Sunday looked ominous at the start, but eventually broke into sunshine and 90-plus degree heat for the third day of the steaming-hot fest. But the heat increased once Neal took the stage.
Neal’s band was one of the very best of the weekend and he is as multi-talented and skilled a front man as they come. Whether belting the blues, slaying a guitar, ripping it on harmonica—or as he’d show off later in the day, bangin’ on the bass guitar—Neal has command of every aspect of the show. With perfect control over his own vocal and instrumental lines as well as an incredible stage presence and band leader approach, he and the band played very specifically to the Syracuse crowd, with Neal singing, “I’m goin’ to New York.” The people sang back.
“We call this gutbucket music down in Louisiana,” Neal said as he traded guitar for harp. “Ya’ll ready to get lowdown?”
Neal and his band, with bassist Darnell Neal (his brother), Frederick Neal (another brother) and drummer Bryan Morris, kept incredibly tight, thanks especially to some of the best drumming of the weekend. Morris’ layered rhythms fueled the jams as Neal pointed out, “none of this is rehearsed, y’all” and all of it was done with smiles on faces, especially Kenny Neal’s.
But the audience was reminded of the blues before the final song, “You’ve Got to Hurt Before You Heal,” from Neal’s 2008 album Let Life Flow (Blind Pig), a song which addresses the deaths of Neal’s father, brother and murdered sister, all which happened within 11 months of each other in 2005. The soulful ballad left eyes wet thanks to brutally real lyrics delivered with Neal’s raw, passionate voice and the heart-tugging slow, deliberate sounds behind it.
Local blues troupe, Stevie Wolf & Blues Express hopped up next and took a trip back to jump blues, swinging songs like “Just A Little Bit” and the classic, “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Wolf, who is originally “from the Mississippi Delta by way of Chicago,” he said during the set, keeps his blues alive with a group that’s worth looking up for local gigs.
The big band of Chris O’Leary, a proud marine, who looks the part, brought a massive sound to the crowds as he was joined on stage by six other musicians—playing saxophones, guitar, bass, drums and an additional vocalist. His guitarist, Chris Vitarello, impressed with style and speed while his bassist, Frankie Ingrao, rocked a black upright with flames painted on, reaching up from the bottom. O’Leary is another effective bandleader who kept things tight, perhaps also a result of his marine background which he referenced in his song, “Soldier’s Blues,” one dedicated to all armed forces veterans.
The more O’Leary the sang, the more clear it became why he was chosen. He had performed with Grammy-winner Levon Helms’ Band, The Barnburners, for six years. He kept it up right through the set’s close with a rousing train song of chugging drums, high-pitched whistles, rolling horns and a booming bassline. They chugged on through a long, foot-stompin’ jam until it pulled up at the next stop: The Double Barrel Blues Band.
Guitarists Mark Cloutier and John Hart traded riffs until Hart snapped a string, quickly swapping out guitars and jumping back into the jam. Tunes went from smooth and sexy, thanks to the dark fifth, Cloutier explained, to whammy-powered and grinding with some slide in between. Hendrix, B.B. King and Muddy Waters all got recognized and drawn from throughout the set, one that wrapped up rough and raw, just as some dirty, double barrel blues should.
Things stayed edgy as the ever-popular Carolyn Wonderland came to the Syracuse New Times Stage for a seated set that couldn’t help but remind listeners of a red-headed Janis Joplin. As Wonderland swung her long hair around and tore her guitar up, top to bottom, her detailed vocals swung from wailing to perfectly precise.
For all the males tossing guitars around the stage all weekend, to see Wonderland’s deft ability around the frets and to hear her dig into the groove with her keys player Cole El-Saleh and drummer Rob Hooper was refreshing. The Austin-based trio delivered every ounce of Southern rock with a tasty twang, enough to garner standing ovations before the set came to a close.
Though soft spoken between songs, Wonderland’s powerful howl came out
in several songs including the devastatingly rocking “Walk On” from
2008’s Misunderstood (Bismeaux Productions) and the gospel-fueled
“When I Go Away,” by Larry Campbell. Her round, smooth voice projected
even when she fell far back from the mike, letting its force and soul
carry it out.
And while Wonderland was astounding listeners in front of the stage, other magic was happening around the corner. Kenny Neal and his bandmates took a stroll to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que to join local guitarist Phil Petroff, bassist Creamo and drummer Lenny Milano in the outdoor Boneyard venue behind the barbecue joint for a quick and rowdy set of blistering, no-rules blues. Instruments flew around as did musicians, with several harp players taking turns and Neal taking the lead on every instrument he could grab aside from the drums. Though he sticks to guitar, vocals and harp on stage, he can get downright dirty on the bass, just as good, or better, than the rest. It was a true visit into the fun of the blues—you never know who’s gonna show up—but you do know they’re gonna play.
Back at Clinton Square, things stayed strong with the Soul of Syracuse, a band with power in numbers, as the stage crowded with various local blueshounds including Todd Fitzsimmons, Mark Hoffmann, Gerry Neely, Terry Mulhouser and others. While the big band got set, Fitzsimmons took a moment to recognize the local and much loved and missed KJ James, who passed away in January and explained the meaning behind the KJ James Memorial Scholarship, awarded for the first time on Sunday.
“Kelly would always give warm encouragement,” Fitzsimmons said. “He always showed up, supported, loved.” Fitzsimmons also recognized the Blues Festival board of directors for their work, specifically, new marketing director Julie Briggs, as well as a group of individuals awarded Purple Badges—lifetime VIP badges good for every Blues Festival they attend in the future. Those included blues stalwart, Tom Townsley, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que founder and CEO John Stage and local blues guru Kyle Shirley.
The group on stage was big, but the sound was bigger as the local blues family broke into songs all played in memory of James, aka Dr. Blue. Harmonica player Pete McMahon joined the stage as well to take the vocal and harp lead on a few tunes including “44” and a Howlin’ Wolf to Albert King jam.
While the band rotated, Fitzsimmons announced the addition of several others into the Blues Hall of Fame that Cavallo had been named to on Saturday: the great singer/songwriter/guitarist, Libba Cotten, James, Townsley and the much-loved, respected and remembered blues singer and guitarist Roosevelt Dean.
“The most soulful voice in Syracuse” as described by Fitzsimmons was then invited to the stage. Carolyn Kelly didn’t fail to bring the soul everyone expected as she belted. Tears welled up again following the song when Carol James, KJ James’ wife, was invited to the stage to speak about her husband, though she could only manage a few sentences. She got out what mattered most saying, “The blues is going to stay alive in Syracuse.”
The winner of the KJ James Memorial Scholarship, guitarist Michael DuFresne, was then invited to the stage along with the runner-up, 10-year-old Chandler Carter, and the entire stage blew into a ripping version of Elmore James, “Talk to Me Baby (I Can’t Hold Out),” with both students completely justifying their place among the pros. The soulful set closed with a chill-inducing version of “Amazing Grace” led by Kelly, a rousing finish to the emotionally charged set.
Finally, the weekend came to its final act. Though it took 15 minutes of sound-struggling to set the stage for the band composed of four members of the incredibly influential 1970s group War, it was worth it to hear The Lowrider Band bring to life their songs known around the world.
The masters of big-sound-jams took the stage—original members Howard Scott (guitar), Harold Brown (drums), Lee Oskar (harmonica) and B.B. Dickerson (bass) with new additions Lance Ellis (sax), Telvis Ward (keyboards) and Chuk Barber (percussion). As they locked into one funky groove after another, people danced more and more, loosening with the band. “The World is a Ghetto,” the of-course anticipated “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” all made the set list, with surprises along the way, including a trip into the audience from Scott who let a woman and child sing into the microphone (the kid wasn’t bad).
The socially charged music rang with new meaning, now 40 years later, but the members remain armed with the same skill and passion. Osker and Ellis (who was celebrating his birthday) especially lit up the unfortunately mid-sized crowd with solos while the solid rhythm section kept the beat bouncing in the cooling Clinton Square.
Despite a newly introduced festival admission charge, change in location and trying heat, the 2012 NYS Blues Fest still managed to deliver an incredibly high caliber of music for a price well worth the payoff. Fest organizers estimate crowds were between 5,000 and 6,000, half their goal. However, despite the somewhat rocky Friday night for Club Crawl attendance, the wild atmosphere surrounding the Saturday night sets reminds of days past when the Hotel Syracuse used to fill with blues lovers and makers of all kinds. The mojo is still there.
Though there’s work to be done to smooth out operations for next year and attendance was not nearly what fest organizers had hoped, if the Blues Fest keeps pulling in the expected ringers, like Anders Osborne, Kenny Neal and Carolyn Wonderland and under-the radar rising stars like MonkeyJunk, Oli Brown and perhaps even our own DuFrensne and Carter, Carol James is absolutely correct, the blues and the Blues Fest, will stay alive in Syracuse.