Day two of the North River Blues Festival at Marshfield Fair was a well managed event. It was also one that gave an idea what heaven might be like when we get there: several hours of outstanding blues bands all in a row. Paul Speidel Band, Tony Soul Band, Neal And The Vipers, Kenny Neal, and Sugaray Rayford along with side stage band Basic Black featuring Cheryl Arena treated a huge turnout to fine renditions of standards as well as some of their own original material.
During the show North River Blues Festival organizer John Hall and members of the Boston Blues Society announced the winners of their annual joint award winners. Blues Fan Of The Year went to Nancy Weston and Keeping Blues Alive went to Jim Rockwell for his weekly Sunday blues jam at Players in Rockland, Massachusetts. Vendors like Dock Of The Bay Coffee at the fair was another plus.
Paul Speidel Band offered an original instrumental titled “Cranky,” a piece with plenty of guitar riffs and lots of rhythm section rumble. Speidel’s melodic line eventually expanded into a brighter, wider line and he made it feel like a cranky person got crossed once too often and crossed the line straight into angry. Speidel has many techniques and effects gear at his disposal. At one point, he was playing a psychedelic funk line. The guitarist walked his melodic line around the block with long leash, letting that phrase strut with plenty of breathing room from the rhythm section. Speaking of Speidel’s rhythm section: nothing beats a lengthy drum solo and his drummer provided a particularly wild one. Based on a religious theme, “Mary, Please Come Home” felt quite contemplative. Speidel pressed out a crisp simmering line, a phase that spoke of passion, longing, and acceptance.
Side stage band Basic Black featuring Cheryl Arena came on next to deliver some beefy, down and dirty blues material. Usually headed up solely by guitarist Sam Gentile, Gentile shared the front person duties with Boston’s feisty harmonica queen. Arena was a perfect person to match musical wits with an ace guitarist like Gentile. She could meet all of his fiery phrases and strong vocal personality at the microphone. Arena’s crunchy, soulful phrasing made a striking contrast with her smooth, sultry voice on “Let’s Make Love Tonight.” Powered by Gentile’s steamy guitar, the whole piece came across like a good after dark number. “My Baby Don’t Stand No Cheating” was another Arena coaxed the sultriness out of. Gentile kicked that one up another notch with one of his trademark grinding, grueling guitar phrases. One could almost see the song turn red hot while he paid out his melodic phrase. Basic Black rocked things up a bit with numbers like “Little Sister” before occasionally taking it down low with slower, jazzy blues tunes. “Caledonia,” in a later set, seemed to play itself, taking the players along with it, being such a long springy groove work out. Basic Black’s additional guest, guitarist Greg Miller, also turned up the heat on specific numbers, letting Gentile front the band on vocal only, letting himself unfurl emotively, physically to deliver a wider sound.
A fine addition to the North River Blues Festival was the Tony Soul Band. Fronted by the charismatic Tony Parente, this soul drenched, R&B outfit from Central Massachusetts relied on their usual flare for style and tight musicianship to deliver tunes that made one move one’s feet and shake one’s booty. They also compelled one to listen more closely to their tradeoffs between funky guitar riffs and blaring horn shots. Oldies soul number “Tossin’ And Turnin’ was one this band turned into a dance party. Parente turned his microphone over to saxophonist Jeff Giacomelli for a soulful interpretation of The Band’s classic “The Weight.” Giacomelli’s booming rasp made the song feel real, as did the switching changes between the verses of this old beauty. Guitarist Mike Kalenderian
used his six string well to compensate for the piano notes in “On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty Beaver Brown Band. Driving into more solid blues territory, TSB tackled “Messin’ With The Kid,” turning it into a blistering trumpet attack.” Then, “Hustle Down In Texas” was another blues number TSB turned into an R&B party tune with greasy guitar work and blaring horns. Bass player, comic relief actor, and “presidential candidate” Matt Sambito rocked things up a bit on “Goin’ Down,” using his stomping low end to push the song around like a giant pushing a Lilliputian. The horns too brought the number to colorful, three dimensional life. Showmanship vocals, disciplined, musicianship, and considered emotive qualities helped them close out their set with Joe Cocker’s arrangement of “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
Neal And The Vipers took the main stage by storm, jumping right into their set with fiery blues-rock material before taking things down low with slow boiler blues. Singer Dave Howard’s voice is still one of the raspiest, rawest things on this side of the Mississippi. The Vipers offered a heaping amount of fiery guitar phrases and thumpy bad ass grooves. Howard belted “Right Time, Wrong Place” with guttural, soulful authority as the Vipers slapped that baby home with a bouncy groove and screaming, colorful guitar lines. Guitarist Neal Vitullo filled in nicely for the original’s horn lines with some highly expressive phrases. The band went into “Looking Back At Her” with equal aplomb, nailing its twisty turns with plenty of good groove coming out of the toms. They played “Slow Down” briskly with a call and response in the chorus. Vitullo is like the Joe Perry of the blues. He’s endlessly inventive and he kept his lines loaded with electrified joy and pain with each note in a massive expression of a musical soul. Epic. Listening to this band made me wonder why blues isn’t as big a genre as country and rock. Folks in the mainstream just don’t know what they’re missing. Neal And The Vipers are living proof of that.
Co-headliner Kenny Neal opened his set with a modern blues take on “Little Red Rooster,” an oldie he turned into something new, fresh, and electrifying with his fury of lead guitar notes. He had his piano player and rhythm section clear a path for him to blow his harmonica on “Since I Met You, Baby” by Ivory Joe Hunter. He blew those notes out with special attention to detail, nursing each one like a baby until his harp line was richer than a gold mine in heart felt feeling. Touring to support his new CD Bloodline, Neal offered its track “You’ve Got To Keep On Movin’,” which he swung into with strong personality at the microphone. Neal crooned this hefty anthem of survival like he knows first hand. This hard blues tune had nice dressing from a flinty organ solo but it was the steady, authoritative stomp below that moved this piece forward. Neal’s guitar phrasing was just as strong as his front person presence. He even made his guitar line sound like an animal calling out with a unique wail. Neal and his men played “You Don’t Have To Go” as a rollicking, mid-tempo cruiser. He eventually walked around the audience playing and singing into a portable microphone then moved on to a smooth, slick blues called “Any Fool.” He got a big huge sound out of his guitar on a cut he wrote with Delbert McClinton before playing a sterling rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Time Slips Away,” which is also on Mr. Neal’s new disc. Neal came back for an encore, treating the audience to a Zydeco swamp number which made an impression with its cyclical groove and layers of colorful guitar and organ heaped on top.
There isn’t much left to be said about super blues man Sugaray Rayford who closed out the two day North River Blues Festival with his larger than life persona. He belted “Big Legged, Short Skirt”
while his band put a lot of oomph behind him, the swirl of instrumentation keeping a festive environment on stage. “Voodoo Woman” found Rayford belting with a command of blues, soul, and funk, all in one song. It takes a powerful musical personality to forge his own style out of other genres and to sing with a hefty vocal presence that makes itself felt across the festival grounds. It’s hard to imagine doing his thing with only a small combo behind him, as it takes a big band to accompany such a big man. Rayford took it down low, mischievous, and sly for “Play The Fool,” a soulful affair in which this singer emoted with solid underpinning. His guitarist played a wide, dynamic phrase, one that sounded larger than life. Rayford offered other tunes like “Will I Live To Love Again” and “Stuck For A Buck” with his trademark big R&B sound.
Rayford certainly was a classy closer. Before we knew it, another North River Blues Festival had come and gone. John Hall had done it again, offered a second afternoon of fantastic variety and quality while creating a huge turnout. Let’s hope that John Hall and the North River Blues Festival are both around for another 21 years. It’s hard to imagine our New England blues scene without him and his events.