2005 Chenango Blues Festival
October 5, 2005 Norwich, New York
By Chip Eagle
As I stand in the Blues Revue/BluesWax booth speaking with Blues fans on the festival trail many weeks of the year, one question invariable rises: What's your favorite festival?
What follows is a list of the great and wonderful Blues experiences available to the fan willing to travel a bit, but inevitably I will mention the word "Chenango." This is usually met with a curious look and a "What's that?"
I will politely reply that it is in New York. This is often met with an even more incredulous look, especially when the questioner is them self from New York.
Such are the thoughts that entered my mind and made me smile as I pulled off of Interstate 81, which connects Binghamton and Syracuse, New York, and headed east on a two-lane road. Getting more rural with each mile, this road rolls through little towns and what once were little towns to the small, but mighty village of Norwich, New York, the home of the equally mighty Chenango Blues Festival.
With the windows lowered to taste the countryside as the evening comes on, as per my personal tradition I have Mark Lemhouse playing on the rental car stereo. With too many curves and cautions to really build up speed, it is better to just lose the pressures of work and travel and enjoy a landscape that is much more reminiscent of Wisconsin dairy land than what the typical Midwesterner might think of as New York. Hell, last year I had to slow the car to let a flock of fat white ducks cross the road!
Going to the Chenango Blues Festival is like a homecoming of sorts, as it really is for the people who make it possible. Founded more than a dozen years ago by a bunch of drinking buddies who watched a local organization fail miserably at an attempt to put on a music event, it has become an annual gathering for this group of friends. Led by Eric and Pam Larsen, they put together a festival that they want to attend and the result is one of the best little one-day Blues festivals in the country.
Well, it is really more than just one day as the Chenangans (I made that up) always offer the town a little free prelude to what will come on Saturday with a couple of cool Friday evening events. The first is a solo acoustic show at the Guernesy Memorial Library in the center of town. Last year I wrote about the great packed-to-the-parking lot show that Paul Geremia put on. This year Kenny Neal took his turn in the backroom of the library and once again it was standing room only as Neal played old favorites and acoustic versions of his more electric tunes. The fans loved it and it was interesting to note that the library's Blues collection had grown over the year. Norwich loves its Blues!
After the library show, it was time to head a few blocks away to the Chenango County Fairgrounds. There a crowd was gathering around and under what tomorrow would be the acoustic stage, but where tonight there was a big ol' Blues party. This is a very casual event and is free to the public. It was easy to tell from the parking lot that more Blues fans are discovering this fun event. The show was opened by a group of local players, The Broad Street Blues Band. They competently worked through some standards and a couple of originals and got things off to a good start. About this time a somewhat dated tour bus pulled in and Motor City Josh and his band, The Big 3, unloaded and got set up. Josh and boys are hard-touring road band and work hard to make things fun for themselves and their audience. Despite winning several awards as a songwriter and acoustic player, including a second place finish in the International Blues Challenge Solo/Acoustic division a couple of years ago, tonight he was going to make things happen with his interesting spectrum of music from Detroit Funk and Hendrix-inspired Blues to down and dirty Southern Rock and Country. The highlights were probably when he leaned toward the latter style as on the songs on his uniquely themed "fishing" album, Stringer Full of Blues, and his anthem for his hometown, "Detroit, Michigan." The night ended with a roar and a promise of things to come.
As might be expected, it is pretty easy to figure out where to go. The bulk of the town faces on Broad Street and about a block off of city center is The Music Box Pub, home of the Blues in Norwich. Tonight they were featuring some fine acoustic Blues and the place was full with local regulars rubbing elbows with the Blues travelers.
The Chenango Blues Festival opened at noon on Saturday with the Badweather Blues Band opening on the Main Stage. Playing a good mix of R&B and Blues, this Binghamton-based band was a hit and a good festival opener.
But things really heated up with the Zydeco master Terrance Simien and his Zydeco Experience. Simien and company never slowed down as the jumped through genres mixing up Folk, Jam, Blues into the real Creole tradition.
One of the best things about Chenango is that they have two venues, the Main Stage and the Acoustic Tent, strategically placed at opposite ends of the fairgrounds and playing on opposite schedules. So after Terrance Simien finally closed down on the Main Stage, it was time for everyone to leave their lawn chairs and blankets to head to the Acoustic Tent. The path is ringed with numerous venders of barbeque, Greek food, and many other options, as well as assorted merchandise, including a popular selection of used and new CDs from Blue Wave Records out of Syracuse. This gig is so down home that there was even a high school reunion in a tent!
The reason to head to the Acoustic Tent was a good one: Kenny Neal and Billy Branch were raring to go with there unique mélange of Chicago and Swampy Blues. Touring this summer in celebration of their Handy Award for "Best Acoustic Blues Album" for Double Take, these guys were at the top of their game. Individually Neal and Branch are a couple of the best in the business, but together they create a great magic that the crowd loved.
It was back to the Main Stage for the Georgia Songbird, EG Kight. Kight opened right up and got the crowd to their feet with her well-written and Country-influenced writing. It is always a treat to hear EG sing tribute to her Blues inspiration, Etta James and once again it got the crowd in a good spirit, as did her trademark "Southern Comfort." When EG Kight talks about Southern Comfort she ain't talkin' about drinkin', if you know what I mean.
It was obvious from how the area in front of the Main Stage emptied out, that many people were here to catch the British Blues legend Kim Simmonds playing acoustic Folk-Blues in the Acoustic Tent. They weren't disappointed as Simmonds showed why his acoustic work is every bit as good as his much better known Blues Rock projects like Savoy Brown. Another great thing about Chenango is that it is downright intimate and it is very easy to rub elbows and get autographs with the artists. After signing at the Artists Booth, Simmonds spent the day listening to music and talking with fans in the Blue Wave tent.
This Blues fan was looking forward to seeing Deborah Coleman, who shared the bill with "guest" Kenny Neal. Deborah Coleman is simply one of the most interesting and fun guitarists out there and she proceeded to that from the first note. With her guitar, bass, and drum band, The Thrillseekers, Coleman roared out some big Blues that belie her small size. Watching her trade licks with guitarist Hiromasa Suzuki is a real treat and it is easy to sense that it is cool and interesting to them as they play. The addition of Kenny Neal seemed awkward at first but they finally slipped into a good groove and the crowed joined the energy with enthusiastic cheering. Like other artists, Coleman hung around the rest of the day talking to fans and she even announced the winner of the Blues Revue/BluesWax CD drawing. Thanks, DC!
Last up in the Acoustic Tent was Motor City Josh, who once again made new fans in Norwich. They were also playing The Music Shop Pub in town that night.
With some dark weather looming and even some slight sprinkles, the crowd didn't lose one bit momentum and eagerly waited for the headliners to appear on the Main Stage. They were not to be disappointed as The Fabulous Thunderbirds took the stage and played through much of their new album, Painted On. Co-founder Kim Wilson's huge harp led the way through a great set of boogie and Rock-based Blues. Wilson is clearly one of the great harp players in the world and showed some awesome chops in several solos and sang strongly. But The Birds are not just Kim Wilson and he and keyboardist Gene Taylor are surrounded by some of the best young players in the Blues: Kirk Fletcher, Ronnie James Weber, Jimi Bott, and Nick Curran. Curran was particularly on with some good fills and solos and even jumped to the front on a couple of songs. This writer has seen the T-Birds several times this summer and can comfortably report that this is one of the best acts on the road today. Really only falling back on their crowd-pleasing hits of the past in the last of their set, this band is fresh and alive and is playing on the cutting edge of the Blues. As always they can cross genres to attract mainstream music fans into their Blues-based camp where Wilson and company will blow them away, leaving them to walk away stunned and smiling. And that is just what they did in Chenango.
But as the lights came up on the Chenango County Fairgrounds, the party wasn't over. Back to the question that opened this show review, what festivals do I like? It is often the afterhours jams that make it for me. Maybe it is the fact that I am done working, maybe that it is cool to catch new and old combinations of players, but such jams are often the highlight of a festival. Not always, but when it works...yeah, man! Ron Spencer and Jumpstart kicked off the Post Festival Party at the Howard Johnsons Ballroom and Billy Branch, jumped right up to blow harp with a wide array of artists. Terrence Simien got up with Kenny Neal to play some New Orleans music, including "Iko Iko." Some others played too, but, of course I was off work and it was a party...
Yes, it might be the best-kept secret in the Blues and you might want to put the 14th Annual Chenango Blues Festival on your calendar. Eric Larsen and company will be doing it again on August 19 next year.