Southern Vermont Arts Center Inaugurates An Auspicious New Blues Festival

“She may not remember me all the time, but she remembers the music.”  

The last of five children, Alexis P. Suter dedicated the century-and-a-half old gospel song “Let It Rain” to her mom slowly dying of dementia at 99. His mother had toured the country singing with Thomas Dorsey who wrote “Precious Lord” and she had still been playing church organ at 92. 

Alexis was the first of four acts appearing on Saturday, August 7th, each a unique veteran blues performer with their own clearly defined style. This was a six-hour tour-de-force at the inaugural Southern Vermont Arts Center Blues Fest. 

The Band’s Levon Helm had taken Alexis’ God-given talent to a higher level at the vaunted Saturday night rambles at his rough-hewn barn in Woodstock. Now she was anointing a brand-new blues showcase, setting a high precedent for an annual event that promises to take the regional blues scene to a new level. 

It rained forty days and forty nights without stopping 
Noah was glad when the rain stopped dropping 
Knock at the window, a knock at the door 
Crying brother Noah can’t you take on more 
Noah cried no, you’re full of sin 
God got the key and you can’t get in 

In her opening 70-minute salvo, she covered a lot of ground from the sacred to the profane, from Howlin’ Wolf’s Chicago blues classic “Built for Comfort” to “I’m A Ram.” “I love a bass player because they know how to hold a bottom,” she proclaimed in the middle of her self-written title track of Be Love, from her 2019 album on Hipbone Records. “And Brian knows how to hold a bottom.” 

A master of dynamics, she took the audience from a whisper to a roar and back again from “A Song for You” made famous by Ray Charles and Leon Russell to a finale of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” which in 2021 comes across as eerily prescient. 

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be 

For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be 

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Yeah, there will be an answer, let it be 

On this last song of her set, she went from a cappella to a full band crescendo raising her hands at the end with a final “Halleluiah!!” 

James Armstrong connected with the audience on a most intimate level introducing his original “Grandma’s Got A New Friend” by asking how many grandmas there were in the crowd. His girlfriend’s granddaughter Lilly didn’t like him at first, but she texted him the night before this show and told him she loved him. He had us hooked.  

This unassuming everyman introduced “The Thrill Is Gone” by saying that out of deference to the King of The Blues he never performed any of B.B.’s songs until he’d passed. His version did B.B. proud. 

I introduced myself to James after his set reminding him of his Troy Riverfront Arts Festival performance many years ago. “Did you see me before my accident,” he asked looking intently into my eyes. While protecting his young son from a burglar, he was knifed in the hand and had to learn to play guitar all over again. Did it make him more of an entertainer? I don’t know, but he sold the most CDs of any one of the four on the bill. His inviting set ran from originals like “Lying Politicians,” a song he says he’s still tweaking, to a bluesy version of Robert Palmer’s rocker “Addicted to Love” and John Mayer’s “Waiting for The World to Change.”  

Bruce Katz is as fast on keyboards as Johnny Winter was on guitar, but unlike many high-spirited young instrumentalists, this veteran with an academic resume to match his long list of performing credits is startlingly proficient at any speed. He was best received on two Gregg Allman tunes including “Trouble No More” recalling his time with the Allman solo band. 

His repertoire went from the old chestnut “Hesitation Blues” to two originals, “Three Feet Off The Ground” and “Norton’s Boogie” inspired by Ed Norton, Jackie Gleason’s foil in the 1950s sitcom The Honeymooner

Johnny Rawls closed the fest with a rave-up of proven crowd pleasers including everything from T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” to the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” He even did a medley of “The Twist,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Johnny B. Goode.”  

The most renowned of the four artists, Rawls is arguably the most highly regarded torch bearer of southern soul blues, a smooth romantic style still in favor with black fans and a staple of black radio. Borrowing James Armstrong’s Travis Reid on second guitar, and featuring his own guitarist on lead, Rawls played to his mostly white audience without dipping into his own extensive catalog. He encored with a jam featuring Bruce Katz and James Armstrong on “The Blues Is All Right.” 

A shoutout to Arts Center Executive Director Anne Corso and Festival Producer Paul Benjamin. Both are veterans in their field who see the blues as both culture and entertainment. Anne runs one of the most beautiful facilities in a bucolic setting in Manchester that features art that breathes with freshness. Paul has decades of running blues festivals around the world. This week he’s presenting The Gloucester Blues Festival and after that will begin looking at next year’s lineup for Vermont. He observed at the conclusion of this year’s fest that the indoor/outdoor 400-seat Arkel main stage on acres of woodland is intimate enough to showcase the kind of acts he presents at his club in Rockland, Maine.  

Next year’s fest again will be on the first week of August. 

1 Comment
  1. MIke says

    This was a great show and the staff did a great job to make sure the vibe was perfect all day long. Will be back next year for sure!

Comments are closed.