Blues Masters At The Crossroads – Blue Heaven Studios (Salina, KS)
The stained glass is beautiful but simple, befitting a midwestern church. The pews are padded but stern, so you don’t get too comfortable. The balcony is full and warm, heated by the large crowd below.
When the Campbell Brothers crank up the volume after 11 on Saturday night, it’s clear that their mix of sacred and steel — pedal, lap and six-string guitars — could turn a bar into a sanctifying sanctuary, but that a church is the right place to see them.
For nearly two hours, the ensemble — brothers Chuck, Darick and Phillip on guitars, Phillip’s son Carlton on drums, Malcolm Kirby on bass, and Katie Jackson and Denise Brown on vocals — shakes the rafters, driving 400-plus townspeople and blues fans from all over to their feet.
It’s a message honed in the Church of God denomination, where steel guitars fuel songs of praise, and preached from the stage by Phil, who introduces songs such as “Don’t Let The Devil Ride” with the admonition, “If you let him ride, he’ll take your car and drive.”
By 12:30, when Brown shouts the song “Jump For Joy” and Phillip dances into the crowd, everyone seems one step closer to heaven.
The showplace is Blue Heaven Studios, a former Church of Christ house of worship blessed with fine acoustics. Six years ago, Chad Kassem started Blues Masters At The Crossroads, an annual weekend of concerts to spotlight lesser-known performers. It was an outgrowth of Kassem’s store Acoustic Sounds, which sells vinyl records, and APO Records, which has recorded Honeyboy Edwards, Jimmy Rogers and others.
The church is now a recording studio, with Kassem’s technological fervor shown through state-of-the-art sound as well as cameras, which roll for a possible DVD release. In the fellowship hall, musicians mingled with fans between sets as down-home cooking wafted from the kitchen. For musicians and the fans, it’s clear this is a special place.
Saturday’s concert began with a commanding set by Alvin Youngblood Hart, who at 40 summons the ghosts of the Delta. Hart’s rhythmic guitar echoes Son House and other masters, and his voice has the grit of Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton, whom Hart covered twice. On “Them Fair Weather Friends”, he picked a Piedmont blues on 12-string and showed his humor, calling it “12-step guitar” because “by the time you learn to string it and tune it, you gotta check into a program.”
Sandwiched between Hart and the Campbells were singers Deitra Farr of Chicago and Sweet Betty of Chicago. Both women were backed by the house band of longtime Muddy Waters sidemen Bob Margolin on guitar and Willie Smith on drums, plus Mookie Brill on bass, Kaz Kazanoff on sax and Eddie Tigner on piano.
Swamp-rocker Tony Joe White, with just his electric guitar and a drummer, seemed a bit out-of-place but served the variety Kassem strives to showcase. White started slow, but fans cheered for his classic “Polk Salad Annie” as well as “Willie And Laura Mae Jones”.
Friday’s show opened with 75-year-old Arkansas bluesman John Weston, the kind of lesser-known performer the concerts aim to feature. Weston is nearly a one-man band, playing guitar and harmonica and drum and accompanied by his “toddler,” 23-year-old Carla Robinson, on bass.
Weston’s set was gentle but full of detail and humor. His songs are personal, not the standards every fan has heard. He mocks his misadventures with songs such as “Sugar Daddy Blues” (“You can park your car, you won’t be taking me for a ride no more”) and with proclamations such as, “All women are good — to somebody.” Soon, the crowd chuckles along like it’s a front-porch conversation.
Next were Chicago harmonica player Carey Bell and son Lurrie, a flaming guitarist. Their performance, including standards and featuring house-band members, showed flashes of brilliance but was a bit brief.
Zydeco and other swamp sounds are regularly feature at these concerts (Kassem’s a Louisiana native). This year, it was accordionist and singer Fernest Arceneaux and a band including guitarist Lil’ Buck Sinegal and drummer Jockey Etienne, veterans of hundreds of recordings.
Their music is a down-home dance, not the funked-up sound much of zydeco has become.
Arceneaux is a big man, shouting out the lyrics, often in French, and when he squeezes that box and yells “Eh toi!”, he means it. With “Joe Pete Has Two Women” and the jitterbugging closer “Bernadette”, gray-haired Kansas grandmas swayed in approval.
Arceneaux was a fine setup for closer Nappy Brown, who wrote “Night Time Is The Right Time”. Brown is quite the showman, at 74 still blessed with a strong voice and sense of style, coming out in a snappy suit and broad smile.
Brown’s 1950s R&B (“Going Down Slow”, “Who”, “Night Time”, etc.) has the congregation hopping. But it’s the lascivious “Lemon-Squeezing Daddy” that leaves a lasting impression. For over ten minutes, Brown drops his suspenders and strokes the song, his chest and his hips. It’s almost too much, as the raunch goes on and crowd members laugh uneasily. It is a church, after all. When Brown pulls up his suspenders and moves on to “Bye Bye Baby”, one fan sighs, “I think I need a cigarette.”