Monday, August 05, 2002

Blues Fest: As hot onstage as off

Gospel, a little soul spice up annual festival

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Saturday, there was Delta blues and weather to match, as the 10th annual Queen City Blues Fest played to around 4,000 hot, sticky blues fans at Sawyer Point.

        As temperatures hit 100`, attendance was down, but with a third stage, the Gospel Tent, this was an even more varied QCBF.

        It opened Thursday with a short evening concert, continuing Friday with a longer one on two stages. But Saturday is the big day, complete with the two-piano, boogie piano marathon and top-shelf, national blues performers.

        But no one this year put on a better show than the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers. The five-man a cappella group closed the Gospel Tent with a joyous, hand-clapping set of traditional gospel that turned Saturday night into Sunday morning. With the charismatic Luther Scruggs singing lead, the group is a modern version of Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers.

        Before them, the gospel stage presented a mixed bag, from the bluegrass gospel of Katie Laur to the contemporary R&B/pop gospel of Rodney Posey.

        Added to the festival in May, the tent seemed like an afterthought, even down to its location at Yeatman's Cove, outside the festival gates.

        Inside, the QCBF kept its usual split personality. The main stage at P&G Pavilion featured guitar-driven electric blues bands. The Arches Stage presented world-class boogie and blues pianists.

        There were veteran boogie-man like hometown favorite Big Joe Duskin, regal in an electric blue homburg, and Detroit's Bob Seeley. The latter's evening show was as much history lesson as performance, as he talked about various boogie woogie pioneers (e.g., Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson) and demonstrated their styles. It could have been dull, but he's such a dynamic player it was never academic.

        There were also a couple of young European pianists. Martijn Schok of Holland, played a nice mix of boogie and blues, backing singer Greta Holtrop. Even better was Silvan Zingg, a Swiss player whose flawless technique was as precise as one of his country's watches.

        On the Main Stage, the nine-hour show ranged from local blues challenge winner Royal Blues to a band of kids from the Blues in the Schools program. But as temperatures cooled after an afternoon downpour, the blues heated up.

        The final three Main Stage acts were all worth braving the steamy heat. Billy Boy Arnold, a harmonica playing singer/songwriter from the '50s' golden age of Chicago blues, played a tight set of classics. Backed by a no-frills, three-man band, his set included his “I Ain't Got You,” which became a rock classic when covered by the Yardbirds.

        The Jelly Roll Kings reunion was next, and the Delta band's rollicking, loose-jointed, juke sound was pure Mississippi blues.

        The surprise of the day came when Willie Cobbs and his band took the stage. A downhome singer and player influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson, he was backed by Hi Rhythm, the house band for Hi Records, Memphis' other classic soul label.

        Instead of the Delta blues the program promised, Hi Rhythm opened with Freddie King's “Hide Away” and then played 15 minutes of old-school soul that included singer Percy Wiggins' take on Al Green's “Love and Happiness.” It was as good as anything heard at last week's SoulFest.

        Mr. Cobbs then took things back to the blues. But after that strong, unexpected opening, it was something of an anti-climax.


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