By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Queen City Blues Fest, Cincinnati's annual bout of boogie fever, opened Friday with good, steamy festival weather and a lineup to match.
A multi-racial, multi-generational crowd of around 7,000 came out for a well-mixed evening that ranged from the raw Delta sounds of Rory Block to the slick, booty-shaking R&B of Bobby Rush and the potent high-octane gospel of the Voices of Thunder.
This is the first year the festival is charging admission to the Sawyer Point event, and as a result, the three stages were packed into the park (last year, the new gospel stage was located outside the main entrance).
The problem was, the stages were too close. The result was a literal conflict of the sacred and the profane, as Sunday morning battled Saturday night to be heard.
And both stages could be heard at Friday night's acoustic stage, which was plagued by poor sound throughout the evening.
That was a particular shame, as the acoustic blues lineup was the fest's best yet. Newcomer Pat Sweaney, adept at both lightning-fast Piedmont ragtime and honking Elmore James-style Delta slide, opened the stage. Annie Raines and Paul Rishell followed, with a set mixing electric, Chicago boogie a la Little Walter with rural jug band stylings. Backed by Rishell's tasteful, expressive guitar work, Raines' mixed several styles of harmonica into the set, including some Sonny Terry style "whooping."
Catfish Keith did a laid-back set of country blues, but with his self-consciously old-timey garb, it came off as a vaudeville act rather than deeply felt blues.
Rory Block's stage-closing show was everything Keith's set wasn't - dynamic, emotionally powerful and filled with guitar fireworks. Unfortunately, the poor sound at the stage was particularly bad during Block's set, which mixed traditional blues with some of her own, highly personal songs, But though she poured herself into such blues classics as Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen" and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," it sounded as if her guitar was strung with rubber bands, and very thin ones at that.
The larger crowd could be found at the P&G stage, as local band Them Bones kicked things off with a well-played set of bar-band blues. The next two groups, led by R.J. Mischo and Junior Watson, respectively were almost interchangeable. In this case, that wasn't a bad thing. as both featured fine guitarists and harmonica players in a nicely varied mix of styles, from swinging, West Coast jump blues to downhome Chicago blues and, in the case of Watson, even that Dixieland warhorse, "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Then came the biggest change-up for this year's fest - soul-bluesman Bobby Rush. While many of the white artists on Friday's show treated the blues as a reenactment - right down to their '40s and '50s clothing and pompadours - for Rush, the blues is completely contemporary.
With his three shimmying dancers and tight backup band, he sweated through a set of hard-driving, danceable R&B that had the audience sweating right along with him. He even threw in some old-school rhyming gymnastics, telling the audience, "The rappers stole that...from me and James Brown."
The Queen City Blues Fest continues today from 11 a.m.-10:45 p.m. The schedule includes morning instrumental and historical workshops and performances by Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, the Campbell Brothers, the Blind Boys of Mississippi, Rick Holmstrom, Darrell Nulisch, Sweet Alice Hoskins, Bill Perry and winners of the local Blues Challenge, Dick & the Roadmasters. In addition the Arches Piano Stage will feature a dozen top players, including local boogie king, Big Joe Duskin. Admission is $3; $5 after 6 p.m.
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