CD Review: Various Artists – Alive at the Deep Blues Fest (Alive, 2012)
The Deep Blues Festival is a Minnesota celebration of alternative blues music, originally run from 2007 to 2010. After spin-offs in Cleveland and Ortin, WA, festival organizer (and BBQ restaurateur) Chris Johnson brought the original festival back to life at Bayport BBQ for a long weekend of shows leading into 2012’s fourth of July. Threaded through the festival were the seven acts collected here, all of whom record for the Alive label. The majority of these bands hail from the Midwest – Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania – with fellow travelers Lee Bains arriving from Alabama, and Henry’s Funeral Shoe hopping over the pond from the UK. It’s a testament to Alive’s A&R department that they’ve fostered a stable of bands with similar roots but individual flavors.
At the blunter end of the spectrum are Radio Moscow, with Parker Griggs opening “Hold on Me” with stinging psychedlic wah wah atop a percussion section that takes no prisoners. Henry’s Funeral Shoe has often echoed the British blues-rock giants of the 1970s, but here they are more rough-and-ready, like the Live at Leeds-era Who. Philadelphia’s John the Conqueror is the sort of power trio you’d expect to hear in the run-down ballrooms of Almost Famous, forceful and melodic. Left Lane Cruiser sticks most closely to the classic blues progressions on “24 Hour Blues,” with Freddy J IV’s guitar a ragged, driving machine and Brenn Beck a one-man rhythm section on drums and cymbals. Mark Holder adds his harp to the band’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Rambling on My Mind.”
More nuanced is Lee Bains III’s mix of sanctified soul and the aggressive electric aesthetic that is Alive’s hallmark. Similarly, Brian Olive’s take has the same core energy, but filled out less abrasively with keyboard, drums and bass lines that glide, roll and rumble in a powerful wall of sound. The Buffalo Killers, who often suggest James Gang-era Joe Walsh, expand on a nine-minute jam of “It’s a Shame” with harmonica player Mark Holder sitting in. It’s great to hear these bands together (even if only through the magic of editing), offering the numerous shades of two- and three-man blues that is their label’s stock-in-trade.