Sunday, August 3, 2003

Lonnie Mack makes Blues Fest shine

Concert review

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Queen City Blues Fest had its mojo working again Saturday, as the thunderstorms that had been predicted all weekend never appeared.

At worst, it drizzled a little during the Campbell Brothers' climactic closing set, the weekend's biggest musical storm.

That group's sanctified blues, an irresistible mix of foot-stomping Southern gospel with the slippery, serpentine sounds of steel guitars, was by far the best in show this weekend. It was made even better by the unbilled presence of guitar great Lonnie Mack, who drove up from Nashville to play with the Campbells at his own expense.

"These guys are my heroes. I'm so proud to be here with them," he told the cheering crowd of almost 12,000 after he led them through signature song "Cincinnati Jail."

The Campbells' set closed off an exciting triple play that had begun with guitarist Rick Holmstrom's innovative performance. In such tunes as "Shake It (Part 2)," he mixed fine West Cost-style jump blues guitar with electronic samples. But the quieter sections of his psycho-blues raveup, "Pee Wee's Nightmare," were obliterated by the bleed-over from the gospel stage, which this year was placed much too close to the P&G Pavilion, the main stage of the fest.

Blues icon Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown followed Holmstrom with an eclectic show short on real blues ("Strange Things Happening") but featuring swinging jazz ("One O'clock Jump"), Cajun/country ("When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," played on fiddle) and even the easy-listening cha-cha sounds of "Unchained Melody."

The other two stages kept strictly to their mandates, as the gospel stage presented an assortment of groups, the most exciting of which was Sjuwana Byers & the Children of God. Backed by a tight gospel rhythm section, Sjuwana led the vocal group with her huge voice, superstar confidence and brilliant sense of tension and release.

Saturday's Piano Stage featured some fine talents, including local boogie king Big Joe Duskin, the dynamic Rob Rio and ex-Saffire member Ann Rabson, but it's time to change that format. Friday's acoustic blues lineup was the best yet, and it packed the plaza around the Cincinnatus statue, helping bring Friday's total attendance to around 7,000 (for a weekend total of almost 20,000). Mixing it up, alternating piano and guitar acts throughout the weekend, would make the acoustic stage more attractive to a wider audience that prefers quieter blues sounds. And how many versions of the boogie-piano warhorse "Down the Road Apiece" can piano-stage organizers expect people to sit through in one day?

Stretching the blues envelope is a good thing, as the near-hysterical response to the Campbell Brothers' sacred steel music showed. Their performance was the Queen City Blues Fest at its best - great musicians playing powerful, emotionally uplifting music for a wildly appreciative crowd. Add to that the homecoming of Mack, a true guitar hero, and you have arguably the single best moment in the Queen City Blues Fest's 10-year history.

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