Loving Tribute to Lead Belly at Carnegie Hall
Where do I start to tell the story of Lead Belly Fest, an amazing tribute to Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter held at Carnegie Hall, first staged at Royal Albert Hall in London last year? Carnegie Hall was the site of Lead Belly’s last performance in 1949, so it was appropriate that the second staging of Lead Belly Fest occurred on that same stage.
Organized by Paul Puccioni, to pay homage to the person about whom George Harrison said, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” this show honored the memory of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, influences on music in the 20th century.
This was an incredible event, and I am not sure my words or photos can do justice to it. The show was long — over three hours of music — but it flowed extremely well and I would not have minded even more of it. Each performer did a couple of songs, which meant that the songs were the stars of the evening rather than the individual performers — as it should be for a celebration of the life and career of an American icon.
After a brief greeting by Puccioni and Terika Dean, Lead Belly’s grand-niece, the festivities started. Some of the songs performed were by Lead Belly, but there were other standards as well.
First to the stage were Nick Moss and Michael Ledbetter — no relation — performing “Backwater Blues.” I knew their names but did not know the extent of their talent. Playing acoustic guitars, they set a high bar for everyone else.
Poet Tyehimba Jess brought gentle power to the stage with his reading of “freedom,” from his collection of poetry about Lead Belly. I wish he had read more of his powerful work.
Next the house band — Jon Cobert on piano and organ, Mark Rivera on saxophone and percussion, Rich Pagano on drums, Stu Woods on bass, and Peter Calo on guitar — took the stage, where they remained for much of the show. They backed John Davis on “Eagle Rock Rag,” one of Lead Belly’s songs. Then came one of my favorite musicians and people, Dom Flemons, who sang “Poor Howard.”
Flemons emceed the rest of the show, and introduced Laurence Jones and his band. Jones was the winner of several competitions in Europe, including best guitarist in the European Blues Awards, and he is a terrific young guitarist who performed two original tunes: “Swamp Soul River” and “Thunder in the Sky.”
One of my recent favorite musicians, Guy Davis, next took the stage and performed “Bourgeois Blues,” which had the crowd roaring! He updated the lyrics to reflect current political times, and it was brilliant.
Tom Chapin was next, performing “Rock Island Line” and “Midnight Special.” This was my first time seeing him, but it won’t be my last. He had the audience singing along with him on “Midnight Special,” one of Lead Belly’s best-known songs.
I didn’t know Walter Trout by name until last year, although I certainly know the bands with which he has played over the past almost 50 years. He was deathly ill but has recovered and came roaring out to the stage. He is so clearly grateful to be able to perform that he seemed to be giving 1,000 percent to his songs, “Say Goodbye to the Blues” and “T.B. Blues,” the latter being a Jimmie Rodgers tune.
Last to the stage in the first act was Dana Fuchs. What a voice she has! She sang “Gallows Pole” and did a wonderful job with that classic song.
After a brief intermission, which I know I needed, Ali Isabella came to the stage with a video backdrop from ABC, the Association to Benefit Children — one of the two charities benefiting from the night’s performances (the other was Project ALS). I doubt anyone had a dry eye watching the children in the video sing along with Isabella on “Take This Hammer.”
The iconic Edgar Winter ran onto the stage next, to tremendous applause. He has a lot of energy, and performed his own song “Tobacco Road” as well as Lead Belly’s “Good Morning Blues.” The next artist was a revelation to me – Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, playing acoustic blues. This young man stunned me, and most likely the entire audience. I cannot wait to see him again playing a full set of his music.
Chris King Robinson had a difficult task following Paxton, but he performed one song with the house band backing him. One of the musicians I was most looking forward to seeing came to the stage next. Eric Burdon (with his band, the Animals) had a huge hit in the 1960s with “House of the Rising Sun” — a song for which Lead Belly was famous — and I was thrilled that Burdon performed it this night. His voice, 50 years later, brought me back to my youth when I first heard his iconic version of the song. He also performed ‘In the Pines,’ another of Lead Belly’s creations.
Sari Schorr has a powerful voice and sang “Black Betty,” credited to Lead Belly but which may be an adaptation of an older work song. Josh White, Jr., the next artist, was one of the two performers who were in Lead Belly’s presence. Lead Belly performed with White’s father, and as a young boy, Josh Jr. knew him. He played “Precious Lord” and “Strange Fruit,” which was performed most famously by Billie Holliday. That song is a protest against the inhumanity of racism; considering the current climate in the US, it felt timely and important.
As we approached the end of the celebration, Kenny Wayne Shepherd took the stage with his singer Noah Hunt to play “Shame Shame” and “Backwater Blues” — the latter, a Bessie Smith tune. I have seen Shepherd perform a number of times, but this might have been my favorite performance of his. I felt that he almost sat back to let the music take center stage rather than showcasing his impeccable guitar work.
The penultimate act was Tom Paley, with his son Ben. Tom actually played with Lead Belly in 1949, right here at Carnegie Hall. Last to the stage was Buddy Guy, arguably the best-known of the musicians performing this night. Despite appearing in the headlining position, he performed two songs like everyone else, but they were two of his own songs: “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” and “Born to Play Guitar.”
I am grateful to have been able to attend and photograph this show. I wish I had seen Lead Belly perform, but unfortunately he passed away from ALS before I was even born. Nonetheless, he left a legacy that continue to live and thrive, especially since young ethnomusicologists like Dom Flemons and Jerron “Blind Boy’ Paxton carry the flame for him.