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Holy Week 1-3. November 2019 was the world-class blues in Frederikshavn. Arena Nord was the venue for Denmark’s biggest blues festival, Blues Heaven. The concerts took place on three stages:
The big stage, Arena Stage, a slightly smaller one named Stage 2 and the small café stage, Acoustic Stage. Among the headliners was Shemekia Copeland (pictured).
Blues Heaven in Frederikshavn
Shemekia Copeland at Blues Heaven in Frederikshavn.
The concerts on the two biggest stages took turns with about a 15 minute break so the audience could move from one to the other. If you also wanted to hear the music on Acoustic Stage, you had to make some choices, because here there was overlap in the program. Traditionally, the festival also had a detour to the local venue Freddy’s Bar, and also Frederikshavn Church got a musical visit this time.
The festival was the third of its kind under the name Blues Heaven, but it is a continuation of the Frederikshavn Blues Festival and – before that – Djurs Bluesland. Therefore, Blues Heaven 2019 could also mark the 30th anniversary of Peter Astrup Blues Productions, which was also celebrated from the stage with cake and “happy bluesday” song.
Paul Benjamin – director of The Blues Foundation – welcomed the festival’s first name at Arena Stage, the American blues and soul singer Curtis Salgado. Salgado is known both as a vocalist and a harmonica, but we did not hear much of the harmonica in the concert which consisted of caressing, delicious southern soul and soul blues. Curtis Salgado is a formidable singer, and with a strong and well-played band in his back he opened the festival program in the best way. We also especially noticed guitarist Alan Hager, who with his icy, Albert Collins-like tone wrapped Salgado’s vocals in delicious and elegant licks. But also French Julien Brunetaud on electric piano and organ made a really good figure.
After the opening song “Low down dirty shame” from Curtis Salgado’s Blues Music Award-winning 2017 album, The Beautiful Lowdown, the blow section The Bender Brass came on stage. Baritone saxophonist Mark Earley, trumpet player Doug Woolverton and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter complemented Bobby Parker’s “Blues get off my shoulder”, which perfectly staged Salgado’s great voice.
Curtis Salgado. (Photo: Frank Nielsen).
Chris Cain (Photo: Frank Nielsen).
Chris Cain Band
On the first day of the festival, Stage 2 experienced American guitarist Chris Cain and his band. Paul Benjamin presented Chris Cain as “one of the best kept secrets in the United States”. Despite numerous Blues Music Award and other nominations, as well as twelve fine albums behind him, Chris Cain may not be the best known blues-with-more artist.
However, Chris Cain (guitar / vocals), Sky Garcia (drums), Greg Rahn (keyboards) and bassist Steve Evans played through a distinguished, compelling and varied set in front of a diverse audience, where the four musicians truly proved to be a well-functioning unit . The bandleader was also not afraid to praise his fellow musicians several times during their ten-song set, where everyone contributed fine games and good solos. “I love this band,” Chris Cain said, and the playing fun shone through the entire quartet.
Chris Cain is known as one of the world’s foremost B.B. King interpreters, and his skills are documented on the fine album Cain does King from 2001. Also this evening came B.B. The King spirit over Cain several times, for example in a bold edition of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen”. Furthermore, Chris Cain was good at making B.B. King grimaces, so it almost seemed like B.B. King was present in Arna Nord.
Chris Cain also listened to Albert King heard in a rousing version of “Crosscut saw” with biting guitar tones. We also heard Chris Cain on Mississippi Keys Fred McDowell’s “What’s going to become of me?” We also got several Chris Cain tracks like “Drinking straight tequila,” which ironically presented as “a tender love song,” to in spite of the fact that this was in full force.
Chris Cain has also been involved in jazz, which could be heard several times.
Blues Queen Shemekia Copeland is the daughter of legend Johnny Copeland, and his spirit floated over the waters in much of her concert. She gladly acknowledged her musical heritage and sang several songs from her father’s repertoire, such as “Circumstances” and “Ghetto child”.
Shemekia Copeland has long since established her own name, and not least her latest album, the award-winning America’s child (2018), has cemented Shemekia Copeland’s status as one of her generation’s most important blues singer. From here we got several songs, and the strong and often political lyrics made Shemekia Copeland’s a different listening experience than most of the festival’s other concerts. “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” opened the set, quickly followed by “Would you take my blood?” Shemekia was charming and sang wonderfully, and she was backed by good people on stage. In particular, we noticed the two guitarists, Arthur Neilson and Willie Scandlyn, who both did really well.
Shemekia also used The Bender Brass, which came on the scene of John Prine’s swampy “Great Rain”, and also provided plenty of soul-sound to the Johnny Copeland songs. Not least, Doug Woolverton’s trumpet solo on “Circumstances” helped make this one of the highlights of the set. “Big brand new religion” got the mood of the southern state church before Shemekia Copeland ended with a rousing version of her hit, “2 a.m.” with lots of slide guitar from Willie Scandlyn.
Mike Sanchez (Photo: Frank Nielsen).
Mike Sanchez, Acoustic Stage
On the evening of the first day of the festival, you could enjoy the English keyboardist and singer Mike Sanchez, who was announced solo on the Acoustic Stage. Mike Sanchez appeared alone with a twinkle in his eye. One should be in a bad mood at all so as not to pull on the smile band several times during this eminent piano man’s performance.
Mike Sanchez is a bit of an institution on the English music scene. He has had his own bands like Big Town Playboys and was a member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. Sanchez has the technique in order and he can really conjure up any assembly. He also did that night. We got rock & roll, rockabilly and boogie-woogie spiced with a splash of blues, so it was a real pleasure. Among other things, he performed “Blueberry Hill” and “ready ready”, and the large audience spontaneously clapped on several tracks. After a while, Mike Sanchez did not play solo anymore, for British harmonist Paul Lamb came on stage, and the duo played Slim Harpo’s “Shake your hips” to the great excitement of the audience. Another Brit – bassist Dave Stevens, who played several years more with Paul Lamb & the King Snakes – then joined. It was the first time this spontaneous trio played together, but everything went smoothly. A very positive experience
Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager, Acoustic Stage
Curtis Salgado is a masterful soul singer, but he is equally at home in the traditional blues. Salgado and Hager played an outstanding intimate concert featuring down-home blues with Chicago and Delta variants. Alan Hager sang “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” – a hit for Big Bill Broonzy and his Hokom Boys in 1929 – but otherwise Curtis Salgado stood for the vocals. In contrast, in the duo format there was just as much focus on Alan Hager’s guitar playing, and it was exciting to observe the elegant style of the techniques.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd (Photo: Frank Nielsen).
Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
The last name on Arena Stage on the first day of the festival was American blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s great source of inspiration is Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s why it’s fitting that Chris Layton of Stevie Ray’s Double Trouble is the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band drummer.
Besides Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Chris Layton, vocalists Noah Hunt, bassist Kevin McCormick and Joe Crown were heard on keyboards. The band was even reinforced with scissors and trumpet.
The band played a number of songs from different eras in the band’s career. Among other things, we got the blues song “Shame, shame, shame” from 1995. Here even a guest came on stage in the form of fourteen-year-old English “Wunderkind” Toby Lee, who contributed an ok guitar solo, while the vocals were taken care of by Noah Hunt.
Speaking of vocal work, we got Kenny Wayne Shepherd on vocals – and Noah Hunt on acoustic guitar – in “Blue on black” from the album Trouble is… (1997). However, Kenny Wayne Shepherd should stick to what he can, namely playing guitar, as in the Joe Walsh and Terry Trebandt composition “Turn to stone” from the 2019 album Traveler. Here, too, there was good cooperation between Shepherd and Hunt. The concert ended with the Jimi Hendrix classic “Voodoo Chile” as an extra number.
Toby Lee at Freddy’s bar. (Photo: Frank Nielsen).
Toby Lee Blues Band, Freddy’s bar
The second day of the festival began with dinner blues at Freddy’s Bar in downtown Frederikshavn. Here, the English Toby Lee Blues Band played, a young, sympathetic band with 14-year-old Toby Lee as band leader. The young talent Toby Lee has almost been a kind of mascot for Blues Heaven since he first performed at the festival in 2017, just twelve years old.
The Toby Lee Blues Band played through ten songs, which consisted primarily of heavy, instrumental blues rock, and that band should have adhered to, because vocally there wasn’t much to gain from Toby Lee, whose natural voice sounded like a fourteen-year-old voice. He has an indisputable talent, but he needs more time to mature.
The Toby Lee Band has an album ready for release in early 2020.
Joe Louis Walker
Rightfully the winning American guitar legend, singer and songwriter Joe Louis Walker is a bit of a blues institution and a great ambassador for the style. He has performed all over the world, has played with a myriad of other great blues names, such as John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Taj Mahal and James Cotton.
The opening number was the rocking, swinging Joe Louis Walker composition “Not Not Messing Around” from the 1998 album Preacher & the President. Then the level was laid and it held with a few exceptions. One of these was a mysterious version of the classic “The train kept a-rollin”, which was delivered in a strangely jazzy version with lots of chorus, which didn’t work very well. The same must be said about the few times that pop-like elements crept into the music. Otherwise, it was a really impressive instrumental and vocal work that was put to the day by an engaged band that brought an enthusiastic audience along.
Above: Kenny Wayne and Joe Louis Walker. Under Tad Robinson and band. (Photos: Frank Nielsen).
American blues and soul singer Tad Robinson took the stage, Stage 2 in Arena Nord, with his band composed for the occasion. In addition to Tad Robinson, the band consisted of vocals and harmonica by a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist and a guitarist. Tad Robinson had brought his old mate, super guitarist Alex Schultz from the US. Alex Schultz played bl. a. with Rod Piazza for several years and with the late drummer William Clarke. Interestingly, both the bassist and the drummer were Finns. Jaska Prepula plays daily in the Finnish Tomi Leino Trio. Kevin Anker was on loan from The Fabulous Thunderbirds. All the musicians made a good figure, both individually and collectively, and a well-attended audience welcomed the fat soul blues.
There are many who believe that every blues festival should have its blues diva, and this year Blues Heaven had American Thornetta Davis from Detroit (pictured above). Not only is she a blues diva; she is also the blues and rhythm & blues diva. She has won more than 30 Detroit Music Awards.
Thornetta Davis has a wide-ranging voice, and together with the musicians she really “kicked” things off the stage. We got a nod to Muddy Waters with the classic “Got my mojo working” in a nice edition with good choral work. From Honest woman we got the rocking “I need a whole lot of lovin ‘” (to satisfy me), swinging soul-rock in the title song “Honest woman” and gospel-like notes in “Get up and dance away your blues”. We also received an enchanting version of “Pretty good love”, made famous by Big Maybelle in 1956. With great effort from all the musicians, Thornetta Davis delivered a versatile, high standard concert that will be remembered with the delight of an engaged audience.
English guitarist, singer and songwriter Ian Siegal played on the acoustic stage on Saturday. “I can also be hired for children’s birthdays,” he joked, for Ian Siegal was entertaining – absolutely – but he certainly wasn’t for kids. At least the kids had to be tuned into dark, political lyrics like “Eagle Vulture” (from his latest album, All the rage (2018)) and remarks like “I’m already sweating like a whore in church!”
Ian Siegal’s songs were intense. His airy, hoarse, almost half-whispering voice contrasted with the deep delta blues of the model Charley Patton’s “Pony blues” or his own “I am the train”.
His musical expression is versatile, and his set contained blues, folk and spirituals. From the latter category, it took off especially when he played “Mary Do You Weep”. Siegal had heard that the Danes knew the song with a different text, and so at his request it was screamed “Oh Marie, I want to go home to you” with full neck.
Another fun feature was his “Talkin ‘overseas pirate blues”, a talking blues in the Woody Guthrie tradition. (The picture below).
Top: Ian Siegal. Sub: The Fabulous Tbunderbirds. (Photos: Frank Nielsen).
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
The concert with The Fabulous Thunderbirds was met with excitement. There have been some changes in the cast since we last heard them, but as always, the central singer and lead singer Kim Wilson was in the front. The only other remaining was guitarist Johnny Moeller, and fortunately both seemed intent on delivering something better than what we heard in Horsens nine years ago.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds started with “My babe”, not Little Walter’s Chicago classic, but the 1959 hit with Ron Holden with the Thunderbirds (!). The band styled themselves around funky blues rock (“Wrap it up”) and boogie, slow blues with fine guitar playing by Johnny Moeller, and not least steamy hot Chicago blues. Here, Kim Wilson could really show why he is considered one of the very best living harmonists. His metallic, old-school harmonica style imitated the sound of Chicago’s heyday. Kim Wilson – the band’s only original member – was in good shape and danced almost throughout the concert while singing and playing harmonica. Guitarist Johnny Moeller was also in fantastic shape and behaved as if he were really at one with the music. He obviously could play anything, and he did it with body and soul so it was a real pleasure.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds was one of the top names on the Blues Heaven poster and one of the bands many had been looking forward to hearing.
Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Acoustic Stage
Pianist Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne has stated that he “aims to bring the keyboard into the spotlight of blues music so it doesn’t disappear between all the guitars.”
It was an extremely well-mannered Wayne, who with small anecdotes and big smiles served dishes from the entire piano blues menu: Boogie-woogie, country ballads, New Orleans-R&B, swing, gospel, barrelhouse – we got to taste it all. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne looked like someone who could stay up all night.
Along the way in Leiber & Stoller’s “Kansas City,” the ubiquitous Paul Lamb appeared; he was invited to the scene and promised to come back later. He did that seriously, and he signed in and started playing harmonica on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia (on my mind)”. Paul Lamb stayed on stage for 6-7 songs. They played, among others, Johnnie Johnson’s “Tanqueray”, the spiritual “Down by the riverside”, the recently deceased New Orleans legend Dave Bartholomew’s “I hear you knocking” and a (well almost blasphemous) medley with “Got my mojo working” and ” Oh happy day ”!
Nick Moss Band
Chicago has nurtured a sea of outstanding blues musicians, and guitarist, singer and songwriter Nick Moss comes in among the best of the last 30 years. Nick Moss and his various bands have been showered with awards. The band that Nick Moss put on at Blues Heaven this year besides himself consisted of the relatively recently arrived Dennis Gruenling on harmonica, Taylor Streiff on keyboards, Patrick Seals on drums and Rodrigo Mantovani on bass. An absolute super band.
Nick Moss & co. played through seven songs on Stage 2. Among other things, we got the almost Louis Jordan-like title track from the latest Nick Moss Band album Lucky Guy. We were also treated to a very, very long version of Billy Boy Arnold’s “I wish you would”.
Here Dutch Big Pete came on stage and together with Dennis Gruenling gave a long harmonica performance.
The last song was the Jimmy Rogers composition “Rock this house”. Big Pete, who had been there before, returned to the scene. Along with Big Pete, British guitarist Ian Siegal also came in as a guest. However, despite the many qualities of the musicians and the music, there were too many idle blues during the concert, which was unfortunately disappointing.
Above: Nick Moss. Subs: Dennis Gruenling. (Photos: Frank Nielsen).
Nick Moss Band, Freddy’s Bar
It was quite different when the Nick Moss Band played on Freddy’s Bar on Sunday, November 3rd. Here things were held in much tighter bridges than the night before on Stage 2. The songs were shorter and more concise than at the band’s first performance at the festival. However, Freddy’s Bar also had room for improvisations. On the other hand, they never got too long, and the band’s distinctive energy level did not in any way lose its momentum.
There were also guests at the scene this early afternoon. Curtis Salgado made his entrance, as did Paul Lamb, who joined the Americans on stage. The mood was high on the small stage at Freddy’s Bar, and the harmonica virtuoso Dennis Gruenling danced almost continuously with his white snakeskin-like boots on.
One of the festival’s most touching moments also occurred at this concert when Nick Moss, before the extras – sitting on the drummer’s chair – shared his memories of his friend and former band member Mike Ledbetter, who died as suddenly as just 33-year-old in January this year. It brought tears to many of those in attendance, including several who had experienced Ledbetter in Frederikshavn the previous two years with Kilborn Alley Blues Band and Welch Ledbetter Connection respectively.
The closing song “The comet”, which Nick Moss wrote about Ledbetter right after his friend’s death, was a nice and touching ending to a first-rate concert at Freddy’s Bar.
Gospel Heaven, Frederikshavn Church
Festival organizer Peter Astrup had included the Sunday event Gospel Heaven in the program. As Blues Heaven gathers a number of blues superstars, many of whom have roots in gospel music, it became a concert with mainly religious repertoire in Frederikshavn Church. Peter Astrup welcomed, before Joe Louis Walker on guitar and vocals performed a solo performance of “Not tired yet”. The next singer was Tad Robinson, who was backed by Bl. a. Alex Schultz and Nick Moss Band’s bassist, Rodrigo Mantovani.
Curtis Salgado started a cappella and without a microphone. He first praised the gospel music as “the mothership of blues, soul, jazz, funk …,” and then he sang the gospel song “He did it all by himself”. Eventually Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne and the rest of Joe Louis Walker’s band came in, and Walker himself joined in with funky guitar playing on “Let’s get down”.
Thornetta Davis received great acclaim after a festive “This little light of mine” with blown action by Jimmy Carpenter, Doug Woolverton and Mark Early. A subdued version of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” with keyboard accompaniment by Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne rounded out Thornetta’s Davis’ section in a nice way, before the IDMC Gospel Soul Choir ended with three songs.
Gospel Heaven was really a good idea on paper, and with so much talent present, the event had a huge potential. But the big, big problems with the sound made the church concert a disappointment. If Gospel Heaven is to be repeated next year – and there are many indications that it should – it must work with the sound, and perhaps it should be considered whether to adhere to acoustic instruments and to acoustic singing, – a set designed by the church to endure.
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