It was a hot, muggy afternoon when the 2012 New York State Blues Festival kicked off in downtown’s Clinton Square on Friday, July 13. The dense, moist air foreshadowed the downpours that would follow, but it didn’t deter blues fans from Hamilton, Buffalo, Pennsylvania and Florida, to name a few.
President and producer of the fest Todd Fitzsimmons opened the show at 4:30 p.m. by recognizing the intelligence of the small crowd that came out early for a rare acoustic set from Anders Osborne and his New Orleans neighbor Johnny Sansone. “We brought in some New Orleans weather,” Osborne joked as Fitzsimmons duct-taped a red-and-white-striped umbrella behind the triple-threat guitarist/singer/songwriter to help shade him from the sun. “It’s hotter here than in New Orleans,” he revealed. Go figure.
The relaxed, comfortable duo, also accompanied by Osborne’s “upright” bassist (he propped his electric bass like an upright), Carl Dufrene, opened with “Summertime in New Orleans,” an appropriate tune of raw, bare and beautiful simplicity. Though on Osborne’s 2007 album Coming Down (M.C. Records) the same song enjoys similar stripped-down qualities, with a stark piano and light drums, with only Osborne, Sansone and Dufrene, the song took on different qualities, leaning on the sturdy, but emotional vocals of Osborne and carefully intermittent additions of Sansone. Though the two joked that even as neighbors in NOLA, the only way they see each other is when they play a festival in New York, they complemented each other naturally.
Within the first song, feedback became an issue, but it was quickly
resolved and as Osborne pushed through it and came to the bridge, he hit
a moment of silence as an ambulance siren went blaring by. He stopped,
looked around and cracked a smile, letting the audience onto his sense
The blue-jeaned bluesmen continued their relaxed set, slowly making their way through whichever song Osborne pulled from his iPad, which hung from his microphone stand. “I can play whatever song I want—technology!” he said.
They played through “Ash Wednesday Blues” from Osborne’s 2001’s album of the same title (Shanachie Records) and some of Sansone’s material as well, all along the way demonstrating their incredible sensitivity and knowledge of how to use subtlety and nuance to enhance a performance. Sansone seemed to sit back, wise and calm, while Osborne took on a character reminiscent of Val Kilmer’s role as Doc Holiday in the 1993 film Tombstone—witty, charming and devilish.
Most of the set was defined by the soft singer/songwriter vibe that comes with acoustic guitars and touches of harmonica, but when Sansone opened up to growl and bellow his vocals and Osborne broke out some steaming slide on a beat-up Fender, it was an effective teaser for the electric set to come. “We’re gonna be rocking in a minute,” Osborne warned in reference to the 6:30 p.m. set. “You won’t understand anything we’re singing then.”
Mick Hayes started quickly following the close of the Osborne/Sansone
acoustic set, bursting into a jazzy take of The Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”
It was a tight, funky groove, but felt misplaced in the blues-tinged
venue. After a smooth-jazz take on “Just the Two of Us,” Hayes finally
dove into the music people anticipated. The resonator guitar came out
and the blues got cooking.
Hayes is a gritty guitarist with a nasty knack for slide. When the Buffalo native and his band ripped into “old-fashioned blues that will make you wanna dance,” as Hayes said, the audience responded with an en-masse toe-tapping. Hayes swayed the group between smoothed out tunes and rough and ragged blues, but the latter came out as the clear-cut favorite.
Attention moved back to the Syracuse New Times Stage (along Water Street) for Osborne’s return, this time transformed into a wild child, tie-dyed, Hendrix-like romp through riffs. While Osborne’s blond hair had been pulled back for his earlier intimate acoustic performance, this time it flowed, unkempt and unruly, perfect for swinging as he ripped into his heavy blues rock marathon.
While songs like, “On the Road to Charlie Parker,” from 2010’s American Patchwork (Alligator Records), can hook an ear as an album cut, live they’re as addictive as nicotine. Osborne’s quick switches from slide to fingering and brutal riff exchanges with Dufrene bumped the songs up another level. No home-bound speakers or HD quality video can do justice to the feeling of loud, ripping guitars digging into your vibrating bones. Jimi would have been proud.
Sansone joined Osborne again during the set, bringing a lighter sound, though still with a ragged edge, and accented the songs with a tinge of zydeco, his harmonica reminiscent of a bouncing accordion. Still, the set remained primarily full of rough, long jams and as it neared the end, rain started to pitter patter, with Osborne appropriately singing, “I’ve got a woman/ and she ain’t no fair-weather friend.” After effectively proving his versatility as a sweet and soft singer/songwriter and a rough and tough heavy rocker, the music moved on to the highly anticipated MonkeyJunk.
“Boom” goes the thunder, or in this case—double guitars. MJ let on quickly that they could provide the perfect rain-dance music as the skies opened up—loud and pounding with thick, heavy grooves to shake, dance and stomp to. The crowd ate it up.
Though it was raining as hard as ever, fest fans hung tight and enjoyed the relief from the oppressive, earlier heat while relishing the soulful, gritty blues of this Canadian trio. Deliberate low-register lines and spare drums defined the sound, one not obstructed by excessive flourishes or embellishments, but leaning on the digging trio parts—guitar, baritone guitar and drums—with an occasional addition of ripping harmonica from guitarist/vocalist Steve Marriner. Presented with the challenge of being a first night act at their first stateside festival, MJ walked away a crowd-favorite made obvious by the troupe of dancers they coaxed out and the excitement that immediately started buzzing around their Saturday Club Crawl set at the Westcott Theater (see accompanying story).
The rain had fluctuated between light and hard by the time Matt Schofield came on, finally settling on steady and hard enough to cool the place down, but not enough to turn it off. The crowd that stuck through clearly wanted to be there and the energy only increased thanks to Mother Nature’s challenge.
Bodies danced close in front of the stage, pressed up to it, or sat
right on it as the Schofield trio embarked on a set of highly emotional,
Hammond B3-enhanced blues. Schofield excelled in both slow blues songs
like “See Me Through” and straight-ahead rowdy jams like “Stranger
Moods,” always pushing the passion with each tune.
His guitar solos were steaming, his fast fingers working like a poker prodding a fire; Hammond player Jonny Henderson kept it all grounded, but moving, by playing the bright B3 additions as well as a keys-created bassline. Schofield ended the set by tearing and grinding it all to pieces by furiously slaying his guitar, delivering the second heavy dose of riffs for the night, though it wouldn’t be the last.
Crowds split for home or Club Crawl events, though unfortunately few made it to the Westcott Theater for the British-born Oli Brown. He’s got a young face and a head of wild curls, but his guitar playing and vocals are mature and professional. The trio played through originals including “Speechless” and “Mr. Wilson,” where they most effectively hit their rocking stride, as well as covers like “Next Girl” from The Black Keys’ 2010 album Brothers (Nonesuch), a record Brown highly recommended to his small audience.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Brown and his boys taking the main stage of the fest within a few years, given their tight show despite the sorry turn-out. Crowd or not, the dudes delivered—a sign of true dedication.
Schofield was scheduled to play at midnight, but the soulful second set didn’t get under way until 12:40 a.m. and wrapped up quickly, around 1:20 a.m. Unfortunately, Schofield and his band, despite their recently proven talent as downtown Friday night closers, also did not play to the crowd size they deserved. With audiences being split between two venues and among them, three rooms of late-night music, and no shuttles to shuffle them between, it was tough to draw crowds to the Westcott Nation venue, especially on the first night of the newly reinstated Club Crawl portion of the event.