Before I went to bed the night before the final day of the Blues From The Top festival, I did one last check on the weather forecast. We’d been told that the weather was supposed to be dicey all weekend, but thus far that hadn’t happened. With the exception of a short shower a couple of hours before the show started on Friday afternoon, the weather had been great.
The forecast for Sunday, however, was ominous. But when looking out the window of the hotel room early on Sunday morning, I was thrilled to see the same blue skies as were present early Saturday. For that reason, I didn’t take my raincoat for the day. That turned out to be a bad decision.
There were four acts scheduled for Sunday – Bette Smith, Southern Hospitality, Charlie Musselwhite, and Tab Benoit. We made it through the first two before the weather turned. Intermittent showers came and went a couple of times before the day ended, but it didn’t dampen the spirit of the crowd. What’s a little rain between blues fans?
The day opened with Brooklyn, NY native Bette Smith and her band. Smith is generally regarded as a rock and soul singer, but much of her musical stylings can be traced back to her gospel roots, and her church choir director father.
That soul, gospel, and rock & roll blend came together in Smith’s debut album, 2017’s Jetlagger, which received widespread critical acclaim. Her follow-up, 2020’s The Good, The Bad, and the Bette (one of the coolest titles ever) confirmed Smith as the real deal.
Smith’s 13-song set leaned heavily on her most recent album, but also included two tunes from Jetlagger, plus a handful of covers. “Nutbush City Limits” (Tina Turner) and “The Thrill Is Gone” (B.B. King) were fairly obvious for a festival focusing on blues music. Surprising were her covers of The Who’s “Can’t Explain” (which opened her set) and Prince’s “Purple Rain”. When I say surprising, it is meant in a very good way. Smith injected her own style into both tunes, to the delight of the crowd.
In introducing Southern Hospitality, Kai Turner referred to them as a “supergroup”. Hard to argue with that descriptor, given that the band (which is more of a “project”) is primarily made up of guitarists Damon Fowler and J.P. Soars, and keyboardist Victor Wainwright.
The inspiration for Southern Hospitality dates back to mid-2011, when Fowler, Soars, and Wainwright got together for an impromptu jam session following their respective performances at a Florida music festival. That session led to the formation of Southern Hospitality as an entity, and an initial performance at a West Virginia festival later that summer.
Though they’ve never formalized themselves as an ongoing unit, Southern Hospitality released an album called “Easy Livin’” in 2013. They perform together periodically, when they can coordinate their schedules. Lucky for us they were able to coordinate those schedules for June 26, 2022.
Not meaning to sound like a broken record in talking about the bands at this festival crossing genres, but if there’s a poster child for that concept, it’s Southern Hospitality. Listen to their album and you’ll hear rock & roll, blues, country, a Latin influence on the song “Fried Neck Bones and Home Fries”, and a definite Reggae vibe on “Don’t Feel Like Going There Today”.
Both of those tunes were part of the band’s six-song set. Only six songs, you ask? Given the caliber of the musicianship of the three leads, and that there are generally multiple solos in each song they perform, the band frequently moves into jam-band territory. Nobody’s complaining, because… did I mention the caliber of their musicianship?
The term “legendary” can sometimes be used a little too liberally. That’s not the case here, however. There’s no better term to use in connection with Charlie Musselwhite than that.
78-year-old Musselwhite boasts a career spanning 56 years. Considered one of the best harmonica players of all time, Musselwhite has released more than 20 albums, has won 14 Blues Music Awards, been nominated for six Grammy Awards, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010. He’s still going strong, as evidenced by his performance at this festival, and the fact that he released his most recent album, Mississippi Son, just weeks before he appeared on stage at Winter Park.
Backed by Matt Stubbs on guitar, Randy Bermudes on bass, and June Core on drums, Musselwhite took the stage just as the weather was breaking, and the rain was starting to come down. The band continued to play, but was interrupted in their third song by what turned out to be a 20-minute lightning delay. Returning to the stage after that delay, they picked up where they left off, delighting the crowd for the next 45 minutes plus. So delighted was the crowd that they pretty much insisted that Musselwhite and band return to the stage for an encore – the only non-headliner act of the festival to get to do that.
With a wink and a smile, Musselwhite quipped, “I almost got away”. Not a chance, Charlie. Not a chance.
About 15 minutes before Tab Benoit took the stage, Mother Nature decided to take one last shot at dampening our spirits. Leaning on the temporary barrier in front of the stage, trying to keep my cameras dry, I was hoping the day would not end this way.
Then Benoit took the stage, and within ten minutes the rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped completely. Blues From The Top 1, Mother Nature 0.
Louisiana-born Tab Benoit has been playing his distinctive blend of Cajun-infused blues for 35 years. He released his debut album, Nice and Warm, in 1993, then released 16 more albums through 2011. Though he hasn’t released a new studio album in more than ten years, Benoit remains one of the most popular blues musicians in the country, largely due to his relentless tour schedule.
Benoit’s style is to keep it simple. He tours/plays as a trio – just guitar, bass, and drums. His own rig is minimalist, consisting of his trademark, stock 1972 Thinline Telecaster, a pair of amplifiers, and no pedals. The varying sounds he manages to produce are simply the product of his skilled musicianship and effort. As he noted to the crowd, “I like it raw”.
That authenticity is a big part of the Benoit appeal. From his set opening “Why Are People Like That” to his encore “Medicine”, Benoit had the delighted crowd swinging, singing, and swaying. In between the set included fan favorites like “Whole Lotta Soul”, “Shelter Me”, “We Make A Good Gumbo”, and Benoit’s signature cover of “For What It’s Worth”. The regular set concluded with an extended jam version of “Night Train” that put the crown in a frenzy. My personal highlight of the set was “Nothing Takes The Place Of You”, the sweet and soulful love song that is definitely at the top of my list of Benoit’s greatest hits.
The one part of Benoit’s shows that isn’t simple is his wardrobe. The man wears the coolest shirts when he’s on stage – check out the pics. I’ve got to figure out where he gets them.
Benoit’s set was the perfect culmination of three fabulous days of extraordinary music at an extraordinary venue in an idyllic location. As stated in my opening article on the festival, if you’re a blues music fan, this is an event you have to attend. I can’t wait to see the lineup Maria Chavez and her team comes up with for next year. I’ll absolutely be there, and I hope to see you there as well.
Article and pics by Rick Witt www.rickwittphotography.com