Blues – Real Blues – Is Back and Back Strong in Southern Vermont

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We’re all looking for that musical fix that will bring us back from a year and a half of Covid hell. Right about now for a fix, some of us would take Uncle Harry playing spoons and Aunt Bessie squeaking a kazoo through her nose in the backyard in the rain. And if you’re a blues fan – a “real blues” fan – well, the new normal says you may have to travel hundreds of miles to come close to anything that isn’t some kid playing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kenny Wayne Shepherd covers in a “concert” billed as blues.  

Forget that.  

You’re not gonna believe this one.  

The SVAC (Southern Vermont Arts Center) Presents The Blues on Saturday, August 7th with four legacy blues performers, all veterans who together have more than 150 years of experience honing their skills in chitlin circuit nights clubs and theaters around the world. Each is a genuine master of the art with backstories that underline the colorful heritage of America’s music. And each brings their own band:  The Alexis P. Suter Band, The Bruce Katz Band, The James Armstrong Band and The Johnny Rawls Band.   

The acts were handpicked by Paul Benjamin, former Blues Foundation chairman of the board and promoter of the North Atlantic Blues Festival that recently celebrated a post-Colid comeback with a sellout crowd overlooking the Atlantic Ocean harbor in Maine.  

James Armstrong

The Southern Vermont Arts Center Presents The Blues is a one-day mini-fest, the brainchild of my friend Bob Van Degna who published the photo book Helena Blues that lovingly captured the magic of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, the south’s legendary homage to the delta blues heritage. Bob and Anne Corso, SVAC Executive Director are looking to expand SVAC’s artistic vision to a wider market. Located in bucolic Manchester, Vermont, the center is a sprawling complex of buildings that showcase the arts in shall we say an “organic” manner. The blues festival itself will take place in the Arkell Pavilion.  

When you hear Alexis P. Suter do “Let It Be” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” you can feel the power of her upbringing and you realize she’s cutting closer to the bone of artists like Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar than she is The Beatles or Bob Dylan even if she is singing their songs.  

“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell,” she says. “And spiritualists are people who have already been there.” She cuts an imposing, almost monolithic figure. She has a deep baritone voice. She’s backed by a tight rhythm and blues band that earned its chops in the Brooklyn studios of Hipbone Records, and she intimidates a lot of female singers with two meaningful exceptions, Denise LaSalle and Bettye LaVette.  

Bruce Katz

Bruce Katz is an educated generalist. He’s played bass for Big Mama Thornton, B3 for Ronnie Earl, Chris O’Leary and Debbie Davies, piano for Gregg Allman, and channels the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” on “Up From The Center” on his CD, Get Your Groove! He holds a jazz performance degree from New England Conservatory degree, and he’s taught a blues course at Berklee School of Music.  

“I know how to play any style of jazz there is,” says Bruce.” I choose not to play it. (Chuckle) I choose to play blues ’cause that’s what I love, and it’s emotionally satisfying to me. But there are little elements I know about that creep into my blues playing that I think is kind of cool and fun.”  

If blues is about paying your dues, James Armstrong has paid his debt twice. When he hurt his hand protecting his son from an intruder, he had to learn how to play the guitar all over again and in a new style. Born into a musical family in 1957 in Los Angeles, he had blues music in his blood from the very start. His mom was a blues singer, his dad played jazz guitar. Armstrong formed his first band in the 7th grade, and by age 17 he was touring the country.   

Johnny Rawls is a veteran guitarist, arranger, songwriter and producer, but he’s best known as a sweet soul singer who was one of the best acts I ever introduced at Troy’s Riverfront Arts Festival years ago. With 15 albums to his credit, he has been nominated for many Blues Music Awards where his I’m Still Around album was named Soul Blues Album of the Year.  

Four legacy acts with more than 150 years of experience collectively, all backing their own bands, presented in a breathtaking setting in southern Vermont in a family-friendly show from noon to 6 p.m. It’s time to jump back in the water, and this show is just the one to do it. And SVAC’s new restaurant, CurATE will be open for lunch and dinner.

For ticket information go to https://www.svac.org/class/the-blues/ 

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