19th Annual Pocono Blues Fest

By Robert Putignano

Diversity and A Rare Lineup Highlight A Perennial Favorite

Wow, nineteen years for Michael Cloeren's Pocono Blues Festival where the diversity of performers is always key. You can count on a mix of straight blues, rocking blues, soul, gospel and zydeco music to make this festival a favorite. Plus, Mr. Cloeren takes astute care in importing many musicians and bands that don't often get the opportunity to perform in the Northeast region. Nice!

This year's lineup follows previous years' ideology. Artists deserving more attention included Johnny Rawls, Johnnie Bassett, CJ Chenier, Chick Willis, and Alabama Mike. From the Gospel side The Campbell Brothers and especially Mavis Staples made strong impressions.

Zydeco was mostly represented by CJ Chenier whose band rocked on mightily.

Soul representatives (Mavis fits this category all too well, too) included Roy Roberts, Barbara Carr, AJ Diggs, and Theodis Ealey. The Thunderbirds also rocked, though I was not overly impressed with Kim Wilson's lengthy harp solo which lasted nearly ten minutes.

A little jazziness was on display by the Joe Krown Trio with the Crescent city legend Walter Wolfman Washington, and Russell Batiste. All in all, this festival offers a wonderful smattering of various roots/blues based music. My top three favorite performances came from Johnnie Bassett and his entire band, the Joe Krown Trio, and Mavis Staples. It's been far too long since I have seen Johnnie Bassett perform. In fact the last time I saw Bassett was at the Pocono Blues Fest several years ago. He looked and sounded fantastic and is one of those rare musicians that can mix an in-between jazzy fat tone with his blues. Bassett was dead on, the band was ultra tight, and they performed tunes from Johnnie's previous recordings and his latest The Gentleman Is Back on Sly Dog label, a division of the jazz label Mack Avenue. It was also sweet to hear Johnnie say that a follow-up recording is in the works. It should be out late this year or early next as there was a long gap between Johnnie's last disc and his previous. Bob Porter whose liner notes gracefully adorn Bassett's latest CD tells me that Basset plans to play in Europe this year. Good news, indeed.

The Joe Krown Trio with Wolfman Washington and Russell Batiste was the surprise performance of the weekend for me, as they jazzed it up with a strong soul-funk groove coming from Mr. Krown's B3, dynamite and (at times) explosive drumming from Batiste and some of the best guitar playing I've ever heard coming from Walter. The Wolfman was definitely on the prowl with his vocals and guitar offering some of the most cohesive playing that I've ever heard from Washington. This trio has grown leaps and bounds from their only release Live at the Maple Leaf in 2009. Their interplay was outstanding, and I only hope to hear a fresh new recording from these perennial veterans from the Crescent City.

I've written about witnessing Mavis Staples three times in the last year or so, and every time I see this new updated version of her band, I walk away with a huge smile on my face. Seeing Mavis perform is always a religious experience, so what could be better than seeing her close out the main stage reading in hymnbook fashion on gorgeous Sunday afternoon at the Pocono's? Nada!

Staples was in a fabulous mood and really looked like she was thoroughly enjoying the vibe of the audience, often leaning over to touch and shake hands with her fans. Her voice was strong, and the group is some band! Rick Holmstrom on guitar was on fire, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges rounded out the vibrant rhythm section while Mavis' sister and Donny Gerrard mightily held down the background vocals. All in all, this is an exceptional unit that displays deep gospel grooves, powerful soul, and can also rock out.

Mavis killed on The Band's "The Weight" which was the highlight of their very fine set, but I would remiss to not mention the incredible instrumental jam that Holmstrom, Turmes and Hodges put down midway through their set where Turmes traded in his bass and played a mean and tasty slide guitar. He then went back to his bass to let Holmstrom roar!

know I've said it before, but I will say it again. If you have not seen this Mavis Staples lineup, shame on you. They are that good and very memorable, period. It was also great to hear Mavis say that they are also close to releasing a new disc for the Anti label, which (I think) will be the first time this configuration of her extraordinary band will work together in the studio. Looking forward to this new one, indeed!

So there you have it, the nineteenth edition of the Pocono Blues Fest. Kudos to Michael Cloeren for all the good and hard work he does to offer blues-based music to a wider audience. Last but not least, be sure to checkout Cloeren's second edition of the Vermont Blues Fest that takes place from August 27th through the 29th at www.vermontbluesfest.com. I hope to see many of you there, and next year at the twentieth Pocono Blues Festival!

Bob Putignano a senior contributing editor at BluesWax. He is also the heart of Sounds of Blues at www.SoundsofBlue.com. Bob maybe contacted at: bob8003@yahoo.com

Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com