Hot August Blues 2012: Humble Beginnings to Blues-Party Throw Down
From its humble beginnings twenty years ago as an event held in founder Brad Selko’s backyard, Hot August Blues has grown from a two band (Charlie Musselwhite and Brett Wilson), 300 person event, to an annual ten band, 5000 person festival that has been recognized as one of the best midsized Festivals in the country (Tri-State Indie Award for Best Regional Festival 2011.) Held at idyllic Oregon Ridge Park just outside the Baltimore City limits, Hot August Blues has separated itself from other festivals its size and in the area with its relaxed low-key atmosphere and consistently stellar line-ups that favors quality over quantity, with a schedule that features minimal over-lap between the two stages, and set lengths that give every band from the opener to the closer ample time to get up and stretch out their musical legs.
As in years past the line-up was a diverse mix that was tied together through the loose thread of “the blues”, but that thread and label were stretched thin into imaginable directions with a line-up that boasted the classic blues-riff-rock of Govt Mule, the bombastic explosion of New Orleans funk of Trombone Shorty, to the heartfelt country-folk tunes of Justin Townes Earle on the main stage, and included the gritty real Chicago Blues of Magic Slim & the Teardrops and the soul-revival sound of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound on the B-side stage. The B-Side stage is still a fairly new weapon in the Hot August Blues arsenal, only being added for the first time two years ago, but it is an extremely welcome addition. This year it was dominated in the early afternoon by intensely powerful singer/songwriter Chris Kasper. Kasper gave way to Chicago’s JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound who have been garnering much attention for their mind-bending cover of Wilco’s “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which has even gotten the attention of the song’s author Jeff Tweedy who invited them to appear at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival this year. Magic Slim closed out the B-Side stage with a classic set of Chicago blues, that found Slim wailing through his set like a bluesman of old. While Magic Slim keep the blues alive with their true to its root sound, on the main stage that blues thread was stretched on all directions with a line-up that was an intoxicating mix that careened from style to style. The biggest departure from that blues thread was the second act to hit the main stage, Locos Por Juana.
Billed as a bilingual jam-band, Locos Por Juana was born in 2000 in Miami Florida with roots that dig deep into Colombia (singer Itagui Correa and drummer Javier Delgado were both born in Colombia, while guitarist Mark Kondrat was born in Miami of Colombian descent.) The band has been nominated multiple times for Grammy Awards, but still is generally off of the average music fans radar. But if their set at Hot August Blues was any indication of the power of this band, it might be a good idea to stand up and take notice of them. Led by dynamic vocalist Correa, who is an explosion of energy and swirling dreads that reach down almost to the ground. Locos Por Juana sound is built around Latin rhythms, but there is a steady current of Caribbean flavor flowing underneath with a smattering of reggae riffs, dancehalls grooves, hip-hop beats, and rock-laden guitar work all bubbling to the surface at some point. The core trio is usually augmented by additional musicians with some kind of combination of percussion and horns rounding out the deep, bouncing groove, and today was no different as they had a trombone and full percussion kit to provide a little more kick. Their set is a high-energy ass-shaking party, and it was clear from the way crowd responded that the band’s request to “get up and move” did not go unheeded.
Despite the Blues label, the real focus seemed to be on songwriting, with three of today’s best songwriters, in Cris Jacobs, Justin Townes Earle, and Warren Haynes, gracing the main stage throughout the day. The day got started with the Cris Jacobs Band and a passionate set that dripped with a soulful intensity. After ten years fronting roots-rockers The Bridge, who called it quits at the end of 2011, Jacobs has re-emerged with a new band with which to give life to his always timeless songwriting that seems to ring out with a deep, emotional, clarity. Jacobs set was a bluesy mix, with him leading the charge with a guitar work out that recalled the southern-fried goodness of Little Feat’s Lowell George. His band features the familiar drumming of Mike Gambone who provided the backbeat for the Bridge, the steady upright bass of Jake Leckie, the dreamy-textured pedal steel of Dave Hadley, and longtime musical co-conspirator, multi-instrumentalist Ed Hough who provides soaring harmonies to Jacobs’ soulful wail. Their set pulled heavily from the band’s debut album, the sublime Songs for Cats and Dogs released earlier this year featuring “Dragonfly”, “Stoned on You,” “Be My Stars,” and “Saddle Up,” among others. Locos Por Juana followed next, before giving way to Justin Townes Earle.
Justin Townes Earle might just be the best young songwriter around right now, and with his set he made a strong case for just that title. Starting as he says he always does, “alone”, Earle began his set with a couple of tunes by himself, “Lay That Hammer Down,” and “Wandering,” the latter of which took him a couple of false starts to get through before he finally remembered the lyrics, but this would prove to be the last hiccup Earle would have in what would prove to be a glorious set. He related the stories behind each song throughout the afternoon, giving life to each tune as he weaved the narratives that told of the birth of each song, explaining how it took six months for him to realize Brooklyn was not for him in, “One More Night in Brooklyn,” that a then girlfriend, not named Maria wanted to know, “who the ‘F’ is Maria,” before he launched into the song of the same name, that “Roger’s Park” came about from simply not having written a song in over a year, or warning a an ex-girlfriend who wanted a song about who to watch what she wished for as he used their break-up as fodder for “Nothing’s Gonna Change the you Feel About Me.”
Sandwiched in between Earle and the Fest closing set of Govt Mule, and hitting the stage as the sun began to set over the tall trees that flanked the large hill that served as a natural amphitheater ofr the day, was New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty. Trombone Shorty’s set was an explosive affair, full of his trademarked boundless energy that found him pin-balling around the stage, dancing, singing, switching between trumpet and trombone, and leading his band through a set that was a non-stop blur of high octane funk. This provided a nice contrast to Justin Townes Earle’s stellar set, which was a subtle, musical gem, as Trombone Shorty’s time on stage was a pure N’alwns throw down, giving every one license to cut loose and shake their ‘thang.’
The day closed with a headlining set from Govt Mule and a dose of Warren Haynes’ classic bluesy-southern rock songwriting. Govt Mule’s set featured the least surprising sit-in of the day since Warren Haynes sauntered on stage an hour before during Trombone Shorty’s set for a run of songs (really who didn’t see that coming?), as Trombone Shorty and longtime Haynes friend, collaborator, and Washington D.C. resident Ron Holloway (who shows up anytime Haynes is within a 100 miles of the Nation’s Capital) broke out his sax and joined the stage for a mid-set combo of The Box-tops “The Letter” and Albert King’s “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” In addition to these covers, as is their norm, Govt Mule pulled heavily from their influences with the Beatles “She Said, She Said,” Led Zeppelins “How Many More Times,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House,” all showing up throughout the night. It was a bit of a nostalgic set for The Mule as it was colored by older classic Mule tunes, “Blind Man in the Dark,” “Bad Little Doggie,” and “Mule,” that truly gave their Fest closing set its strength. These older tunes highlight Haynes strength as a songwriter, but it was the encore that truly showed how special a songwriter he can be. In a move that was even less surprising than the day’s various sit-ins, Govt Mule closed with the Warren Haynes standard “Soulshine,” that was aided by the return of Holloway’s always welcome sax work. While sometimes derided for it’s all too often appearances, “Soulshine” with its all too commonality begs to ask the question, “If you wrote a song as good as ‘Soulshine’, wouldn’t you play it every night as well?”
Despite the blues, the ass-shaking grooves, the explosive funk, the sit-ins, Soulshine, and the un-paralleled songwriting, the real star of the day was Hot August Blues founder and organizer Brad Selko. Now in its 20th year, the one-time backyard party has blossomed into one of the premier midsized festivals around, and the credit for that growth goes directly to Selko and his tireless efforts year in and year out. In the program that was handed out at the front gate as you entered the festival grounds, there was a picture of Selko taken at the very first Hot August Blues. He was leaning on the fence in his backyard smiling broadly at what he had created. Selko was omnipresent throughout the day, this year as he always is, walking in the crowd, chatting folks up over by the front gate, hanging by the merch table, grooving on the side stage, and while he may be a little older, a little grayer than he was in that picture from 20 years, the smile was just as big, and the fest he first started 20 years in his backyard while it might be a little bigger, and host more bands, it is still without doubt just as special now as it was then.
Click the thumbnails to view more photos from Hot August Blues by Tim Newby…