Electric City Blues Festival is a setting for stellar performances

Before handing off his guitar at the Electric City Blues Festival on Saturday at Music Haven, headli

Before handing off his guitar at the Electric City Blues Festival on Saturday at Music Haven, headliner Kenny Neal delivered world-class blues lessons, underlining the inspirational nature of the six-hour showcase.

Neal’s brilliant “Let Life Flow” album sketches a funky roadmap from loss to recovery, but high spirits reigned onstage. One of the ingredients of “Louisiana Stew,” his opener, reminded him of Howlin’ Wolf: he roared right into the Wolf’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Red Rooster,” convincingly echoing Wolf’s growl and guitar snarl. He got poignant with “Forgive Me” and angry with “Blues Leave Me Alone,” got fans punk-pogo-ing in the blues waltz “Since I Met You Baby,” kissed off a betrayer in “Any Fool Will Do,” played blistering harp in “King Be” and sang from the heart in “Let Life Flow,” proclaiming life unpredictable and magical. Neal’s band, staffed with brothers bassist Darnell and keyboardist Freddie, had the best players at every position, all day — and Neal offered a brilliant, state-of-the-art blues blow-out, singing and playing to sensational effect.

Blues Sanctuary won the Colossal Contenders contest via fans’ votes and will represent the Northeast Blues Society at the Memphis International Blues Challenge, but Joe Lowry and the Second Mile Blues Band played with more skill and soul. The third contender, J.V. & the Cutters, started the show, playing, as all three finalists did, 30 minutes. Their original, deeply rooted blues shuffles and soul/funk connected well, though Lowry would soon eclipse them. A stronger guitarist than singer, J.V. (Joe Abbey) capably led the quartet, though stretching “I Must Have Been Mistaken” revealed rather than concealed the tune’s weakness, the sole miscue of an otherwise engaging but too-low-key set.

Next, Lowry’s trio generated greater gravity, velocity and magnetism, drawing to the front fans who had huddled in islands of shade under trees atop the hill or wilted in the chairs. His hyper-strum solo in “Too Many Dirty Dishes” earned the fest’s first ovation, lifting Lowry into a devastating “Born Under a Bad Sign,” his Hendrix-like phrasing beautifully setting up the even better “Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire.” Lowry made everything look easy but never played down to the audience or the songs.

Blues Sanctuary launched their crowd-pleasing set by declaring a “Blues Party,” name-checking the giants who inspired them. Slick and sleek, they sometimes sounded too glib, as if playing at the blues rather than playing the blues. They shrewdly focused their impressive skills through expert pacing, though, peaking with the infectious “Let’s Take Friday Off” and three-part harmonizing in “Bring It On Home to Me.”

Tas Cru inherited a diminishing audience from Neal’s explosive and commanding set: A lesser band would have been anticlimactic. For originality, chops and conviction, they were the strongest of the local bands but ineligible for Colossal Contenders since they won at last year’s festival: a logical close. They deconstructed blues clichés in “I’m Tired of Bluesmen Cryin’,” positioned AA as an opportunity for cheating and followed it with “Can’t Help but Wonder,” another cheating song, echoed J.J. Cale effectively in “Tulsa Tornado” and hit a cozy country lope in “So Low Down,” though the crowd was still up.

Categories: Life and Arts

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