Clyde “Pop” Ferguson is a legend. Never mind that you may not know his name. He’s a legend anyway. At 84 years old, he’s still playing the blues, and let me make it as clear as possible. He’s the real deal. He’s not someone who’s been influenced by those early authentic bluesmen; Pop Ferguson is authentic blues.
So gas up your Hummer or the pickup, whatever your vehicle of choice; mark your calendar for June 8 and 9 and set the Garmin for the historic city of Lenoir, N.C. in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for the fourth annual free Pop Ferguson Blues Festival.
This Festival is unique in that its goal isn’t simply to provide a venue for blues acts. According to festival organizer (and Pop’s son) Clyde Ferguson, Jr., the Pop Ferguson Blues Festival also charges itself with the mission of reconnecting today’s culture with the true heritage of the blues.
To that end, five of the nine acts are considered elders of the genre, playing a range of blues, and all connecting to the past.
Eighty-four-year-old Pop Ferguson is one of the last practitioners of traditional blues in the N.C. foothills. Growing up in the African American community of North Wlikesboro, he played for local revivals, all the time yearning for the blues. As a young man, he traveled all around, playing juke joints, fish fries, coal fields and street corners in the northeast. He shared the stage with Papa John Creach and Etta Baker. Playing at first in the local Piedmont blues style (thumb and finger), he adopted popular techniques and developed his own style of blues gospel.
“With my dad,” Ferguson, Jr. laughs, “you never know what you’ll get. He may start a song that you think you know, but then he just does his own thing.”
The Festival lineup also includes the inimitable Drink Small, South Carolina’s much loved blues doctor (age 79); from the N.C. Piedmont, finger-style guitarist James Arthur “Boo” Hanks (age 83); Beverly “Guitar” Watkins (age 72), playing straight ahead blues and telling it from a woman’s P.O.V.; and Mac Arnold, playing modern day jump blues that reach back to the old days. At 69, he’s the baby of the group.
There will also be gospel, traditional acoustic folk music, storytelling, country blues and the introduction of a special young talent – Miss E.
How the Festival was born is especially touching.
“My dad and I starting playing together about six years ago,” says Ferguson, Jr. “My parents got divorced when I was really young, and I visited my dad and heard him play, but we didn’t spend ‘time’ together. I went away to school, started teaching, had kids. In 2006, we came back together, started to have a real relationship.
“For Christmas that year, I wanted to give him a special present. I learned to play guitar so we could pick together and on Christmas day I sat down to play for him. When I was done, he turned to me and said, ‘Boy I believe that song goes like this.’”
Clyde is laughing out loud as he remembers. “Well, my feelings were hurt, but Merry Christmas anyway! I went back to his house on New Year’s Eve, with a bass guitar and this time he said, ‘Play that again.’ And then we started playing together.
“Within 30 days we had a harmonica player, a guitarist and Pop Ferguson Blues Revue was created. So we started playing.
“This guy was following us around everywhere we went. And a little while later, we get this notification he was going to be recognized by the Smithsonian Institute.”
Turns out the guy who was following them around was with StoryCorps Griot Project and he was researching Pop for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. So Pop Ferguson’s life story, recordings and works will be preserved by the Smithsonian.
This year’s Festival theme is Celebrating the Blues Heritage of the Appalachians. What a terrific way to not only learn, but experience the heritage of the area.
The Festival is free. Just head into downtown Lenoir and volunteers will be onsite to direct you toward the stages and events.
(5 – 8 p.m.)
Patrick Crouch. Slide blues guitar
Jaret Carter. Country blues guitar
Max Hightower. Blues “Hohner” harmonica
Main Street Stage
3:45 Pop Ferguson
5:15 Drink Small
6:00 Boo Hanks
6:45 Beverly “Guitar” Watkins
7:30 Pop Ferguson
8:15 Mac Arnold
9:00 Blues Jam Session
Sweet T’s Stage
4:00 Strictly Clean & Decent
5:00 Mt. Pilgrim Choir
6:00 Jaret Carter
7:00 Smith Memorial Choir
4:00 Jaret Carter
5:00 Diana Banner & Sisters
6:00 Life Center Choir
7:00 Strictly Clean & Decent
Venti’s Casa Stage
4:00 Pop Ferguson w/Miss E
5:00 Life Center Youth Choir
6:00 Storytelling – Diana Banner
West Avenue Stage
5:00 Jacob Johnson Band
Blues hounds, get ready to howl. It’s almost time for the 2012 Lowcountry Blues Bash, now in its twenty-second year. This ten-day celebration of America’s oldest music form is being held in and around Charleston, S.C. from Wednesday, Feb. 8 through Tuesday, Feb. 21.
According organizer Gary Erwin aka Shrimp City Slim, this year’s Bash promises us “insanely eclectic programming.” Not just eclectic, insanely eclectic. Wow! At last count, there will be some 59 blues acts putting on 100 different shows and 25 different venues.
Gary filled me in on a little history about what has become a hugely popular blues club crawl, “Our first year, 1991, was one venue only with four acts. It was my decision in 1992 to take the Blues Bash out into the clubs and other venues around town. This was, in part, a response to complaints I had received from various venues, when I was writing for the Post & Courier [Charleston's daily], that the City never involved privately-operated small entertainment businesses during its several annual events. My reasoning was that, if we involve all these clubs and other venues in the Blues Bash, perhaps it would lead them to book blues on a more regular basis.”
For blues fans, it’s an opportunity to experience first hand, performers and musicians from not just the Carolinas, but also Chicago, Detroit, New York, Florida, the Mississippi hill country and then some.
For the most part, the shows are low-dough, as Gary calls them, $10 or less. And a good number are completely free.
Maurice John Vaughn’s show is going to be killer. The Chicago giant (sax/guitar/keyboards/vocals) has some special guests on the bill with him: trombonist B.J. Emery, Grammy winner Donald Ray Johnson, Holle Thee Maxwell (Remember “Only When You’re Lonely,” (1965)?
Nick Moss & the Flip Flops are going to be one of the most exciting shows of the whole festival. With the release of Privileged (Blue Bella Records/2010), Moss used his traditional roots blues background as a jumping off point to explore new waters. The result is searing blues-infused rock that ignites the atmosphere and the audience.
Also packing a big Chicago punch, from the Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon bands and Magic Slim & the Teardrops is guitarist John Primer. As the title of his Atlantic Recording says, he’s “The Real Deal.”
Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang. Gary Erwin reminds us that “. . . this is one of the last great Chicago blues bands. Eddie Shaw, Howlin’ Wolf’s bandleader, has kept the group together since Wolf’s passing in 1975.” This is a no-brainer.
From Fort Lauderdale, Joey Gilmore brings old school stylings and soulful vocals to the stage. I’ve never seen him before, so you can bet I’ll catch one of his shows.
A new twist for 2012 is the Take You Downtown Blues Series at the Mad River Bar & Grille, a great old brick church that’s a pub now. All shows are $10, cash only and seating is first come, first served. Shows include Bobby Radcliff, Rich DelGrosso & Jonn Del Toro Richardson; Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang; Shrimp City Slim & Swamp Pop Shelly; Jarekus Singleton Mississippi Blues Band; John Primer & Shrimp City Slim; Robert Lighthouse and the Blues Buckets; and Daddy Mack Blues Band.
My Gotta Go Picks
The headliners notwithstanding, here are my Gotta Go picks:
• J Edwards Band. Love this guy. He’s representing Lowcountry Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis.
• Sarah Cole & the Hawkes. I saw Sarah at a Women in Blues Festival in Wilmington, N.C. Who says girls can’t play guitar?
• Rickey Godfrey. Another act you have to catch live. Blind from birth, he burns up the keyboard and his Telecaster.
• Gail Storm. A true interpretor of classic blues and jazz, with a little boogie piano thrown in, just for fun.
• Juke Joint Johnny. The lowcountry’s own harmonica wizard. And Drew ain’t bad either!
• Scissormen. Over the top and outta the box! Raw and rockin’. Don’t miss these guys.
To really know which acts will get your mojo working, you want the complete schedule in front of you. So, for venues, times and acts, download your own flyer.
This year the Cape Fear Blues Festival is celebrating its fifteenth birthday and it will be another birthday bash to write home about. From July 23 – 25, Wilmington, N.C. will be full of blues fans ready to take in one great show after another.
The Festival opens Friday night with the traditional Blues Cruise aboard the triple deck Henrietta III riverboat at the corner of Water Street and Dock. The two-hour party along the Cape Fear will be rockin’ with performances by Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton and his band. The only thing hotter than his slide guitar is his Liquid Summer Hot Sauce. I want me some of both! Locals Dusty Long & Friends and Rick Tobey will be adding to the fun, and don’t forget to check out Spider Mike Bochey as you board.(Tickets $49).
Over at the Rusty Nail, the Dynamic Thermotones will take the stage at 9 p.m. for a night of blues-driven R&B. And don’t be surprised if things get funky! Love this band! The Rusty Nail, located at 1310 South 5th St., is a typical little juke joint, and one of my faves. It’s home to Wilmington’s weekly blues jam. Call the club at 910-251-1888 for ticket info (Tickets $5).
Saturday’s the big day and the festival concert is moving back to Legion Stadium under the tent. Yay! This year, according to everyone’s blues buddy, Festival organizer Lan Nichols, there will be five blues acts starting at noon and going pretty much nonstop until almost 7 p.m. Here’s the lineup: Mac Arnold & Plate Full ‘O Blues, Jen & Tonic, Tampa Blue, the Cape Fear Blues Jam Band and Blind Lemon Pledge.
Mac Arnold has toured and recorded with the Muddy Waters Band. You will love the funked up soul-blues of Mac Arnold & Plate Full ‘O Blues.
Jen & Tonic is a group I’ve been wanting to see live. They put out a great blend of classic blues and soul, throwing in some contemporary stuff just to mix it up.
If you’re into finger-style guitar and acoustic blues, you’ll especially enjoy the soulful sound of Florida’s Tampa Blue.
Local Wilmington group Blind Lemon Pledge, although fairly new to the scene, was the 2009 Cape Fear Blues Challenge winner. They feature Jaime Michele on lead vocals and Mark Scott on guitar and vocals. Last, but not least, is local favorite Cape Fear Blues Jam Band.
By the way, parking is free. You’ll find plenty of food and drink vendors, restrooms and even games for the kids. Don’t forget your lawn chairs and blankets. (Tickets $12 advance/$15 at the gate).
Saturday night, there’s another shindig at the Rusty Nail, this time with the ever-popular Ten Dollar Thrill. And they are thrilling. (Tickets $5).
The all-day Sunday Blues Jam is at Legion Stadium and it’s always a blast. Here’s a chance to play on the Festival main stage with some of the best players the area has to offer. You know the drill: no coolers, no pets. Just bring your lawn chairs and get ready to groove.
Before I forget, this year’s Festival blues workshop (Finkelstein Music, 6 S. Front St.), Saturday, 11 a.m., will be Theresa Blue performing her unique blend of blues, folks and Americana. Otherwise known as Theresa Lindstrom, she’s the throaty voice of divorced blue collar moms everywhere. Careful, she’ll grab your heart when you’re not looking. Call 910-762-5662. (Free event).
The Festival ends at 6 p.m. with the Finkelstein Music Guitar Giveaway. This year, it’s a Squier (by Fender) Vintage Modified Telecaster Thinline guitar. Raffle tickets, which are available at Finkelstein’s, cost just $1 each or six for $5; Ticket info at www.capefearblues.org.
Pee Dee Blues Bash • April 23 – 24
Music promoter Gary Erwin brings us several S.C. blues festivals every year. Each February, the ten-day-plus Lowcountry Blues Bash showcases some 50 blues-driven acts in about 25 different venues in Charleston, S.C. The smaller Carolina Down home Blues Festival in Camden, S.C. takes place the first weekend in October. May brings us Blues by the Sea on Kiawah Island, S.C. The annual Greenwood Blues Cruise (yes, it’s four-wheel cruising) delivers our blues fix in July. And now there’s the Pee Dee Blues Bash in April.
Introduced last year, the second annual Pee Dee Blues Bash takes place April 23 – 24 in Florence, S.C. As always, Erwin presents a mixed bag of varying rhythms from local musicians to international touring acts. Headliners include old school bluesman Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues (S.C.); roots-blues band Bradley’s Circus (The Netherlands); genre-jumping harmonica wizard, Harper (Australia); and traditional blues preservationists Asamu Johnson Project (Michigan).
Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues. Even in high school Mac Arnold had a happenin’ band. James Brown often sat in on piano. At 24 he had the opportunity to join the Muddy Waters Band. With the band, he shared the stage with Howlin’ Wolfe, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, Big Joe Williams, and Big Mama Thornton. Mac played on John Lee Hooker’s live album, Live at the Café Au Go-Go, as well as Otis Spann’s classic recording “The Blues is Where It’s At.”
He later formed the Soul Invaders, a band that backed up the Temptations, B.B. King and other big name groups. Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues includes Danny Keylon on bass and vocals; Austin Brashier on guitar and vocals; Max Hightower on keyboards, harmonica, guitar, and vocals; Mike Whitt on drums, and; of course, Mac Arnold on vocals, bass and Gas Can Guitars.
Bradley’s Circus. Fronting this contemporary group are two rockin’ ladies: Mattanja Joy Bradley on vocals and Lidewij Veenhuis on vocals and harp. Bradley’s husky blues voice is a powerful instrument and Veenhuis’ harp is legendary in the Netherlands. On guitar is Jimmy The Lounge and backing them are the spinning upright bass of Toine Stout and rolling drums of BeeWee Nederkoorn. This is not your father’s blues band.
Harper. Think of this as world blues. Harper combines roots, jam, blues and world music to create a style all his own. From his website, Harper has been described as “a singer with the deep soul of Motown, a harmonica player who can graft Sonny Boy II and Little Walter with John Popper, a songwriter who tells his own compelling stories in an unhurried, J.J. Cale-like manner, and a musical visionary who is unafraid to mix the didgeridoo, an important part of his Australian indigenous culture, with infectious modern percussive rhythms.”
Asamu Johnson Project. Asamu Johnson is a bluesman through and through. His bio says, “He doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, he is the wheel,” and that says it all. Johnson’s lyrics come from life. “Devil Wind” is about destruction from a tornado. “Turnips and Greens” is just that: his love of good down home cooking. Give him a listen. You’ll hear some authentic blues.
And there’s more! Other artists at the Pee Dee Blues Bash include Robert Lighthouse, originally from Sweden and now living in the Washington D.C. area. Playing guitar and harp as he handles vocals, too, Lighthouse is the definitive one-man band. Listen to him play the old Mississippi Delta blues; you’ll hear Robert Johnson whispering in his ear.
Local boys Juke Joint Johnny and Drew Baldwin, the wildly popular acoustic harmonica and harp-guitar duo, will blow you away as they blend country blues, swing and jazz.
Also from the southernmost Carolina are Naz & the Falsehoods. If you’ve ever enjoyed the sounds of Elliott & the Untouchables and Delta Swagger, you’ve probably heard Mike “Naz” Nazarenko blowing the harp. His music was also featured in the 1999 indie film My Drug Dealer.
Texan Randy McAllister brings his Lone Star trio to the Pee Dee. This multi-talented Grammy nominee (drummer/harp man/ vocalist/songwriter) says he can be found where modern blues meets Americana, ranch rock and swamp pop. He’ll do fine in S.C.
If you ask what sort of music Tampa Blue plays, the short answer is that it’s based on Alabama blues and spirituals. The long answer is, “Traditional, acoustic, Delta, slide, Piedmont, finger-style, Southern rural, pre-war, country, pre-electric with a touch of spirituals, hollers, rags and American finger-style guitar seasoning.” I love a picker!
Florence is barely a stone’s throw from the beach, so if blues is your bag, the Pee Dee Blues Bash is the place to be. Log onto www.peedeebluesbash.com for more information and links to the artists’ websites. There’s also a downloadable .pdf file of the flyer that you can print out for yourself.
• International Stage at Arts International – Francis Marion University
• Blues Stage at Arts International Festival – Francis Marion University
• The Cottage – Francis Marion University
• Creek Ratz – 2001 W. Cashua Dr., Florence, 29501, 843-661-5100
• Florence County Main Library – 509 S. Dargan St., Florence, 29506, 843-662-8424
• Indigo Joe’s – 3410 W. Radio Dr., Florence, 29501, 843-667-3888
• Red Bone Alley – 1903 W. Palmetto St., Florence, 29501, 843-673-0035
• Victor’s Bistro & Garden – 1247 S. Irby St., Florence, 29505, 843-665-0846
• Bennettsville Visitor Center – 304 W. Main St., Bennettsville, 29512, 843-479-3941
• Bizzell’s Food & Spirits – 137 E. Carolina Ave., Hartsville, 29550, 843-857-9080
Lake City, S.C.
• National Bean Market Museum (outdoor stage) – 111 Henry St., Lake City, 29560, 843-374-8611
Friday, April 23
Bennettsville Visitor Center: 5-8 p.m.: Juke Joint Johnny & Drew Baldwin
Florence County Main Library: 6-8 p.m.: Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues
The Cottage at Francis Marion University: 7-9 p.m.: Bradley’s Circus
Red Bone Alley: 7-10 p.m.: Robert Lighthouse
National Bean Market Museum: 7 – 10 p.m.: Randy McAllister
Bizzell’s: 9 p.m. – midnight: Asamu Johnson Project
Creek Ratz: 9 p.m. – midnight: Harper
Indigo Joe’s: 9 p.m. – midnight: Naz & the Falsehoods
Victor’s: 9 – 11:30 p.m.: Tampa Blue
Saturday, April 24
• Blues Stage at Arts Int’l (FMU): 11 a.m. – noon: Robert Lighthouse; 12:15-1:15 p.m.: Mac Arnold & Plate Full o’ Blues; 1:30-2:30 p.m.: Randy McAllister; 2:45-3:45: Asamu Johnson Project Blues; 4 – 5 p.m.: Harper
• Main Stage at Arts Int’l (FMU): 4-5 p.m.: Bradley’s Circus
• Red Bone Alley: p.m.: Bradley’s Circus
• National Bean Market Museum (outdoor) stage: 7 – 10 p.m.: Robert Lighthouse
• Bizzell’s: 9-midnight: Asamu Johnson Project
• Creek Ratz: 9 p.m. – midnight: Harper
• Indigo Joe’s: 9 p.m. – midnight: Randy McAllister
• Victor’s: 9 – 11:30 p.m.: Juke Joint Johnny & Drew Baldwin