On June 29 through July 1, 2012, Bayport BBQ owner Chris Johnson revitalized his “Deep Blues Fest” in Minnesota after a lapse of two years. Among the changes he made was the decision to hold attendance to around 200 fans in his restaurant and coordinate the program with Alive Naturalsound Records. As a result, 26 groups representing four countries & 16 states performed in the comparatively intimate setting. Now, Alive at the Deep Blues Fest offers a sampling of the music from seven of these bands who, naturally, are signed to Alive Naturalsound.
One note of caution. Those who haven’t heard the term “alternative blues” before can be forgiven for feeling very confused by what is captured on the live disc. Forget Albert, Freddie, or B.B. King. There is little that will remind you of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, or Howlin’ Wolf. You won’t hear the sounds of contemporary blues artists like Omar Dykes, Boy Wells, Jimmy Vaughan, or Sugar Ray and the Bluetones.
Instead, in spirit and flavor, Alive at the Deep Blues Fest captures a scene that evokes a mid-’60s garage rock, sometimes blues rock, rough and raw groove with an emphasis on power trios. Throughout the selected tracks, memories of familiar names, very old names indeed, are hard to avoid.
For example, Ohio’s Buffalo Killers (a threesome from Cincinnati) channels Cream in “River Water” but layer in some harp from Mark “Porkchop” Holder on “It’s a Shame.” Also hailing from Cincinnati, Brian Olive is far more psychedelic than bluesy with spacey organ on “Traveling” and “Bonelle.” If Leslie West had sung for Jimi Hendrix, the result might have sounded like Radio Moscow, with Parker Griggs picking up where Stevie Ray Vaughan left off on the wah-wah pedal on “Hold On Me” and “Little Eyes.” One Philadelphia trio, John The Conqueror, gets only one song, “Three More,” perhaps because the vocal mic wasn’t mixed very well.
When we hear old school soulful blues, not surprisingly, we go to the deep South, as with Alabama’s thoughtful Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. They share some interesting lyrics on “There is a Balm in Gilead” where they sing about passing “checkpoints to your enemies house” before they rock out a la Rory Gallagher on “The Red, Red Dirt of Home.” Then again, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, we get the most straightforward blues of the album with Left Lane Cruiser. Their axeman, Freddy J. Evans IV, is very reminiscent of Johnny Winter in “24 Hour Blues.” The band, too, adds in some harmonica work from Mark Holder on Robert Johnson’s “Rambling on My Mind.”
The band that, at the very least, gets the prize for traveling the farthest is Henry’s Funeral Shoe from South Wales. You know they’re British when they begin the set educating the audience about U.K. comedian Spike Milligan, an inspiration for Monty Python and later inspiration for the band’s “Be Your Own Invention/Stranger Dig.” The collection ends with the group’s signature tune, appropriately called “Henry’s Funeral Shoe.”
Unifying this variety show is the consistently muddy sound of the recording, especially the vocals. But as the proceedings were intended to be small scale to begin with, one gets the feeling we’re revisiting a weekend music fest circa 1966 when the amps, speakers, mics, and mixing board were minimalist, at least by 21st century standards. In fact, the sound quality borders on that of a decent bootleg. So it makes sense that, in addition to the usual CD and digital formats, Alive at the Deep Blues Fest is also available on black vinyl with mp3 download card & poster, not to mention a limited edition “BBQ sauce red” vinyl version.
One of those vinyl packages would be the way to go if you still have a turntable around to kick back and bathe in this abbreviated concert in old-fashioned analog. Seven bands makes for a mixed bag, but all are worthy of being heard beyond their already existing fan bases. My appetite was whetted to seek out studio releases from some of these guys like Radio Moscow, Henry’s Funeral Shoe, Left Lane Cruiser, and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.
For some of us, Alive at the Deep Blues Fest is a bit of a flashback to weekends at the college where everyone was sitting on blankets and passing around aromatic cigarettes rather than sandwiches with barbecue sauce. For others, here’s 1966 in an alternative universe updated to 2012.