College of Music trained singer/saxophonist Vanessa Collier. She started off with a funky tune that easily won the crowd over, and toward the end of the set, had one of the festival’s highlights, a walk through the crowd during an extended rendition of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” made famous by his bandleader, Cannonball Adderley. Collier made a point of making eye contact with members of the audience, a very effective technique to keep fans engaged. It is up-and-coming debut acts like Collier, Jones, and the next act, Southern Avenue, that make the Chenango Blues Festival so special to its fans. Collier’s sax, vocals, and award-winning songwriting can be heard on heart soul & saxophone.

Immediately following Collier’s set, Southern Avenue took to the main stage. Sisters Tierinii (vocals) and Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals) along with Ori Naftaly (guitar) and Daniel McKee (bass) showed tremendous versatility playing blues, gospel, soul, funk, and more. Tierinii Jackson is a compelling vocalist, as showcased on a slinky tempo-changing cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” and accompanying McKee’s infectious bass on Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” The band spent time last month recording at the Zebra Ranch in Independence, Missouri, in anticipation of their debut release in 2017 on the prestigious Stax Records label.

Brian Cornish - Southern Avenue (10)

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons presented a unique glimpse of much older musical songs and styles, as the duo explained the origin of many of the songs, performed with combinations of guitars, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica, performed with a vintage microphone. Under the tent, the IBC award winners made listeners feel as though they were transported back to the early twentieth century.

Curtis Salgado is a favorite vocalist of many blues/soul aficionados, and his voice paired wonderfully with the Hammond B3 organ handled masterfully by his keyboard player. The 2013 Blues Music Award Entertainer of the Year, singing to his ex in the time-honored blues theme of love gone wrong, explained “I learned more about the blues in two weeks with you than twenty years of B. B. King.” His latest recording, The Beautiful Lowdown featuring “Walk a Mile in My Blues,” is available from Alligator Records.

Duke Robillard played a stripped down set of semi-acoustic material, accompanied by Bruce Bears on keyboard, and Brad Hallen on stand-up bass, in support of his 2016 Blues Music Award winning album, The Acoustic Blues and Roots of Duke Robillard. He will release Blues Full Circle, with special guests Jimmy Vaughan, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Kelley Hunt in September 2016.

Canned Heat hit the main stage and got the crowd boogieing to the familiar strains of “Goin’ Up the Country.” Original members Fito de la Parra (drums) and Larry “The Mole” Taylor (bass, guitar) were joined by John Paulus (guitar, vocals, bass) and Dale Spalding (vocals, harmonica, guitar.) The band is touring in celebration of their fiftieth anniversary, and concluded with an extended version of their hit “Let’s Work Together.”

Although she has played several times throughout New York State, Carolyn Wonderland’s first appearance at Chenango was eagerly anticipated, and she delivered a dynamic set to a raucous, sweaty, appreciative crowd. Backed by Bobby Perkins on bass and Kevin Lance on drums, Wonderland blew the roof off the tent early in her set with “Judgement Day Blues.” She was demonstrably thrilled to have guitarist Eric McFadden from Anders Osborne’s band (who sported a pink daisy shaped small scale guitar) join her for a couple of tunes, including “Two Trains.” The Austin, Texas based Wonderland paid tribute to her home state’s Freddie King, concluding her evening’s show with an incendiary version of his “Palace of the King.” I will go, and I have gone, a long, long way to hear this woman play guitar and sing. You should too.

Brian Cornish - Carolyn Wonderland (1)

Anders Osborne stalks the stage like a party looking for a place to happen. Expressive, energetic, and engaging, it’s hard not to feel good when Osborne and his top notch band start making noise. Carl Dufrene on bass and vocals, Eric McFadden on guitar, and Tony Leone on drums are all renowned musicians with impressive resumes. Highlights of Osborne’s set included “Different Drum,” “Flowerbox,” “Fools Gold,” “Mind of a Junkie,” “Higher Ground,” “Lafayette,” “Back To Mississippi,” and “Louisiana Gold.”

Two days, twelve acts, thousands of fans, a small army of critically important volunteers, and tremendous community support add up to twenty-four years of “Keeping the Blues Alive.” Congratulations to the Chenango Blues Festival for another unsurpassed success! I can’t wait ‘til next year.