Blues on a Saturday: Carolina Blues Festival shines on

by Ryan Snyder


Debbie Davies and Tinsley Ellis headlined last weekend’s Carolina Blues Festival. (photos by Ryan Snyder)

For the past two years, torrential rains have cast a rather ironic damper onto the Carolina Blues Festival. Ultimately, what’s more conducive to a chronic case of the blues than an ugly, weatherwrecked day? There were no weather-related worries for the 24 th installment of the Carolina Blues Festival, hosted by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society in downtown Greensboro on Saturday, as hundreds came out for the near-perfect weekend weather and a full day of blues.

The music kicked off at 1 p.m. with the placid acoustic duo of Sleepy-Eyed Jay and Chicago Slim to an even slimmer crowd, as too many missed out on the PBPS Solo/Duo Challenge winners’ from Richmond plaintive ode to the early Delta sound on songs like their original “Gotta Woman.” Numbers started to roll through the gate for Full Band Challenge winner, Greensboro’s own Charlley Ward Band. The performance itinerary moved forward through the history of blues itself, with Ward’s band representing the genre’s early popularization through the same shimmering vibrato that would usurp the lonely Delta tone.

The mid-afternoon draw of the Matt Walsh Blues Band seemed to confirm it, as his snarling, 1950s Chicago style was almost a little too abrasive for the gray-haired sea of onlookers to fully appreciate. Walsh is quite a blues anomaly in that, he’s almost a little too hip for this crowd. His tall throwback coiffeur, near-perfect Howlin’ Wolf imitation and all-around dirty sound are far from the middling, unobjectionable and gentrified brand of blues that this crowd typically gulps down. That said, he’s really good.

As was mentioned in last week’s preview of the blues festival, the headliner designation for Debbie Davies and Robin Rogers appeared to be completely arbitrary, since a) Davies is a little too obscure for practical marketing purposes, Rogers even more so; and b) the more widely recognized Tinsley Ellis was scheduled to perform immediately after. Even the “ladies’ turn” angle that the festival adopted to promote them came off as passively sexist, as if last year’s 6 p.m. performer Diunna Greenleaf was somehow irrelevant because she didn’t play guitar.

Ellis took the lower billing in stride, however, and praised his friend Davies as the right choice for this particular festival.

“The next-to-last slot at a blues festival is a very sought-after slot and always has the biggest attendance due to the fact that blues fans are much older now and want to get home early,” Ellis said via e-mail. “I love and really respect Debbie. Known her since the ’80’s and really enjoyed jamming with her again that night.”

Ellis’ words also provided a tacit explanation as to why it gets easier every year to navigate the 30 feet immediately in front of the stage.

More of the nearly comatose, second-wave baby boomers that compose the festival’s primary audience resign themselves to the comfort afforded by the sea of foldout lawn chairs under the stage’s canopy. It gives the appearance that there’s a full crowd witnessing the shows, when in actuality three or four standing listeners could occupy the space of one languorous age casualty.

It’s not a very enthusiastic or energetic crowd by any standards, as Ellis’ comments suggested, and the headliner booking this year reflected that. Davies is an extremely talented guitarist with little to no appeal to an audience below 40. She’s certainly technically gifted, but her style is almost too clean to be truly compelling and interesting to a discerning listener.

Ellis, on the other hand, was fiercely aggressive, almost dangerous as the closing act. It’s only too bad that over half of the audience had dispersed by the time he took the stage, because his gut-wrenching axe wielding defined the evening and left promise for the festival’s 25th installment. His rhythm section of the masterful drummer Jeff Burch and the intimidating bassist known as the Evil One sent his show precariously into metal territory, which may also serve to explain why many in the crowd were long gone by the time Davies reemerged to help Tinsley on “Key to the Highway” and “Shake It for Me.” The Piedmont Blues Preservation Society does a commendable job of keeping the blues alive in a region with one of the richest relevant musical traditions in the country, but without a little bit of imaginative and adventurous thinking, nothing will preserve its audience the long run.