James Cotton and Elvin Bishop heated up a cool, cloudy night in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., during the final two performances of the Great Northeast Blues Festival on Saturday, August 14, 1999. Performing on a stage set up in the middle of Erie Blvd. in Syracuse's Clinton Square, Cotton and Bishop played to a subdued but varied crowd of bikers, families, social butterflies, beer drinkers, and genuine blues fans. Saturday's crowd at the free two-day festival was estimated at 7,000, a nice turnout considering the less-than-perfect weather. Cotton’s set opened with an incendiary solo performance by Boston piano wizard David Maxwell, who secured his reputation as one of the top blues pianists in the blues biz today. Maxwell’s hands worked magic during a rollicking boogie-woogie piece and a long version of "Honky Tonk Train" from his 1997 release Maximum Blues Piano. Guitarist Raful Neal Jr. of the famous Louisiana Neal family then joined Maxwell for a couple of soulful instrumental duets before the great harp master James Cotton finally walked on stage. Throat cancer took Cotton’s voice a few years back, and though he could barely address the crowd with his hoarse whisper, the 64-year-old Chicago legend proved he‘s still a formidable force on harmonica with a couple of fast-paced instrumentals.
Next Texas blue-eyed bluesman Darrell Nulisch joined the threesome on stage, and his sincere, soulful vocals and enthusiastic manner helped to energize both Cotton and the crowd. The quartet performed most of the set seated, delivering a stunning succession of tunes in a chamber-blues format similar to Cotton’s Grammy-winning release Deep in the Blues. The all-star group mostly covered classic tunes, including "That’s Alright" and "Keep Your Hands Out of My Pocket." Cotton wailed on harp, while Maxwell dazzled with his syncopated backing. In fact, the piano man inspired Cotton to whoop with glee during a couple of barrelhouse solos.
Clad in a tie-died T-shirt and blue-jean overalls, and with his wild mane of gray hair shifting in the night air, festival closer Elvin Bishop charged on stage like a crazed, aging hippie/farmer. But when Bishop and his talented band launched into their distinctive brand of electric blues infused with the leader's country humor and sizzling guitar, it was clear we were being manipulated a master entertainer.
Bishop’s brand of blues has a countrified sound all its own, encompassing the soulful trombone of Ed Early, the versatile drumming of Bobby Cochran, and the honky tonk piano stylings of Randy Forrester. But it was Bishop’s slide guitar that really propelled the music on this Saturday night, particularly during the evening's high point, a sublime instrumental medley of the Oklahoma native's big hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" and the doo-wop classic "In the Still of the Night."
About half of the songs in Bishop's set were from his latest CD Skin I’m In. They including Allen Toussaint’s "I’m Gone," "Skin They’re In," and the hilarious "Slow Down," wherein Bishop outlined the lifestyle changes necessary for survival as one hits middle age: "Get off the alcohol," he ranted. "Get on the Geritol! Get off the cocaine! Get on that Rogaine!" Bishop's between-song banter was equally humorous.
A satisfying night of down-home blues climaxed when Bishop coaxed James Cotton and Dave Maxwell to return to the stage for a blistering blues jam.
As much as I enjoy these festivals in my native Syracuse, I have one major complaint about the Clinton Square concerts, and this applies to the first-rate Syracuse Jazz Fest as well as the New York State Budweiser Blues Festival: If you’re going to serve beer at a concert, please, please, install a suitable supply of porta-potties! Are you listening, Mayor Bernardi?
At least the Great Northeast Blues Festival had the good sense to invite the Dinosaur Barbecue to its bash. The Dinosaur’s sumptuous char-grilled fare was far superior to anything served at this summer's Syracuse Jazz Fest .
Some locals have complained that Syracuse is too small a city to support two major blues festivals on the heels of the largest free jazz festival in the Northeast. But the crowd at this inaugural Great Northeast Blues Festival proved once again that the Cuse will always turn out to hear those blues.