With Rochester, NY in the midst of a heat wave many were hoping for it to cool down, not I. Ya see, I love the heat and what it brings to this town. Besides short skirts and cut off jeans, it brings to town the Big Rib BBQ & Blues Festival – four days and nights of sumptuous BBQ from around the nation, well world actually – I still believe Canada is a separate nation.
Brought to us by Rochester Events wherein each year we are treated to some serious Q and damn fine Blues music. Now one would think that the city where the most northern part of the Underground Railroad terminated, the home of Frederick Douglass, even Susan B. Anthony spent time not far from here. But also the adopted home of the famous Son House, you know the guy who along with Howlin’ Wolf laughed Robert Johnson and berated him off their stage during a break cos he was annoying and scaring people with his lackluster playing. Well Son was here and this is where he was re-discovered by six white guys who knew his music better than he did at that point. Well this town ain’t known for Blues, and it’s kinda sad. Yeh the Dinosaur brings in a few national acts and The Abilene Bar is trying hard to fill a void, and a few other places but overall if you want the Blues ya gotta travel to find them.
So this is why it is so very cool, and appreciated, that The Big Rib hits town like clockwork. In the spacious natural outdoor amphitheater of Highland Park we are treated to some fine Local as well as sterling National acts that otherwise wouldn’t know Rochester exists. Plus some of the best BBQ pit masters around.
This year we had a great line-up from day one. Featuring the young swinging Teagan & The Tweeds who have an infectious jive to their stage attitude while doing both covers and originals. They are more, what one might call, American Roots Music, but leave no doubt these kids got the Blues in their family tree. Just as the sun was starting it’s descent Big Sam’s Funky Nation hit the stage and let everyone know that it was time to shake what yer mama gave you. Coming in from New Orleans they brought in the funk,, junk-in-the-trunk, shake .em on down party spirit that had the entire crowd gettin’ down and smilin’ about it too.
Day two showed how skilled and generous of their time musicians can be, a cancellation or something brought us an amalgam of two local bands, Prime Time Funk and Hot Sweets. These pros hit the stage and covered everything from James Taylor to Stevie Wonder – and damn well too. Horns, amazing keys and vocals solid guitar just got us started on the right path for what was to follow.
Mr. Joe Beard, Rochester’s very own real-deal Blues man. Oh yeh, remember that Son House guy, well Mr. Beard and Mr. House go way back. Their friendship was epic here in Rochester and Joe still has to be one of the best shuffle kings out there. Ya know what was really nice to see, his fans and the crowd getting behind him and showing him the love he deserved and the respect he demands by his presence. A smooth talker and quite the funny guy Mr. Beard reminded us that the blues can be laid back and humble yet still pack a punch.
The knock out blow was delivered by Mr. Robert Cray. I mean knocked out loaded, like a Muhammed Ali right cross – POW. Mr. Cray and his well tuned cohorts (Richard Cousins on Bass, Jim Pugh master of the keyboards, and Tony Braunagel on drums) owned the night time crowd. I admit as to never seeing Mr. Cray so animated, personable and full of fun before. He was playing with ease and heart, and his voice was proof that he, may very well, be one of the finest soul/R&B singing blues men around.
Relaxed, casual joking with the audience Mr. Cray and band were in complete control. Even when he had to deal with an obstreperous guitar, he just shrugged it off and agreed with the crowd sentiment of ‘you don’t need that one, you’re doing just fine with the one you got in your hands’. With seriously professional and tasty work by Mr. Pugh on keyboards, incendiary bass work and stage-prowling by Mr. Cousins all the while Mr. Braunagel beat out the rhythm of the ages on the drums, they left he crowd wanting more but alas, the ten o’clock curfew had arrived and it was time to go.
One really fun part is to sample the five different BBQ Pit Masters that are featured at the fest. These folks make their money by competing in events around the country and there is enough hardware on display to impress even the most jaded of us in the crowd. This year they ranged from Memphis, Port St. Lucie, Aledo & Willis Texas, and one from Ontario Canada. All were very good, eacjh featuring varying sauces and even the sides were impressive. Each one took home some more of that hardware to display at the next cook off. Willinghams of Memphis won best rib and they even brought their own home made rub to the fest.
And yet there was another day to be had, Saturday. But this Saturday started ominously for me, a flat tire led to over an hour of lost time and I was so hoping to see Matt Schofield at 5:30. It was nigh-on 6:00PM when we got there, but it wasn’t young Mr. Schofield, it was the Reveleations featuring Tre’ Williams. It seems Matt & Band were held up at the border (traffic, not the band, but real cars). So showing ultimate compassion and cooperation The Revelations agreed to swap spots and play till Matt got thru customs.
Well this boy was glad they did ! Soulful deep Mississippi sounds mixed with funk, hip-hop rock and the blues dripped off this band like sweat off the crowd in the 90+ weather. Mr. Williams is one fine soul singer, and the Revelations are soon to be the torch carriers of the sweet soul music that we have loved all our lives. They will get more exposure and very soon, look out, they will be a force in music. Gentlemen thank you for swapping times and thank you for some down home blues and soul.
That led to Mr. Matt Schofield and his band (Jonny Henderson, keys: Kevin Hayes drums). Matt is a young gun in the blues world. Last year he won the top guitarist and best album in the British Blues Awards. That is quite an accomplishment considering some of the great Brit’s that swing the axe. Well better late than never, they hit it right away and treated us to some of the most wonderful improvisational blues string bending I’ve yet to see outside of a pro-jam. With an experienced and nimble band at his side Matt was able to give us his interpretations of how the Blues are to be played. With influences ranging from the three kings of the Blues Albert, B.B., and Freddy, then throw in some Beatles licks a little Stevie Ray Vaughn and a big spoonful of one of the most original players out there – himself, Matt Schofield – and this guy had everyone on their heels. It is always interesting to watch crowds in situations like this. Maybe a third (generously speaking) had heard of him, so they stood back, chillin’ in their lawn chairs and as the set went on there was a crush around the front of the stage where he held sway and left with everyone in attendance knowing his name.
Personable, polite, accomplished and just happy to be playing his music for us he signed autographs and then dove into the first rate BBQ that was waiting for him. A sample taste of ribs from the winning rib joint Willinghams, he then dove lustily into their B.B. King BBQ chicken and wore it with pride. Smiling and looking very comfy with chicken and beer in his hand, Matt was thrilled to be able to play here and expose more people to what he believes is his calling. Look out for this young man, go see him if he comes to your town and tell him Blues411 sent ya. He will smile and his eyes will glint at the thought. Oh yeh, stay tuned for a sparkling interview with young Matt, a super one if I say so myself.
We did not make the fourth day, just plum wiped out from too many long nights and too little rest finally caught up with us. But I look back and wish to thank Mr. Jeff Springut for once again giving us all a chance to see some fine Blues acts and keeping this music alive. See ya next year.
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Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: Leslie K. Joseph