A beginner’s guide to the blues will help rockers navigate Briggs Farm
The sound coming to Briggs Farm July 7 to 9 is steeply rooted in a tradition forged by the blues players of the 1920s and ’30s, who are the grandparents of rock ‘n’ roll. They include Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Son House.
Though that first generation has past, they left a legacy that carries on. Today’s players have incorporated modern technology to deliver an oral history set to music that draws on the themes laid down by their predecessors: Crossroads of life, hard times and love gone bad will be recurring topics.
But there is also an indisputable blues link that has gone unnoticed by some rock fans. Many of rock’s legendary performers — The Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and ZZ Top — are firmly grounded in the blues.
Legendary bluesman Muddy Waters aptly described that connection with his 1977 recording, “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll.” In fact, rock’s most enduring band, The Rolling Stones, began as a British rhythm and blues band and took their name from a Waters song.
Yet, despite the two genres’ relationship, others confuse blues with jazz, gospel, folk and bluegrass. Some blues numbers certainly have elements of jazz, gospel or folk. But bluegrass is markedly different in that it features the banjo, which is not likely to be seen on stage at Briggs or any other blues venue.
Here are some talking points and blues trivia to help rock fans who aren’t sure what they are likely to experience at a festival like Briggs:
Like many boxers, gangsters and rockers, blues performers over the decades have had memorable stage handles: T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Harmonica Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Lazy Lester, Lead Belly and Brownie McGhee. That has not changed. Briggs this year will host: R.L. Boyce and the Cornlickers, Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats, Swampcandy and Alexis P. Suter and The Ministers of Sound.
In the blues world this is not a beer brand, Irish slur or string instrument used in classical concerts. It is a harmonica, a small instrument that delivers a big sound. John Nemeth is this year’s big man on the harp, headlining the July 7 main stage lineup with his Blues Dreamers band.
This year’s offering is Swampcandy, a two-man band that brings that dirty old Mississippi sound to the festival in big way. Expect to hear tales of whiskey drinking, bad luck and no luck at all when the duo takes the Back Porch stage July 7 and 8. Their approach is down and dirty, which is guaranteed to bring to the crowd to its feet.
There will be many, from Lonnie Shields exhibiting his technical expertise to Slam Allen’s soulful sound to Eric Gale’s lightning-fast guitar licks. At times throughout the concert it will sound like rock guitarists are jamming — except it will be better.
Northeastern Pennsylvania will be well represented on the Back Porch stage. Bret Alexander, fronting the Miner Blues band, plays July 7. Later that night, Pike County native Bobby Kyle and The Administers also will play. The next day, Dustin Douglas, of Wilkes-Barre, and his Electric Gentlemen and Scranton’s Clarence Spady take the stage.
In 2010 the last of the original Mississippi Delta bluesman, 95-year-old “Honeyboy” Edwards, played at Briggs. Two years earlier, he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, making him one of the oldest men to win the prestigious award. The oldest winner was another bluesman, Pinetop Perkins, who hit his peak at age 97. Both men knew blues godfather Robert Johnson, and Edwards repeatedly told the story about how he was present when Johnson, his mentor and friend, died from drinking poisoned whiskey in 1938. Throughout the festival, expect to hear many of the 29 songs Johnson left us.
The blues have had many queens, the more famous being Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown and Aretha Franklin. They have big voices, something to say and a classy stage presence. The queen at Briggs this year will be Thornetta Davis. She performs July 8th on the main stage and again Sunday headlining a show that will feature some gospel-inspired music.
“Dust My Broom”
When you hear this song, remember it has nothing to do with housework. Penned by Johnson in 1936, it is a story about a man about to leave town and never come back because of a woman. Expect to hear acoustic and electric versions of this musical staple throughout the festival.
He forever set rock’s gold standard for guitar wizardry, but he started out as a respected blues sideman and incorporated elements of the genre in many of his iconic rock songs. Jimi is long gone, but his spirit is felt at every blues venue.