The Carolina Blues Festival 2008
It happens every year: a homegrown blues festival right in our backyard with good vibes, authentic blues music and the friendly faces of all those folks you only get to see out at events like this. This year the proceedings commence at Festival Park on Saturday afternoon, where the 11th annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by YES! Weekly will infect the downtown Greensboro area with the contagious fever that is the blues.
Blues World Order
He maintains a surfer stance, a slight lean to the right with a bend in the knee, this player known to casual acquaintances and intimates alike as “Wezo” but properly named Mike Wesolowski, as he rocks the harp. An imposing presence with a gray ponytail and beard, glasses, there’s an impulsive glint in his eyes that counterbalances a basic poise.
Guitarist Bryan Smith is singing “Mystery Train,” tending to the rock-and-roll side of Blues World Order’s pasture as is his wont, driving muscular, stinging licks from a 1960 Gretsch hollow-body through a Tweed amp of roughly the same vintage. Wezo, the band’s other singer, favors a more classical Chicago blues vocal reminiscent of Paul Butterfield.
Blues World Order plays house-rocking music with a loud, joyous and full-bodied sound straight from the heart of the blues idiom. There ain’t too much flourish or prettification to it, and none of the four guys – also including the unstoppable rhythm section of drummer Kelly Pace and bassist “Wasabi” Bobby Kelly – are the showy type. They’re a classic example of the sum being greater than its parts, a power trio plus one with two singers, harp and guitar trading leads, that more than compensates for any one player’s deficiencies. The players possess an almost intuitive sense of where to meet each other in the groove.
“Beyond all of the stuff we all played in different bands, this was a common denominator thing that we never got to do in other projects,” Wezo rasps, leaning against the bar at the end of the first set and nursing a glass of whiskey. “This is the stuff that we really want to play. If everybody’s on the same page in an attitude about wanting to play the song, that song is going to come out sounding pretty damn good. People comment that ‘you guys sound like you’re having a lot of fun.’ If you’re having fun, there’s a good chance the audience is having fun too.”
Blues World Order is in its 10th year now, and the guys have the distinct honor of being chosen as the sole local act for this year’s Carolina Blues Festival. Two other bands, Big Road Blues and the King Bees – the latter act backs Chick Willis – hail from western North Carolina.
“That’s quite the honor,” Smith says. “I’ve been involved with the blues society since Day 1. To be able to come back out on the big stage in your hometown, that’s as good as it gets. We all are on the back side of our careers, coming up on fifty. It’s nice that the blues society smiles on us. We’ve always supported the blues society, and it’s great to get that support back.”
They’re all A-list players with long resumes in the North Carolina blues scene and a lot of shared musical history: Smith and Wasabi played in Johnnie Whitlock’s band, while Smith and Wezo made up two parts of Blues-A-Matic. Pace has played with Skeeter Brandon, Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos and Cyril Lance. Wezo and Wasabi have both played in Peter May’s Terraplane. They started gigging one Tuesday a month at Fisher’s Grill in Greensboro – a slot originally held by local bluesmen Chris Carroll and Tim Betts – around the time Blues-A-Matic folded. Originally, it was the third Tuesday of the month. They’ve played the same night every month for the past 10 years, Wezo says, with the exception that last year they moved it up to the fourth Tuesday to accommodate Pace’s schedule.
Fisher’s Grill is the band’s home base, and there’s no cover charge. They also play regularly at 6th & Vine in Winston-Salem and Blue Bayou in Hillsborough, with some recent forays into Raleigh and Richmond.
“Traveling is really hard unless you’re a young man who’s really hungry,” Smith says. “We’re not making it. So even if we’re playing for free, playing in front of friends is really great.”
The untimely death of guitar virtuoso Sean Costello left a hole in the Carolina Blues Festival’s schedule and only two and a half weeks to fill it.
Piedmont Blues Preservation Society President Casey Hazelman combed the roster at Piedmont Talent looking to fill the space with another musician left economically and emotionally bereft by Costello’s passing. He and the agency tried their best, but none of the acts panned out. So he shook the trees in the North Carolina blues community.
“One silver lining about the whole deal is that we were able to get someone like Chick Willis to play at the festival,” Hazelman said.
Willis’ old friend and musical collaborator Hound Dog Baskerville hooked it up. Baskerville’s King Bees circulate in the same blues and beach music milieu as Willis and have even found themselves sharing some of the same stages.
Willis is one of the musicians credited with bringing a lighter style of blues music to East Coast beach resorts in the 1960s and 1970s. He had a few chart toppers in his heyday, Hazelman said.
“A lot of his songs will sound familiar to people who shag,” Hazelman said.
Plenty of people in North Carolina do. In fact, both the King Bees and Willis are staples of the North Carolina blues scene. Willis last visited Greensboro in March when he played at Zion Bar & Grill.
“He plays real straight ahead rockin’ blues with a touch of R&B,” Hazelman said. “He can be a little bawdy sometimes and he might cause someone to blush. Really it’s just a powerhouse of a show.”
Willis slides his tongue up and down the fret board and passes the guitar between his legs.
“You won’t believe this guy is seventy-three,” Hazelman said. “He is still putting on a great show. His playing and soloing are first rate.”
Even though Willis is as good a player as Costello, his addition changes the texture of the festival, Hazelman said.
“It’s kind of interesting,” he said. “We’ve gone from a young star to a veteran bluesman.”
In Memorium: Sean Costello
Sean Costello always had been light years ahead of his peers.
He fingered his first guitar when he was only nine years old – around the same time his family moved across the Mason-Dixon, settling in Atlanta from Philadelphia. By the time he entered high school he was winning blues contests and fielding calls from talent scouts.
Costello released five albums in quick succession. The first, Call the Cops, came out when he was just 17. It was followed by the WC Handy Award-nominated Cuttin’ It, Moanin’ for Molasses, Sean Costello and We Can Get Together. His star rose a little higher with each new release.
Of course, the story of the blues teems with phenoms, prodigies, geniuses and the like. Some of them make it and achieve the greatness for which they were destined. And others end up in another kind of group, the suffering stuff that blues are made of.
Costello’s precocity turned to tragedy on the night of April 15, the eve of his 29th birthday, when the guitarist’s abbreviated life came to an unexpected end.
“Sean was one of the most promising younger talents out there,” said Casey Hazelman, president of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society. “In fact, many in the blues community felt that he was heir to the throne of blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
Costello was scheduled to play the 22nd Annual Carolina Blues Festival on May 3. To hear Hazelman tell it, the board members were downright enthusiastic about his addition to the schedule.
“He just sounded like a tremendous young man,” he said. “A lot of people were really excited he was coming. It was a pretty easy sell.”
The news of Costello’s death broke on a blues music blog. After Hazelman read it, he placed a call to Costello’s management in Charlotte. Then he waited. Almost four hours later, the manager confirmed what he’d read – Costello’s body had been found in an Atlanta hotel room; foul play was not suspected.
“It’s like you’re hit over the head with a blackjack,” Hazelman said. “It’s such a tragedy. And then as the day goes on the reality sinks in that you have to find a replacement.”
Costello’s friends and fans have turned his MySpace page into a memorial for the young musician, filling the comment thread with odes to his talent and humility. The page is cued up to the gospel tune “Going Home,” which opens with a withering guitar solo and Costello’s throaty yelp: Soon I will be done with the trouble of this world/I’m going home to live with God.
Costello dabbled in Chicago- and Texas-style blues, always remaining grounded in the traditions forged by Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Guitar Slim. Like his heroes, he played a Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups and Tune-a-matic bridge.
Before he was old enough to drink, Costello embarked on a musical collaboration with Susan Tedeschi. He recorded guitar tracks for her breakthrough Just Won’t Burn, an album that qualified for gold-record status and organized a band to support her on a whirlwind tour.
Meanwhile, he continued to develop his solo voice. For his third and fourth albums, he ventured further afield, gathering inspiration from New Orleans rhythm and blues, and even experimenting with some vintage funk.
His latest album – We Can Get Together – dropped in February. It featured the same blistering guitar work and gutsy singing that had become a Costello trademark. He and his band had booked out shows through the end of the year, Hazelman said.
Costello’s family put him in the ground on April 19 – three days after what would have been his 29th birthday. Hazelman is still working out the details of a local tribute to Costello during the blues festival. Meanwhile his fans keep flooding online forums with memories of him, a person so many thought would go on to greatness.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Hazelman said. “We’ve already dedicated the show to Sean, and we’re thinking about how we’re going to pay tribute to such an enormous talent.”
Big Road Blues
The blues takes on many forms: a big-band roomful with horns and an army of guitars, a preacher with a beat-down acoustic and fingernails like candy corn, piano blues, barroom blues, country blues. It can make you rise up and rejoice or sit back and let it wash over you, a multi-course feast.
So the afternoon slot appropriately belongs to Big Road Blues, a three-piece out of Asheville that seems created strictly for the purpose of inducing a blue chill in the Carolina sunshine.
A little guitar. A little harp. A lot of sweet, sweet soul coming through the mic. Vocalist Peggy Ratusz trades stylings with moaning harp wails while guitarist Duane Simpson spreads soft rhythm and endearing licks in their scaled-down set.
It’s perfect background music for a stroll through festival park, perusal of arts and crafts, cold beer in the warm sunshine and bits of socializing with all those blues folks that come out to the festival every year.
But if you’re a fan of traditional blues you’re gonna want to keep your eyes on these guys. Still relatively new to the Carolina blues scene, they secured their slot by winning the PBPS Blues Challenge held last year and went on to represent the area in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
And because the lineup is still evolving, you never know what they’ll bring. Bass? Drums? A line of horns and a hype man?
Probably not. But expect to be enthralled by the performance.
Lil’ Ed Williams
Lil’ Ed Williams is not one of those guys you call “little” in an ironic sense, like calling a fat guy “Tiny” or a bald guy “Curly.” Lil’ Ed is… wee. Even though he’s in his fifties, he looks like a little kid standing up there with his band of seasoned veterans. Then he opens his mouth and puts forth that rich and raucous voice honed in the West Side of Chicago and seasoned with years of hard time in the clubs and on the road. And when you watch him take the slide to his guitar, you know the guy’s no small stuff. Folks may call him Lil’ Ed, but the guy is huge.
The outfit’s body of work includes thousands of performances and eight albums, all on the legendary Alligator label.
Here’s a story: Intrigued by the band’s growing reputation and live show, as well as Lil’ Ed’s lineage which includes his uncle, legendary Chicago slide player JB Hutto, Alligator president Bruce Iglauer offered the guys a studio audition. Ed and his band had never seen the inside of the studio before, and just blasted away like they were on stage in a club. The engineers sent out for beer after the first few numbers. The performance became the band’s first release, 1986’s Roughhousin.
It’s a timeless roadhouse classic, but to really get the gist of these guys, you have got to see the live show.
Decked out in a homemade fez, Lil’ Ed is a gifted showman who knows all the old tricks and has invented a couple new ones. When’s the last time you saw a man in his fifties pull a backflip onstage?
Though they’ve recorded extensively, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials are definitely a live blues band and must be seen to be believed. Which is why they’ll be headlining the Carolina Blues Festival this year, closing out the day on the main stage, which they will destroy.
Nora Jean Bruso
As goosebumps raise up your spine while you watch a snippet of her live performance on YouTube, you know right then and there that you have to see it for yourself this weekend. Thank Mississippi for yet another blues marvel from the cotton capital of the world, Greenwood.
Nora Jean Bruso (norajeanbruso.com) has been brimming with soul to share since the ripe age of six with no end in sight. Her latest and arguably most impressive album, Going Back To Mississippi (2004), was written entirely by herself with backing vocals from her husband, Mark Bruso. The CD has recorded additions from other red-flag blues musicians that she has shared the stage with like Ron Graham, Jimmie Jacobs, Brian Lupo, Dave Specter and Harian Terson.
As the story goes, as a young girl, Nora Jean would sneak out of the house at night and walk down to her Grandma Mary’s place (and now the name of one of her present day songs), “Miss Mae’s Juke Joint.” Here she first was introduced to her lifelong interest in the blues with some of her siblings. Speaking of siblings, who wouldn’t have a little frustration to sing about when you are one of 16 brothers and sisters?
Once Nora Jean began her blues career, she toured for years before taking a temporary hiatus to raise her own children. And now her Southern heart and soul has returned to the stage.
Not only is she singing in the US this year but she is heading overseas to perform in Italy later this summer. Wait… Italy has the blues? It looks like everyone wants a chance to witness her heart-stopping vocal range. This epic live show shares a taste of the past and present blues influences, and is a prime example of music history moving on through each generation… from the lips of Nora Jean Bruso. The Carolina Blues festival is proud to have Mrs. Bruso as a showcase this year right smack in the middle of everything; check out her performance at 5:45 p.m.
I have been to Mallet, Louisiana, the little skid mark in St. Landry Parish just north of Lafayette where Terrance Simien, frontman for the Zydeco Experience, cut his teeth and paid his dues. There’s not much out there in river country: a crawfish farm in Ville Platte, Mamou’s rice fields, the Opelousa swamps. Mallet sits in the middle of this Cajun Country triangle, too small even for demarcation on many maps. There’s a church, to be sure: St. Ann’s, which provides a spiritual anchor for life in the parish. And just down the road, the roadhouse Richard’s (pronounced ree-shards in bastardized Creole French) celebrates the other great passion in this part of the world – that hip-shakin’, foot-bouncin’ music powered by accordion and the staccato acoustics of the frottior, which in the rest of the country is known simply as a washboard.
Simien made his mark here in the 1980s, when zydeco music was still the exclusive province of bayou country. This was before K-Paul invented blackened redfish in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, before The Big Easy and way before the horrors of Hurricane Katrina decimated that poor farmers’ land.
He was a teenager back then, a kid making this old-time traditional music that had yet to make an impact on the larger culture.
Simien’s career brought him out of the swamps and into the limelight. He’s played with everyone from Dave Matthews to Paul Simon, and with every gig he brings a touch of that Creole gris gris, that middle ground between black and white magic that hurts so bad and feels so good and can only be properly enunciated by an accordion.
These days it’s everywhere, of course, from commercial jingles to TV-show theme songs. And you will be able to hear that magnificent whine of the accordion on Saturday afternoon at the Carolina Blues Festival in Festival Park as it bounces off the facades of downtown Greensboro. Simien will be there. And he’ll be bringing Mardi Gras beads.