Hot August Blues


Hot August Blues
Oregon Ridge Park
Cockeysville, Maryland
August 21, 2010

“Them trees are pretty,” joked blues guitarist Keb’ Mo’ midway through his set as he stared up at the rolling green expanse laid out in front of him, and he sure wasn’t lying.  Nestled at the base of a sprawling hill and surrounded by an army of tall trees that provided a natural backdrop for the stage, Oregon Ridge Park is one of the true hidden gems when it comes to festival settings.

You just might forget you’re only a few minutes north of downtown Baltimore.

thebridge1.jpgEntering its 18th year, the annual Hot August Blues Festival (August 21) has firmly established itself as a can’t miss event.  The festival has long favored quality over quantity, booking fewer bands so as not to overload the schedule, and instead giving those bands ample time to work through their set, allowing them the room they need to get up and fully stretch their musical legs.

Jackie Scott and the Housewreckers got things started in the early heat of the day on the main stage.  The soulful Scott, who is reminiscent of Sharon Jones, slinked her way down the short grass hill that created a natural stage for the bands to sing for a lucky few up front.

Baltimore’s own The Bridge, who had driven through the night from the Equifunk Fest where they had headlined the previous night, were up next and they showed no sign of being road weary, as they tore through a 12-song set.  With a new album produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin on the horizon, The Bridge focused on their newer material, which was a good thing as it features some of the strongest songs they have ever written.  They showed off high energy versions of “Rosie,” “Spill Over” and “Big Wheel,” any of which could stand as a center piece for a new album.

The highlight of the set was yet another newer tune, “Sanctuary,” which debuted a few months ago and has developed into a dark, brooding, swirl of guitar that lends itself to deep improvisational exploration. Patrick Rainey’s sax brought that swirl of guitar to a sharpened edge, with his haunting, ominous lines that rang with stinging intensity.

kebmo1.jpgPerhaps it was the afternoon heat and the bright glare it bore down, but Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears (who followed) seemed a bit flat and underwhelming, never really capturing the unbridled energy of their debut album, Tell ‘em What Your Name Is.  Lewis showed deft skill and a deep appreciation of the blues guitarists who came before him as he channeled those deep, soulful licks that easily brought to mind Howlin’ Wolf, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. But while his guitar channeled the blues, it was his stage presence and vocals, which on the album recalled the high octane explosion that was James Brown, Wilson Pickett or Sly Stone, seemed to fall flat live.  While Lewis had moments when he reached those heights – “I’m Broke,” “Bitch, I Love You” and the show-closing “Sugarfoot” – they were a bit few and far between and left his set feeling incomplete.

The final two bands provided an interesting contrast. While both are well-established musicians who have continually reaffirmed their credentials as true giants of American music, and both put on stellar shows, it was the way in which they approached their time on stage that set them apart.  For Keb’ Mo’ it was a simple, stripped down affair, with the blues guitarist taking the stage with nothing more than a couple of guitars, a stool to set his water bottle on, and an armful of some of the most genuinely heartfelt blues songs written in the last 20 years. His songs are truly reminiscent of that classic Delta blues sound that bleed Mississippi Mud. Mo’s cover of the Bill Withers classic, “Grandma’s Hands,” was an emotional high point, and seemed to be a perfect capstone to his elegant, classy set.

In contrast to Mo’s minimalist approach, but no less impressive, was Lyle Lovett and His Large Band’s festival ending performance. Whereas Mo’ relied on the power of one, Lovett relied on strength in numbers, with a band of 13 backing him up. His rhythm section included two legendary musicians, drummer Russ Kunkel and the wonderfully bearded bassist Leland Sklar, and they were the anchor throughout the evening, providing a deep, steady groove.

Lovett was sure to make it clear that people know this was his Large Band, not Big Band.

The difference?

lovett1.jpgLovett explains, “We’ve always done arrangements that border on blues music, that border on jazz arrangements, that border on what folks might think of as ‘big band,’ but we don’t really play big band music. But we’ve always had a lot of people in the band so that’s why I call the band the ‘Large Band’ and not the ‘Big Band’. But invariably people refer to the band as the ‘Big Band’ and … it’s not big… you get the idea.”

And on a typically warm, humid, Baltimore night that saw a few sprinkles of rain to help cool things off, that is exactly what his Large Band did. Lovett found time to simplify things as well, as he stripped down his band to just himself, bass, mandolin, and fiddle for a brief bluegrass interlude that included “Pantry,” which showcased one of Lovett’s defining strengths – his lyrical agility and word play. The slight double entendre lyric in “Pantry,” “Don’t cheat on me with cornbread/ Don’t cheat on me with beans/ And don’t cheat on me with bacon, cooked up with collard greens/ Don’t cheat on me with biscuits with jelly sweet and blues/ Keep it in that place where/ you know you will be true/ Keep it in your pantry,” also highlighted Lovett’s humorous dexterity with his words.

As the moon begin to rise, Lovett brought his set to a close with the rousing sermon-like delivery of “Church.” He returned for a quick two-song encore that included a spirited take on the Townes Van Zandt staple, “White Freightliner Blues.”  And as the last notes of Lovett’s set floated into the warm Baltimore night, it was almost possible, if you looked with just the right eyes, to see the same trees that enamored Keb’ Mo’ earlier in the day dancing in the wind to the music.

Click the thumbnail for the photos