The Tampa Bay Blues Festival

Sunday, 22 April 2012 12:00 AM Written by 

Since BlueNotes is still in Florida, we decided to spend some time last weekend at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, a three-day event that has a good and growing reputation.

I spent some time there Friday, Saturday and Sunday, although I didn't see everything -- there were some bands I wasn't all that interested in, and some times when it wasn't quite possible to be there.

But I got a good sample, and managed to see some new bands as well as revisit some old standbys. Like many blues festivals these days, there's always some acts that are not really blues, but Tampa Bay does a pretty good job of sticking close to the theme. They seemed to have a heavy dose of soul, or soul-blues, last weekend, but that was fine with me.

So here are some of my photos and a few of my thoughts about the bands I did see. A few were very pleasant surprises.

Johnny Rawls


On Friday afternoon, the first act I saw was Mississippi soul-blues singer Johnny Rawls, who I'd been hoping to see for a while now. I got to listen to his honeyfied whiskey vocals caress and shout fine blues and soul. Every blues festival everywhere should have a performer like Rawls. He really made my day.

Delta Groove Harp Blast


Dutch harpman "Big Pete" van der Pluijm, left, Al Blake, center, and Mitch Kashmar were the Delta Groove Harp Blast Friday afternoon. I especially enjoyed watching "Big Pete" for the first time, and listening his big fat harp tones. I guess the Mississippi saxophone gets around.

Roomful of Blues












Roomful of Blues trumpeter Doug Woolverton, above, takes his horn to another level while the band carried on as usual in a Friday evening show. I never get tired of these guys, their jump blues and their great horn section, and the torchy guitar playing of Chris Vachon.

The band was crisp and tight, as usual -- it's amazing that their sound has remained basically unchanged since the group's founding in the late '60s, and despite that fact that the only original member left is saxman Rich Lataille. Phil Pemberton is still handling the soulful, bluesy vocals.

Roomful's Phil Pemberton and Chris Vachon.















Toni Lynnn Washington


Toni Lynn Washington was another fine entry in the soul parade, and part of my Saturday lineup.

She was someone else I was looking forward to seeing, and her sensuous, sassy, smooth ballads and swinging blues did not disappoint.

She had a great honking sax player in her band named Doug James (once a Roomful of Blues saxman, I believe), and he worked especially hard to make "Leave My Man Alone" a great saxual bluesy romp.

The Mannish Boys

Sugaray Rayford works hard for the Mannish Boys.

I've only seen the Mannish Boys a couple of times in the past few years (once at Wheeling), but they are easily one of the best blues shows going. Lots of talent that produces lots of good old-fashioned blues. 

They represent some of the great blues acts (see Delta Groove Harp Blast above) focusing on West Coast blues at Delta Groove Records, run by Randy Chortkoff, who also plays a mean harp with the band.

Finis Tasby brings his own soul.
On Saturday, they had the sharp Kid Ramos and Frank Goldwasser on guitar (Goldwasser -- "Paris Slim" -- was appropriately nasty on slide).

But the MB's strong suits have to be the singers -- soulful Texan Finis Tasby, and a relatively new addition, fellow Texan Sugaray Rayford.

Rayford was one of those exciting surprises that comes along every once in a while at a festival, where you get to see performers for the first time. A big bear of a man with a voice to match, Rayford prowled the stage -- singing, dancing and humming (the man hums and moans the blues better than many can sing them.

Sure, Ramos scorched the stage with his guitar work, and "Big Pete" re-appeared to add massive harp tones, but Rayford grabbed you and shook you with huge sound from his magnificent pipes.

And just when you thought he couldn't possibly wring another ounce of soul from his frame, he poured out an amazing take on the Son House classic "Death Letter Blues," in a heart-rending tribute to the recent death of his grandmother. It was blues at its exhausting, emotional  finest.

Tasby finished strong, but even with his powerful high-lonesome vocals on standards like "Reconsider Baby" and "Black Night," it was an anti-climax.

James Cotton Band with Darrell Nulisch

Soulful Darrell Nulisch, left, with James Cotton.

James Cotton is still Superharp at 76, swooping and soaring with abandon, sounding almost like a full band, and making his harmonica do for the blues what his vocals no longer can. Darrell Nulisch provided the tough vocals, after Cotton opened with a lyrical instrumental version of "Sitting On Top of the World."

Nulisch, with a tough gritty style, followed with songs like "Don't You Know I Love You," "Rocket 88" and "Don't Start Me Talkin'." It was a bluesy, down-home adventure by a blues legend, and one of the best blue-eyed soul men in the business.

Trampled Under Foot

Danielle Schnebelen plays bass with Trampled Under Foot and provides most of the righteous vocals.

I took in the last three bands on Sunday to help shut things down, and found a new favorite, an old favorite and other-worldly experience with the Screaming Eagle of Soul.

The new favorite was Trampled Under Foot, a very talented young band from Kansas City, featuring a very TUF singer, Danielle Schnebelen, who plays bass, and brothers Nick on guitar and Kris on drums (they all sing, too, and Nick wields a fiery axe). Danielle is a big-voiced blues shouter who knows how to have her way with a lyric and a beat. I wish I could tell you that I wrote down some of the songs they played, but it was too much fun to listen and take photos. I can tell you that once I thought I heard echoes of the young Lydia Pense in some of her vocals. (C'mon, I know you remember Lydia Pense.)

Charles Bradley

bradley_300I don't know if you've ever seen Charles Bradley. I think he performed at the Rex Theater not too long ago -- I'd never seen him until this fest.

His nickname used to be "Black Velvet," but now he seems to be known as the "Screaming Eagle of Soul," and that sounds a little closer to the mark.

He begged, he pleaded, he testified, he put on same James Brown dance moves (he once did Brown routines in a club act), and even tackled a few Brown songs. His life seems to have been full of travels and travails, and the hard luck and trouble all comes out in in what you might call "scream therapy blues." 

Delbert McClinton

Delbert always seems to have a good time.

Now I know that Delbert McClinton is not really a blues artist. "Nobody knows what to call me," he told me once. But he keeps turning up at blues festivals, and that's alright with me, since I'm a big fan of his sorta bluesy, sorta rootsy, sorta Texas, sorta roadhouse, sorta country style(s). His band always crackles, his songs are all finely-crafted little slices of life, and at 71, he can still make the lyrics sparkle. And he doesn't skimp on the songs in order to deliver some chatter -- he just pours out the songs, one right after the other.

He closed out Sunday night and the Tampa Bay festival, and not too many people left before he was done. I certainly didn't.

What else was there?

Well, I skipped or missed a few bands (it was a good weekend lineup), including Tower of Power, Los Lonely Boys, Jimmie Vaughan, Jimmy Thackery, Albert Castiglia, Alexis Suter and Eugene Bridges.

The blues on the bay makes for a great festival, in a great setting, and plenty to look at between the shows. I did not see any funnel cakes or pierogis. But I did enjoy the view:


All photos by Jim White.

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