Piedmont Blues Preservation Society’s 28th Annual Carolina Blues Festival (Greensboro, N.C. – May 5, 2014)
Like a meandering tributary of a muddy, tumultuous river, Piedmont blues flowed through the east coast in the 1930s and ’40s on a syncopated current, whipping the waters into foamy, ragtime rapids. Artists including Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Big Boy Henry, John Dee Holman, Etta Baker and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry fingerpicked, whooped, hollered and buck-danced their way into the public eye, influencing generations of rock, folk, rockabilly and country musicians who stirred in their style or adapted it outright.
For 28 years, Greensboro, N.C.’s Piedmont Blues Preservation Society has been curating and presenting that style of music and its offshoots for it’s annual Carolina Blues Festival. Their first effort, held in the basement of a motel in Greensboro and billed as a blues and gospel festival, was packed solid with a lineup of Piedmont blues artists: Etta Baker, Guitar Gabriel, Big Boy Henry, John Dee Holeman, Algie Mae Hinton, Thomas Burt, Fris Holloway, and the Badgett Sisters.
As the festival progressed to larger venues over the years, the lineup branched out to include a dazzling array of talent across the blues, rock, and even Zydeco spectrum. Earl King showed up in ’91 to play an intimate concert at the old train depot. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters tore it up in ’95. Little Milton and Delbert McClinton lit up the stage in ’96, the Fabulous Thunderbirds tore it down in ’97, and a blistering double bill of Koko Taylor and John Mayall blew it up in ’98. Gatemouth Brown graced the stage in ’02, and Hubert Sumlin played a tumultuous set with Michael Burks in ’07.
Zydeco was introduced in ’97 with Chubby Carrier, followed the next year by Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas in 2000, and Terence Simien in ’08.
This year’s big guns were Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, making their fourth appearance, and former Albert King rhythm guitarist Carl Weathersby, entertaining under a big circus tent in downtown Festival Park. But what was sprinkled in between sets was just as entertaining as the big boys’ antics. Backed by Winston Salem guitarist Peter May on dobro and vocals, local raconteur/storyteller turned blues evangelist Logie Meachum sermonized on the gospel of the blues. With former classical guitarist turned Skip James and Robert Johnson apostle May in the background coaxing soulful licks from his resonator, Mechum touted the virtues of his church he recently founded, the 2nd Greater Recreationalist Congregation, adapting the teachings of Jesus and Mark Twain as church doctrine. Twain’s claim that “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” seems to be a basic tenet of Meachum’s ministry, and Jesus’ forgiving platitudes are rearranged a bit, emerging from Meachum’s mouth as “even your lazy, beer drinkin’, reefer smokin,’ worthless ass is worth somethin’.”
Meachum hammered those doctrines home between delivering a version of “Deep River” with all the gravitas and bombast of Paul Robeson, telling tales of a likker house his relatives used to frequent where deacons and denizens of the alley commingled, and offering his homespun do-what-feels-good-and-take-it-easy-on-yourself philosophy.
Opener Abe Reid, 1999 winner of the International Blues Competition in Memphis, offered up a wide ranging set including a couple of tunes done in the style of mentor Guitar Gabriel’s “toot blues,” which mixed gospel, Piedmont, Delta and country blues styles, and a version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” with Reid scatting in a Louis Armstrong rumble.
Lawyers, Guns, and Money presented an array of funky blues alternating Chuck Berry riffs with frosty Albert Collins licks on a variety of original tunes.
Between sets, Meachum continued his tutorial/sermon, asking the crowd to imagine they were swinging a nine pound hammer in ninety degree heat–the blues comes from this right here, he said swinging his own imaginary hammer to the tune of “Go Down, Old Hammer.”
The King Bees served as back up band for 74 year-old Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. The guitarist is best known for playing on the 1950 hit “Right String Baby But the Wrong Yo Yo,” recorded with Piano Red, or as he was later known, Dr Feelgoood & the Interns. Still spry at 74, Watkins flips the guitar behind her head on “Big Boss Man,” does the funky chicken with a bounce in her step, and demonstrates how to “Walk the Dog” while performing a slow, funky bluesy rendition of it, then cranks out a rollicking rockabilly version of “Right String” that has more in common with Carl Perkins’ ’57 version than her original. She can roar like Koko Taylor, belting out Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” engaging the audience in a spirited call and response session, her guitar clanking like a blacksmith toiling at his anvil.
Tom Principato is up next, cranking out a set of mostly original meaty blues-rock interspersed with some soul-blues and a smidgen of reggae.
In between acts, Meachum hammers away at the crowd again with the message that everybody is all right no matter what anybody else says about ’em, as May glides around him instrumentally preaching the gospel of blues guitar.
As soon as he hits his first lick, you can tell Carl Weathersby is an Albert King disciple. His cherubic visage belies his stinging, hardcore Chicago blues licks. He’s big bold and brassy on “I Love The Life I Lead,” and “Cross Eyed Cat.” But, a big part of Weathersby’s appeal is his control of dynamics, both in his set list and his playing. After ripping off a blistering solo, he’ll bring down the volume and intensity to a slow glide, letting the crowd feel the groove, crooning soulfully before he blasts off again. His originals are peppered with a Sam Cooke feel along with snippets of two Kings–Albert and B.B.–with some roughed-up Marvin Gaye vocals tossed in as well. For his closer, he does a beautiful version of Santo and Johnny’s 1959 instrumental classic “Sleepwalk,” making following this act an unenviable task.
Headliner Rod Piazza is up for the challenge. “We’re gonna have a good time even if it kills us,” the 66 year-old Piazza announces, and he comes out swingin’. Piazza is a dynamic solo performer. Backed by the punch of the Mighty Flyers, he’s damn near invincible. Guitarist Henry Carvajal rips big holes in the fabric of the melody, but they’re quickly filled in by Piazza’s wife and Flyers co-founder Honey on boogie-woogie piano. The rhythm section, bassist Norm Gonzales and David Kida on drums, lock down the bottom end so tight you can wallow in the groove without getting stuck.
Piazza tackles Brownie and Sonny’s “Stranger Blues,” Carvajal reconstructing McGhee’s guitar lines radically, driving a wiggly train while Piazza’s harp clears the tracks with a lonesome moan instead of a whistle. Piazza goes so far off the rails on “Rockin’ Robin” that the whole band cracks up at his meandering path back to the melody before they jump back in and ride it shrieking into the station.
“Southern Lady” is Piazza’s usual set closer, the band dropping out one at a time until only Piazza is left. As fans expect, that’s his cue to take his wireless mic and harp into the crowd to perch on a road case strategically placed moments before, surrounded by screaming fans as he tries to blow the reeds out of the harp.
He whips ’em good, giving the crowd enough reedy memories to carry them over till next time the blues comes to town, courtesy of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society.
Carl Weathersby, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, and Rod Piazza photos–and story–by Grant Britt