SVAC presents the Blues. Southern Vermont Arts Center. Saturday, August 7th

The inaugural “SVAC presents the Blues” one day festival, was held Saturday, August 7th in the idyllic surroundings of Manchester’s Southern Vermont Arts Center.

Promoter Paul Benjamin hopes this will become an annual event and confirmed to me that next year is already a go. That’s great news for Blues fans.

First up of the participating four acts was The Alexis P. Suter Band. The Brooklyn based outfit turned in a dynamic performance of soulful originals and powerful covers. Suter has a deep contralto like burnished mahogany, which she employed to stunning effect throughout. A reflective take on Leon Russell’s “A Song for you” with piano only backing, was followed by a poignant “Didn’t it rain”, dedicated to her 99-year-old Mother. But Suter saved the best for last, with a towering rendition of “Let it be”, transforming the Beatles’ classic into the gospel standard it is surely meant to be.

Next was The Bruce Katz Band, my favorite act of the day. Katz has played with a plethora of artists of all genres and is a remarkably adept keyboardist. His power trio (Katz on keys and bass pedals, Aaron Lieberman – guitar and vocals, and Liviu Pop on drums) laid the funk down so heavy you could walk on it. Katz’s gonzo piano solo on “Get your groove” was like listening to a knife fight between Mike Garson and Meade Lux Lewis, choreographed by George Gershwin. In a nod to his time with Gregg Allman, Katz played both “Trouble no more” and a gorgeously fluid “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’, his Hammond and Liberman’s guitar dovetailing beautifully.

The unenviable task of following Katz fell to the charm offensive that was The James Armstrong Band. The affable Armstrong informed us that growing up in California, his main influence was in fact rock, not blues, and his idol was Jimi Hendrix. He remarked that he always makes sure to tip his hat to his rock roots in every show. He proceeded to do just that with a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (reimagined as a blues shuffle) and a heartfelt “Waiting on the world to change” by John Mayer. His own original songs were laid back and wryly humorous, much like the man himself. As he both said and sang, “The blues don’t have to be sad, the blues been good to me!”

The only minor disappointment in a satisfying day of music was the headlining act, The Johnny Rawls Band. The veteran Southern soul singer certainly has a fine voice, but he exerted it rarely in a set that relied way too much on repetitive vamps through such chestnuts as “Kansas City”, “Green Onions”, “Sweet Home Chicago” and yes, even “Johnny B. Goode.” Rawls was joined onstage at the end by Armstrong and Katz for a spirited jam, after which the crowd dispersed happily in the early evening sunshine.

Benjamin remarked that next year, the hours may be changed to start later and run more into the evening which I think would be a good move.

Hopefully, this festival will become a regular addition to the circuit, and I will certainly be amongst the first in line for the next version.

After all, be in no doubt that “The Blues is alright!” 

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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