Lonnie Shields, Vanessa Collier among Briggs Farm highlights in Nescopeck
NESCOPECK — At an age when most Americans are thinking retirement, Briggs Farm Blues Festival’s enduring bluesman, Lonnie Shields, wants to work harder. And more intensely. And in more places.
The 61-year-old performer wants to re-ignite his career, and he has some firepower behind him: The personal manager of the late, great Ray Charles and a 19-year-old guitar slinger named Jesse Loewy.
For years Loewy has played with Shields on the festival’s Back Porch Stage, a replica of a plantation porch where first-generation bluesmen performed in the 1930s.
But this year Loewy had full charge of the electric blues band Friday night at the smaller venue, a task he handled with ease. With guitar in hand, Loewy has been climbing onto performance stages since he was 8.
Meanwhile, Shields, who toured Europe and even played in Russia and Israel at the height of his career in the 1990s, took Briggs’ Main Stage Saturday night and again Sunday for the festival’s gospel show. Fans were treated to a nine-piece blues band with a horn section and keyboard player, and numbers from his new CD, “Code Blue.”
When Shields plays, it’s often a family affair, and his re-emergence to the Main Stage Sunday illustrated that. His brother, Raymond Shields Sr., a retired postal worker and church minister in Memphis, and sister Dolores Cottoen, of St. Louis, joined the band to sing spiritual numbers including, “I’ll Take You There” and “Walk In the Light.”
For the audience perched on the grassy farm hill, the diverse band’s strong instrumentals provided a service with soulful guitar segments, a horn section and, of course, a keyboard player — to the fans’ delight. It was church and concert rolled into one.
What would inspire a 61-year-old to take on more responsibilities by hitting the road again? Youth and experience.
Shields said that with his teenage daughter nearly grown and Loewy ready for bigger venues, it was a simple choice. In addition, 87-year-old Duke Wade, who served as Ray Charles’ personal manager during the music icon’s most productive years in the 1950s and ’60s, has agreed to promote the Lonnie Shields Band.
“When I told Little Jesse I was thinking I was ready to retire, he told me I had too much energy and that he thought I should give it one more shot. One thing led to another, and this is what we came up with,” Shields, known as the “Keeper of the Blues,” said. “Depending on the place, we will have anywhere from a five-piece to a nine-piece band on stage.”
Shields, of Havertown, is no stranger to the international circuit. A native of Arkansas, he earned his stripes at the legendary King Biscuit Blues Festival there and has collaborated with many blues greats, including Elvin Bishop, Sam Carr, Eddie Shaw and Big Jack Johnson. Blues hotspots like Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi are familiar turf to him.
Shields once headlined a concert in Israel where 10,000 people jammed the venue.
“They really roll out the red carpet for American musical performers. They’re so appreciative of what we do, and I love playing for them. I’ve played all over Europe, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden. I’ve even went to Russia to play,” he said. “A few yell out slurs against us because we’re from the United States, but most everyone loved us and respected what we do.”
Shields counts on Loewy to take the lead when necessary, and he has proven he is up for the task. Shields took Loewy under his wing when he was 13, and the two have been performing together since. Accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Loewy put his education on hold to tour with Shields.
Using his connections developed over decades, promoter Wade said he will have the band booked solid in the states and elsewhere within a year.
“I’m going to take his ass up. We’ve got a lot of trust between us, and we can make this (major tour) happen,” Wade, of Long Island, N.Y., said.
Let’s hope that tour includes another Briggs visit.
Back Porch Stage
Situated under a tent, the Back Porch Stage is an intimate venue where bands cut their teeth and sharpen their acts. But it’s hard to imagine how some of the stage shows at Briggs can get better.
Swampcandy, an Americana duo from Annapolis, Md., is one of them. They bring a foot-stompin’, whiskey-swilling approach to their Delta delivery with an aggressive finger-picking style to breathe new life into old songs. They also play originals, like “Drink Whiskey With Me,” which reflects the band’s bad-boy persona.
Think Tom Waits drinking bourbon and chasing it with Red Bull when Swampcandy performs.
With his wolf-like beard and lightning-fast fingers, guitarist/singer Ruben Dobbs is the frontman who can howl like a mad dog and then be a soulful sort on the next number. Upright bass player Joey Mitchell and Dobbs have been on the road together since 2010.
For Briggs, the band upped its game for both Friday and Saturday night performances by adding drummer Dominic Fragman and songstress Gina Cottey, a Brit whose voice sweetens Swampcandy’s rowdy show.
Festivals like Briggs offer fans acts they are not going to see in the mainstream. One of those is a young woman named Vanessa Collier, a graduate of Berklee who fronts her blues band with her saxophone. The woman also sings — quite well, thank you — and has the poise and stage presence to guide her seasoned ensemble through a blues set that takes fans from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street and then over to Memphis.
Collier’s band played the Back Porch Stage Friday night and graced the Main Stage Saturday night.
She pens most of her songs to offer an eclectic mix of blues, gospel and soul music, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Her alluring voice and engaging personality ensures she connects with audiences. And, unlike many bandleaders — she has no ego issues — she steps back to let other band members showcase their talents, which adds depth to her act and a better show for the audience.
The BluesMobile (Elwood’s Blues Breaker – House of Blues Radio) says:
“Vanessa Collier is the coolest young artist on the scene today …”
Expect to hear more about Collier.
Chicago blues found its way onto the Back Porch with the Norman Jackson Band, a four-piece ensemble that played a mix of soulful songs and driving blues. Jackson himself claims to have known many of the early bluesman who made Chicago famous (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy).
In addition to a strong set of blues and soul, his show offered a repertoire of funny stories, exchanges with band members and the onstage gymnastics of saxophonist Rick Shortt. At one point the energized Shortt left the stage and jumped on the roof of the antique pickup truck next to the venue while never missing a note.
Showmanship is part of the game, and the Norman Jackson Band brought that to Nescopeck last weekend.