By John Hanley
The 2015 Baton Rouge Blues Festival came forth this past Saturday with all of the vibrancy and color one would expect from a local Louisiana music festival. The free and public event spanned nearly 12 hours, but there was no lack of energy throughout the more than 20 musical acts. Also representing true Louisiana resolve and support of the arts, the festival board managed to restructure its entire plan to take place indoors at the River Center instead of outside due to inclement weather. The celebration of music, food, local business, and the arts was undoubtedly a success, even around the rainy weather.
The festivities started around 11:30 a.m., with the Wil Jackson Band, who kicked off the bluesy guitar sound that permeated throughout the event. Ending the set with a tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, Jackson also geared up the festival goers for an appreciation of their musical predecessors and influences. Troy Turner, another blues singer and guitarist, also followed this up with a short tribute to Hendrix’s Voodoo Child. The crowd of folks at the Blues Fest was definitely an older one, so many acts like these held a certain nostalgic sentimentality that created a palpable return to youth for the blues lovers.
There’s plenty of festivals that go around down here, but having one centered on strictly blues is really important because that’s such a crucial part of southern music and Baton Rouge in general.
Larry Garner, another blues guitarist and vocalist, really brought the crowd back to their golden years when he described his first encounter with acid, given to him by a “hippie girl.” He thanked the hippies for introducing him to music like Hendrix, the Zombies and others, and transitioned directly into a song as he noted that music from those influences is what helped to create his own music. Garner also gave some hilarious advice to some younger – and perhaps more naïve – members of the audience who may be suffering from a broken heart. He told those people to drink up a jar of an alcohol concoction, take a cold shower, reminisce, and then look in the mirror and say, “I love you, self.” The advice garnered a lot of laughs, but it also symbolized knowledge and wisdom being passed on to another generation, just as a generation of music and knowledge was passed on to Garner himself.
This next generation of musicians and blues lovers was also present at the fest. Not only were there children of all ages there with their parents, but younger bands and groups also played blues music at the Back Room stage. Kids and teenagers in Tipitina’s Kids and Baton Rouge Music Studios showed off their talents and potential, and local sensation The Chambers jammed out in promotion of their new debut 7” vinyl record under Lagniappe Records’ new indie label.
The Chambers, composed of guitarist and vocalist Alex Abel and drummer Jordan Farho, was introduced as “one of the loudest bands at the Blues Fest” and happily lived up to the reputation. Farho broke both drumstick and snare and bloodied his finger in wild, hard-hitting, head-nodding beats. Farho says he knows they may not be traditional blues “by definition,” but thinks that the festival and the range of ages and styles represented is important to the celebration.
“It’s a really good mesh of the old and the new,” he said. “People will leave a jazz or soul band and come in and see us melting faces.” Farho added that not only is the range good for blues appreciation, but that the festival overall is good for the community.
“[The Blues Fest] exposes everyone to this type of music,” he said. “There’s plenty of festivals that go around down here, but having one centered on strictly blues is really important because that’s such a crucial part of southern music and Baton Rouge in general.”
Proving how influential blues is, Grammy-award-winning hip hop group Arrested Development also held a vibrant and energetic performance, promoting positivity and activism, and using blues and other cultural elements as part of the backbone to their music. They finished up their set with a tribute to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” telling Baton Rougeans to “continue to sing songs of freedom.”
Indeed, they did. Following Arrested Development was well-known singer, guitarist, and harmonica player Lazy Lester, whose thick Louisiana accent was nearly indecipherable, but whose tune – to put in his own words – was the “best in the world.” Closing up the festival after Lester was the Screamin’ Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley. Bradley lived up to his name with throaty screeches interspersed throughout his singing (complete with bird-like arm movements). Dressed in a flamboyant, glittery white suit and bright blue shirt, Bradley held a truly energetic and entertaining performance with his band of Extraordinaires. Paradoxically, he sang the blues with a smile on his face, and a very visible pleasure with being there onstage. The audience shared in his pleasure, as they had throughout the rest of the festival.