By Andrea Ramirez, Rock At Night Philadelphia Correspondent
The late B.B King once said that blues is the mother of American music. What could be more American than music with a genuinely deep-rooted soul. The blues is a diary of emotions. There is sad blues, happy blues, angry blues, funny blues. As long as there is an emotion connected to a story I’m sure there is a blues song written about it.
This weekend, the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was the heart of blues as it hosted the Blast Furnace Blues Festival. Nestled in the Lehigh Valley, a change from my usual Philly stomping grounds, Bethlehem was once a great steel producing town. What better place to transform into a multi-level live music performance space than an old steel manufacturing factory. When I arrived at the venue I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me, exercise-wise! There were two indoor stages, one on the second floor and the other on the third floor which also had a balcony on the fourth floor. The stairs inside the venue are laid out in a winding pattern. Running up and down with two cameras between the second floor and fourth floor balcony definitely did me in the next day. Luckily, some of the bands rotated between the two stages.
First on the list to perform was Baltimore Maryland native, Ursula Ricks. Her voice was incredibly powerful as she performed songs from her album My Street. What I loved about Ursula Ricks was her spirited funky sound and great vocal capacity. Up next was Texas native Darrell Nulisch who brought us great harmonica music and incredibly catchy tunes. Los Angeles based blues guitarist, singer and songwriter James Armstrong was next on the bill. After seeing his performance, Armstrong became my favorite performer of the night. Not only is he a talented blues guitarist but he is also an amazing story teller. He explained the story behind the songs which helped make them memorable. When a performer connects us to the story behind the song it’s like reading a great book with an incredible soundtrack being played in the background. The crowd favorite was a song that he wrote about his wife’s granddaughter who at first, was not too pleased with her grandma’s new boyfriend, the song is aptly titled “Grandma’s Got a New Boyfriend.” Besides being a great guitarist, and a great storyteller James Armstrong was also a an energetic performer as he got off the stage to interact with the crowd, stood on tables to play guitar, and even handed off his guitar to a lovely lady to play a few strings on his guitar.
Following Armstrong on the bill was the great Coco Montoya. Now I do have to say that I have lost my blues music edge and my knowledge there of. When I was a teenager I took guitar lessons for two years. At that time I was heavily into the blues and I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to play like Robert Johnson. There was only one big problem, somehow I was not getting the hang of the guitar. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until after I gave up entirely on the instrument and left the blues behind. My problem, as I later realized, was that I was a lefty playing right handed guitar. Everything seemed so backwards and uncomfortable to me and I only wished I would have been taught the lefty way. Before the show I did not know much about Montoya. All I knew was that everyone at the venue was eager to see him perform and the entire day was non-stop conversations with strangers about how great Coco was. Since he was the big talk of the day now I really couldn’t wait to see Coco perform. As soon as he came on stage I immediately noticed something looked strange and out of the ordinary, I couldn’t put my finger on it until later he came to play at the edge of the stage leaning towards me when I realized that he was playing upside down and backwards! From then on it was love at first southpaw. It’s a lefty thing, and unless you are one, you wouldn’t understand. Coco Montoya played guitar the way I should have been taught and seeing him perform and seeing how extremely talented he was playing everything opposite made me appreciate and respect his talent even more. He played with deep emotion. You could see that he transcends into another world when he plays guitar.
The Royal Southern Brotherhood was next and boy did they pack a huge punch. Some of the band members come from familiar backgrounds. Singer Cyril Neville is also known as one of the members of the Neville Brothers, Tyrone Vaughan on guitar is the nephew of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and drummer Yonrico Scott was a member of The Derek Trucks Band. The Royal Southern Brotherhood was probably the most eclectic band of the night. They were, rock, funk, blues, and soul and it’s no surprise that their unique musical sound comes from the diverse backgrounds of its members. The band opened with the song “Reach My Goal” ending their set with “Rock and Roll”.
Finally it was time for headliners Robert Randolph and the Family Band. This was the second time I saw the band perform live. The first time I saw them was back in 2003 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in support of their Unclassified album. Robert Randolph took the stage sporting a pair of heart shaped glasses and took his place in front of his slide guitar. Customary to a Robert Randolph show, they opened their set with a jam session. If you are familiar with Robert Randolph you know they are masters of a good technically driven jam session. I was pleased to hear them play a few songs from one of my favorite live albums Robert Randolph and the Family Band Live at the Wetlands. If you live anywhere near the New York City tri-state area you will remember the Wetlands as being the musical gem in which many famous bands had their start. During their set they brought out the members from the Royal Southern Brotherhood to perform a few songs with them. They also perform the audience favorite, “Shake Your Hips”. This song is the favorite because the ladies from the audience get a chance to come up on stage and dance with the band. They finished their set with the song “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That” from their 2006 album Colorblind. When I listen to Robert Randolph and the Family Band it’s not just about connecting with their incredible music, it is also about connecting with my past. Both Robert Randolph and I grew up in the same town of Irvington, New Jersey. When I see him perform live I stand there with great pride knowing that one of today’s greatest guitarists grew up in my neighborhood.
Overall it was a very successful day at the Blast Furnace Blues Festival as it attracted the biggest crowd since it started 5 years ago. It was easy to tell that everyone had a blast as blues fans danced the night away and strangers seemed like family, laughing and sharing a great time.
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