Review: 18th Annual Chenango Blues Fest an unprecedented success

NORWICH – If anything, the Chenango Blues Fest and its Board of Directors can be summed up with one word – consistent.

For the last 18 years, this group of friends, along with a small army of volunteers, has offered up some of the nation’s top musical talent and this year was no different. As Board of Directors President Eric Larsen said to open the festival, “We work all year and it’s the best day-and-a-half we have.”

While I certainly don’t work all year the way they do, I must admit it is my favorite weekend of the summer and it’s exciting to see how big this event has become in the last two decades.

Amazingly, the 2010 Blues Fest broke every prior attendance record, not only for the Summer Concert Series, but also the Friday night show and the festival itself.

Kicking things off Friday, on a perfect summer evening, were Syracuse-based Los Blancos, who did not disappoint. Colin Aberdeen’s swampy slide guitar provided a perfect opening for New Orleans’ own Honey Island Swamp band, and Los Blancos had the crowd going from note one. There’s a reason these guys are considered one of the best regional acts around and they proved it with a blend of hard shuffles, tight harmonies and some solid extended jams.

The Honey Island Swamp Band, as I expected, were just about the nicest, most down to earth bunch of guys I’ve ever met. I was instantly greeted by guitarist Chris Mulé and mandolinist Aaron Wilkinson, who honestly made me feel like I was a member of the band – and what a band.

As good as I’ve always found this group to be, Friday night’s performance ranks right up there as one of the best I’ve seen on opening night at Blues Fest. Straight-up New Orleans’-style swamp boogie Americana, with elements of The Band, the Grateful Dead and Little Feat thrown in. Add some inspired improvisation and you’ve got a recipe for success. There’s just something magical that happens when you put five extraordinary musicians in front of an enthusiastic crowd that can not be recreated in the studio, and the Honey Island Swamp Band are masters of the craft.

Blues Fest itself kicked off at noon on Saturday with one of the larger early crowds I’ve ever seen, and the Asamu Johnson Project were on hand to take advantage.

From experience, I know just how difficult it can be to take to the stage at mid-day when you’re used to dark, smoky bars and theaters, but the Asamu Johnson Project were obviously prepared. What followed was a excellent first offering, with fantastic vocal and guitar interplay by the father-son combination of Mike Howe and Mike Howe, Sr.

From traditional blues to a lovely Santana-inspired Latin blues, this group had a little bit of everything for everybody.

Harmonica player and vocalist John Nemeth hit the Main Stage next, another extremely gracious and friendly individual. Hours after he finished performing his powerful set of R&B and blues originals, Nemeth could be found backstage chatting or visiting with fans in the artist’s tent. As to his vocal talents, the man sounded like Otis Redding in his prime, a very energetic performance.

I was definitely impressed by what occurred next, however. Without a trace of panic, Blues Fest organizers arranged for Watermelon Slim to switch spots with Guitar Shorty, who happened to be stuck in traffic. It’s a testament to the respect these individuals and bands have for each other and it went off with nary a hitch.

Featuring his signature lap-top guitar, Slim brought the festival back to life and I’ve rarely heard a band so tight. These guys were like a machine and it was then I began considering this year’s festival may very well be the best I’ve attended. A short time later Guitar Shorty hit the stage and I knew it was.

At 70 years old, Shorty deserves all the respect due any elder statesman for the blues, but I was completely unprepared for his playing. No joke, this guy was a monster on the guitar, easily one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever experienced. Soaring guitar solos mixed with an intensity that was almost frightening from the hands of a 70 year old man, performed better than guitarists half his age. The guy even drives the band’s van. Absolutely priceless.

As for the talented Marcia Ball, I only got to experience a short bit of her set as headliner, yet Larsen, who’s “probably seen her more than any other artist,” said he found the performance to be one of her best.

“They really played fantastic, came out for a 15 minute encore and just played at a high intensity,” he added.

Interspersed throughout the day were some excellent acoustic performances by Dom Flemons, E.G. Kight, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines and Norwich’s own Tim Andrews, who filled in due to Guitar Shorty’s lateness forcing back-to-back Main Stage performances.

“We had to ride the wind there for a little bit, but there were a lot of great performances,” said Larsen. “I thought everyone brought their A-game and in 364 days we’re going to do it all over again.”

For me, that’s 364 days too long.

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