Hot August Blues: Nearing Twenty and Still Perfect


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Nearing its 20th year, Hot August Blues has quietly established itself as one of the true hidden gems of the seemingly ever expanding festival season. From humble roots in the backyard of founder Brad Selko — which, in its initial year,  found him shuttling bands

from the hotel to his house in his own car — to its present day status as one of the great mid-size festivals in the country, Hot August Blues has stuck to Selko’s long held belief that favors quality over quantity. As opposed to many other festivals that try and shoehorn as many acts as possible into the day, Selko prefers to give each band ample time to get up and stretch their musical legs, offering up full length sets for each band on the day’s schedule instead of the normal truncated “festy” type set. 

Returning to the picturesque setting of Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, MD, on the outskirts of Baltimore, the park is the perfect setting for the festival, with a large expanse of lush trees that surround the grounds and serve as a natural enclosure protecting the band shell that is at the base of a large rolling hill and perched on top of a small sloping hill creating a natural stage.               

Hot August Blues is a one-day event, with five main stage bands, five side-stage bands, and no overlap in set-times, allowing everyone to see full shows from every band.The one day setup adds a bit of pressure on Selko, who recognizes that people will be rapt at the stage the entire day without break – there won’t be filtering in and out on their way to and from camp. 

Selko knows the solution to this is “to first find bands that work.” He adds, “The funny thing about it is it is probably harder because it is a one day thing.  It is like a jigsaw puzzle, and all of these pieces – bands, vendors, beer, food – have to fit together over a 10-hour period of time, and if they don’t, people in the audience know.”  In this, the festival’s 19th year, all those pieces fit perfectly.               

The day got off to an early start with blues guitarist Tom Larsen, who has been doing his thing since the 1970s and can still wow any crowd with his piercing guitar.

DSCN7498.JPGExploding next in a tangle of hair and boozy, rowdy rock was J. Roddy Walston and the Business, who seemed to recall the loose, uninhibited raucous, bluesy-racket of early Black Crowes. The four-piece, originally from Tennessee but now based in Baltimore, is led by pianist/singer Walston, who attacks his piano like it owes him money, wresting Jerry Lee Lewis inspired riffs from the soul of his battered instrument and delivering each line with a devilish sneer.  A relentlessly touring band with a road warrior mentality, their music would seem to be best enjoyed in a dimly light bar that reeks of stale beer and rock ‘n’ roll, but on this bright sunny afternoon, J. Roddy and crew donnedsome sunglasses and did their best bring to bring their late-night raunch to an after lunch crowd.And with a set that pulled heavily from last year’s self-titled debut, they did just that.          

Following, J. Roddy Waltson and the Business’s high energy set was another high energy band, Kings Go Forth, a 10-piece outfit from Milwaukee, who is part of a 21st Century soul revival that features such retro-looking acts as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Walker and the Dynamites, and Lee Fields.Kings Go Forth combines funky, stuttering horns with a slinky guitar, adding in a Latin percussive groove swiped from a 70s cop show chase scene, creating a soulful sound that has one bell-bottomed foot squarely planted in a funk-filled past and the other stepping directly into bright new future. 

Kings Go Forth was the first band of the day who really took advantage of the unique stage set-up that allowed bands to walk right down to the front of the audience.Black Wolf, the charismatic frontmant who first hit the scene in the mid-70s as a member of the Essentials, strolled down the short, grassy embankment to dance with the crowd pressed up at the bottom of the hill.This ability to come down and interact with the audience provides Hot August Blues with an unparalleled band and fan connection.It was the day’s next act that took this ability to connect to a whole other level.

 

DSCN7552.JPGSince their earliest days as a band, one of the defining characteristics of Robert Randolph and the Family Band has been their capacity to make deep connections with the audience and break down some of the walls between band and fans.Randolph coaxed spiritual hallelujahs from his pedal-steel guitar, turning Oregon Ridge Park into a pulsating, heaving church on Sunday morning. Midway through their high-octane set, Randolph started beckoning the crowd to join him on stage. People joined in with a slow trickle at first, but that trickle quickly turned into a raging river of people who flowed up the hill onto the stage, snaking around the band and in between instruments, all while Randolph continued to lay down soul-burning lines.          

In addition to the main-stage, Hot August Blues featured five more bands on a side-stage, and while these bands spanned many musical genres, it was the B-Side stage’s last act that truly helped define the day. Lower Case Blues, a power trio from Wilmington, Delaware, who in the words of guitarist Jake Banaszak, “work to keep the blues alive.”  Their packed stage closing set did just that, and the trio continued late into the night at the Hot August Blues after-party at a local spot, where the band playing into the early hours of Sunday morning with a litany of guests joining the fun.               

DSCN7610.JPGThe festival’s headliners, The Tedeschi-Trucks Band, kept the soul-funk-bluesy feel of the day flowing through the end of festival. Using their stunning new album Revelator as a launching pad for the evening, TTB roared through a set that was an uplifting, celebratory experience.With a band as insanely talented as this all-star collection, it would have been hard not to.

With the husband and wife team of guitar-god Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi leading the way, the eleven-piece band worked songs from Revelator to their booty-shaking limit and incorporated some covers that seemed like part of the band’s musical DNA.These included a blistering, Mike Mattison-led take on Derek and the Domino’s “Anyday” and the show-ending encore, Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher.” It was the perfect set to end the day.               

For Selko, it was simply a reminder of why he keeps coming back.  “I love doing it, I love producing,” he explained. “It gets to you. After all these years, I think I am going to take a bit of a break, but I find I am already writing down possible bands for next year.”

 

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