Bluesfest 2012 – A Review

By Lou Durnbeck
Lou Durnbeck
Lou Durnbeck

My head is just starting to clear after three days at the Windsor International Bluesfest, and I gotta tell ya – that was a heap ‘a fun!

First off, congrats to the organizers, sponsors, volunteers, and performers! It was quite a party, and everything seemed to go off without a hitch. There are mega details to pull off such a big event, and I was very happy to spend a few moments with key organizer Sheryl Davies to get the lowdown on preparations. It takes a lot of dedicated people, and plenty of hours to make an event like this come off as looking effortless – kinda like how the performers themselves make it look easy. I saw in Sheryl the qualities needed to run a big event successfully – confidence, focus, energy, genuine friendliness, tons of patience and kindness – along with a genuine love of music generally – blues especially – and seeing people enjoy themselves. And I suppose, as she said, this is the 18th Bluesfest, so by now, they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing! Great job!

Friday’s crowd was said to be over 10,000, and I’d say Saturday’s was at least as big. Sunday is always a bit quieter, but I think the three-day attendance average of 25,000 was easily reached—and a good time was had by all!

OK, here’s the skinny on the bands:

There were 16 time slots for the performers and I can’t cover them all here, but I particularly enjoyed the off-stage event sponsored by Long and McQuade Music early Sunday afternoon. They call it a clinic and it’s a chance to see some of the guitarists up close and get a few tips on playing while they do a little jamming. Hosted by L&M’s Kenny Koekstat, former head of Crime Stoppers, the guitarists included Reverend Raven, Randy Scott, Johnny V (Juno award winner, 1991 – now living nearby in Colchester) and Freddie Teiler from Mo’ Blues (Argentina). The guys took a few questions and played a few jams in various keys and with different feels, and it was great… like blues on the front porch, nice and easy.

It would be impossible to pick just one favourite, but my tastes run to old-school Chicago blues, so I really enjoyed Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. Their newest CD, Evening, is very much in the Chicago blues tradition yet fresh, compelling, and exciting.

These guys are Boston-based and led by Sugar Ray Norcia, singer and harp player who’s played with MANY of the true greats, old and new – as have the rest of the band members.

With Mudcat Ward on bass, “Monster” Mike Welch on guitar, “Little” Anthony Geraci on keys and Neil Gouvin on drums, the Bluetones represent some of the finest talent in the Blues today. More than that, they’re some of the nicest folks you could hope to meet! My partner Toni and I nearly bumped into Mudcat backstage (literally), and he graciously stopped for a chat and some pictures. Right behind him came Sugar, then Mike Welch, and later Neil. These guys all exude professionalism and the confidence that comes from performing with the very best for years. Google them, and you’ll be amazed at the depth of their experience and the contributions they’ve made to the history of the Blues. Each of them is a master at their craft, and their music is tasteful and true to the Blues. Mike Welsh can sing too! He poured his guts out vocally and on his guitar on a slow Blues in D that gave me goosebumps! They were FANTASTIC!

I wasn’t familiar with Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys before, but their brand of jumpin’ Chicago blues was extremely entertaining. They even did a walkabout through the audience with guitar AND sax, aided by wireless technology, and it was great to see a band keeping that old tradition alive! These guys played mostly a good-time jump boogie Blues and had the house a-rockin’! Loads of fun and talent, I had to get their new CD, Shake Your Boogie, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. The interplay of Big Al Groth’s sax with Reverend Raven’s spot-on guitar work and vocals is the very definition of good-time boogie, and when backed by the greasy groove of rhythm section PT Pedersen on bass and Bobby Lee Sellers Jr. on drums – hang onto your hat!

Big Brother and the Holding Company also rated very high for me, even though they’re a rock band and make no qualms about it. I remember their early days with Janis Joplin and didn’t expect that they could bring back the late 60’s over 40 years later without Janis herself – WAS I WRONG! The two original band members, Sam Andrews (guitar, vocals) and Peter Albin (bass, vocals) were supported by a crack squad of very skilled musicians and a singer (oh my God what a singer!) SOPHIA RAMOS – that had the crowd on their feet clapping, dancing – in awe of how she channelled Janis Joplin. If you closed your eyes, Janis was there and it was 1968 at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom all over again! Really quite amazing. And again I have to say, Sam and Peter were incredibly gracious and friendly, obviously loving the chance to perform and having buckets ‘o fun doing so!

There were some big-name acts in town, and all the performers did a great job. There are a few sub-stories of interest concerning the bands and the weekend, but I have to give a little nod to Popa Chubby before I sign off. Popa is a former NY punk rocker with Blues credentials, but he can play pretty much anything. His power trio was high-energy, loads of fun, and musically accomplished. Highly recommended!

The three days also included Howling Diablos (Detroit), Stacy Mitchhart (Funky Nashville), Edgar Winter (White Trash fame), Bobby Rush’s Big Band (naughty but very nice), Alto Reed and the Motor City Allstars (real-deal Motown Rock),

Reverend Robert Sexton’s Allstar Blues Review (think Blues Brothers), Mo’ Blues (Argentina), Jimmy Bowskill (artsy Blues-rock), the Brooks Family Blues Dynasty (Lonnie Brooks and sons) and Randy Scott (nice young man “Chasing the Dream” as winner of US “King of the Blues” nation-wide contest).

As Randy Scott said, it was an eye-opening experience with lots of lessons to be learned, but one thing really stood out: the more accomplished the musicians, the more successful, skilled and well-known – the humbler and kinder they were. That was my experience at the 18th Windsor International Bluesfest too, and I’m glad to have had a chance to see the action from both sides of the stage and to meet so many really nice people!

–Lou Durnbeck