Sunshine Music & Blues Festival | St. Petersburg 01.19.14

sunshine 140119I’ve never been surfing, but I’ve watched enough surf movies to have some small idea of the rush of riding on the crest of a wave. The Sunshine Music and Blues Festival was like riding a tsunami that just wouldn’t quit. The swell just kept building and building, the rush just continuing to intensify.Oli Brown, a Brit blues player, kicked off the festivities in fine form with a short but spirited set. Brown was probably the most truly “blues” artist on the bill. He and drummer Lyle Molzan made sure everyone was awake and ready for the day.

In fact, one of the themes of the day was the great drumming presented throughout the festival (with two drummer-less exceptions!). Tom Damon stepped up next on the traps with Bobby Lee Rodgers. Usually they appear as a trio with Matt Lapham, one of my very favorite bassists, but this was a duo performance, and they sounded great, including a knock-out song about “throwing the body in the lake!” The odd thing, for those who attended last year’s show, was that the second stage was not side by side with the main stage but rather toward the back of the venue. But we made it work.

Next up was the King of the Electric Bass, Stanley Clarke. This had to be an eye- and ear-opener for those who had never seen the Stanley experience. He was superb, and he was joined by two keyboard players and 19-year-old drum phenom Mike Mitchell. They sounded great, ending their two-short set with “Lopsy Lu” and “School Days.”

Then it was back to the second stage for the stealth performance of the day: the Ringers. Yikes! Their regular drummer was at home awaiting the birth of their second child, but you would never have known that Gary Novak was “filling in.” He filled in, all right! He and bassist Etienne Mbappe laid down an incredible groove for three brilliant guitarists to dance atop. Most of us headed over because of Jimmy Herring, of course, but frankly it made no difference whether it was Jimmy, Wayne Krantz or Michael Landau soloing; it was mind-blowing!

I had seen Hot Tuna Electric several times, with luke-warm results (for me). I was hoping for great things from this acoustic set. No matter how great I hoped it would be, it was ten times better than that. They were magical. Jorma was in great voice, and Jack’s mandolin sounded heavenly, with Barry accompanying throughout. If I had to pick highlights, I would nod toward “Hestitation Blues” and “Red River Blues,” but it was all deluxe.

We went from an acoustic trio to a one-man hurricane in JJ Grey, the front man for Mofro. Grey is one of the Southern preachers of the gospel blues, along with Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes and John Bell. He is a powerful, engaging performer and deeply committed to Florida and the environment, and you believe every syllable when he sings “Lochloosa” and “Brighter Days,” and every pork chop in “Ho Cake.”

At Wanee 2013, the surprise performance was by Leon Russell, whom I had never seen before. His set had more energy than some singers a quarter of his age. Somebody had posted the comment, “Leon played a really cool version of ‘Wild Horses!’” I fired back, “Leon played a really cool version of 26 SONGS!” He was the master of space and time. Anybody who can cover Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Little Richard, Wilbert Harrison, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles can’t be all bad. This band was outstanding, including his versatile guitar player who also played pedal steel and mandolin and a superb drummer (see: theme). Then he threw them all off stage for eight (or so) solo tunes. What a showman!

Galactic had the penultimate slot, and they put on a nice set. For me, the two Bear Creek sets and their knock-out last year at Wanee were more incendiary, but this was a very crowd-pleasing set, often featuring vocalist Maggie Koerner (first time I had seen Galactic with a female singer) and always centered around the just plain insane Stanton Moore on drums.

Which brings us to the headliners, the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Back in my parents’ day, the big-band format was five reeds, three trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass and drums, maybe with a guitar or vocalist added. I think TTB has redefined the big band for our time. This eleven-piece collective is stunning in its power. At the heart of the band is the dual drumming of Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson. I have always been a fan of the dual-drummer set-up (think Mickey and Bill, Butch and Jaimoe, and please don’t forget Jimmy Carl Black and Billy Mundi from the 60s version of the Mothers), but Tyler and J.J. have perfected the concept. They drive the engine of the band, joined by Tim LeFebvre on bass.

This probably ranks as my favorite TTB show. Everything was working. Susan was, as always, in great voice, and she and Derek were having a great time tearing it up on guitars. They would be cruising along, and suddenly a dynamite trumpet, sax or trombone solo would materialize, and Kofi sounded great on Hammond B3, as usual. There is never enough Mike Mattison for me, but he did get a couple of tunes, including Freddie King’s “Palace of the Kings.”

The night blasted sky-high when they pulled Jimmy Herring out on stage towards the end. Jimmy and Derek wrangled a nice five-minute jam before all hell broke loose. The band launched into “Love Has Something Else to Say,” one of their strongest pieces, and then Derek and Jimmy went nuts. Completely, totally nuts. But you don’t have to take MY word for it! Download the show. Jimmy also played the first tune of the encore, but during the finale, “The Storm,” Derek took what might be my favorite of his solos ever. I need to listen about 50 more times. You know, just to be sure.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. How many days until Sunshine 2015?


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