The Chenango Blues Festival has annually attracted many of the top names in the field. This year was no exception with headliners North Mississippi Allstars with John Medeski and Victor Wainwright. The two-day affair, hosted by the Chenango Blues Association, drew record crowds for its Silver Anniversary at the Chenango County Fairgrounds in Norwich Aug. 18 and 19. A mid-afternoon storm did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd or performers, as many crowded under the tent enjoying one of the most talked about performances of the day from Jason Ricci and J.J. Appleton with Cliff Schmitt on stand-up bass.
As he gestured with a harmonica in his left hand, Ricci said, “I’ll tell you what, man. Check it out. More people, this is a fact, I checked it out. You know they have internet on computers now, and more people have been in outer space than have made a living playing this thing.” People all over the world have noticed Ricci’s prowess, as just two days prior to his Chenango performance, in Tulsa, Ricci was awarded the 2017 Player of the Year Award by the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica. Ricci then launched into an exhausting seven minute solo, complete with blues, jazz, train sounds, and a tease of “Low Rider” that left the crowd in awe of his abilities. Other notable performances during the set were covers of “Black Limousine” by the Rolling Stones, with Appleton on vocals, and Ricci’s ferocious vocals on Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble.”
This showcase offers a wide range of music that can all be classified under the wide umbrella of the blues. This year’s artists included the delta offerings of Alvin Youngblood Hart, the soulful and powerful Muddy Magnolias to the jump blues of the Mannish Boy Allstars.
Lead vocalist of the Mannish Boy Allstars, Sugaray Rayford endeared himself to the Norwich faithful, leaving the stage to mingle with those in attendance mid-song. The Mannish Boys are truly an all-star act, culling its lineup from the best the blues has to offer. Accompanying the charismatic Rayford were Anthony Geraci (keys), a Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year Award nominee; Kid Ramos (guitar), who has worked with Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds; and Willie J. Campbell (bass) and Jimi Bott (drums), who both also worked with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Allan Walker, a sideman for the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Drifters and Marvin Gaye, rounded out the Mannish Boys lineup on the main stage.
Festival favorites, the Memphis-based Ghost Town Blues Band had the most unorthodox entrance of the festival with a New Orleans style second line parade. The band entered through the crowd while playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” marching onto the stage to raucous applause.
Following a three song open that included the Beatles’ “Come Together” and “Norwegian Wood” into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” lead singer Matt Isbell took a ribbing from one of the audience members asking, “Do you know any blues numbers?” With that, they broke into a new original “Shine” that featured the most entertaining man of the festival, Suavo Jones on trombone. Guitarist/vocalist Matt Isbell has a gruff soulful voice that evokes that of both Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes. Ghost Town closed its set with a blistering cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” as another round of rain pounded the fairgrounds.
Following the festival, Ghost Town Blues Band laid down a particularly greasy set at the downtown Norwich bar the Blarney Stone. Utica harmonica player and Beale Street veteran Matt Lomeo sat in for two songs during the late night set.
Following a lengthy 40 minute weather delay, Tommy Castro and the Painkillers took to the main stage. Castro hosted Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz, most famously of the J. Geils Band in the rain-shortened set. Castro ripped through some soulful memphis blues before welcoming Salwitz to the stage for a number of J. Geils Band songs including “First I Look at the Purse,” “Give it to Me,” and Magic Dick’s signature solo, the crowd pleasing “Whammer Jammer.”
One of the most highly anticipated sets of the festival was that of Victor Wainwright and the Train. Wainwright, a Georgia born and bred pianist, reminds one of a young Dr. John with his honky-tonk boogie style. Wainwright didn’t disappoint. His hands were a blur the majority of the set. He injected stories about his songs, including one about a rollicking song his 87 year-old granddaddy, who is still playing, taught him called “Alabama Jubilee” which was one of the highlights of the set. Guitarist Pat Harrington, who is from Buffalo, had several friends and family members on hand. He laid down a particularly blistering solo during “I Wanna Be Like You.”
The North Mississippi Allstars with special guest, keyboard maestro John Medeski closed out the festival. Touring behind their latest release Prayer for Peace, NMAS have a renewed vigor and have gone back to their Mississippi roots on this outing. Guitarist Luther Dickinson has established himself as one of the premier slide guitarists in music today. He mentioned that when discussing the set list with drummer and brother Cody Dickinson, the question arose of what the Chenango audience might want to hear. Luther thought the crowd was in the mood for “some of that Mississippi stank.” And some of that Mississippi stank is what they got.
The raunchy set saw seamless interplay between the the Dickinsons and Medeski, who has a history with the brothers and Robert Randolph in the gospel outfit The Word. Luther and Medeski fed off of each other with Medeski’s keyboard magic taking the bluesy stomp to another level. A cover of the traditional blues classic “Deep Ellum Blues” sung by drummer Cody and accompanied by Medeski’s keys, proved to be a highlight of the set.
In this era of flailing and failing festivals, the Chenango Blues Fest does it right. The volunteers are all cheerful and helpful to a fault and the organization is top notch. The festival has grown over its 25 years to gain the reputation as one of the best blues festivals on the circuit. This is a testament to the community, the organization and the numerous sponsors.
The Chenango Blues Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization established to foster an appreciation of blues, zydeco, jazz and gospel. The group is run by a group of volunteers who not only organize the Chenango Blues Festival each year, but also curate a summer-long free concert series in Norwich each year. In 2016 the Chenango Blues Festival was the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award. For more information on the Chenango Blues Association and the work that they do, visit their website.
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