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Monday, September 12, 2016

Superior Blues: The Marquette Area Blues Fest and the Chris Canas Band

Where Magic Happens
The capstone event to my summer of music festivals was, as always, the Marquette Area Blues Fest.  Held every Labor Day weekend for the past thirteen years at the aptly named Ellwood Mattson Lower Harbor Park, this event brings together the very best  local, regional and national blues acts on a magnificent stage in one of the most beautiful and scenic settings imaginable.   It will be nearly impossible to top the talent on display this year.  The tone was set during the FREE Friday night show featuring the classic blues stylings of Tre & the Blue Knights (wsg Lady Kat), and culminating with the the guitar-gymnastics of JW Jones and "Laura On The Bass" Greenberg--on display for a raucous, yet well-behaved crowd of blues fans, locals and college students alike.  JW made the excellent point that free shows like this go a LONG way to helping promote blues and roots music to a younger crowd. It was certainly a success in Marquette.

Victor Wainwright--"The Piana From Savannah"
Saturday featured completely different, yet amazingly entertaining acts that played well off each other and kept the fun, and the energy building all night.   Reverend Robert brought Mississippi style blues and slide guitar to open the  day under bluebird skies and mild, 70 degree temperatures.  The largest band of the weekend, hailing from the smallest town in Michigan (Alpha), Sons of Legends gave the crowd a full set of hard-rocking, roots blues--and kept the party going all day long, hanging out with the crowd, passing out "Legendary" tee shirts (thanks guys!) and generally having a good time.  Next was South East Michigan's own Chris Canas Band, who surprised the crowd with one of the most intersting, high-energy and unexpected sets of the weekend.  More on them below. The night concluded with two Memphis bands who brought Beale Street to the shores of Lake Superior.  The Ghosttown Blues Band (due in no part to the frenetic encouragement of "hype man" Suavo) set the crown up with their Alman Brothers inspired jamming and some unbelievable cigar-box guitar word from lead man Matt Isbel.  Closing out the night was  the boogie-woogie piano of 2016 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (and Band of the Year) Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots  who picked up where Ghosttown left off and then nocked them down.  The evening culminated in a dual-band jam session that pushed the crowd to the very edge (and the festival to the edge of a noise ordinance violation--none was given, but it would have been totally worth it!).

Go Go Ray Closing Out the Festival in Style
Sunday featured more of the same, starting with solo acoustic blues artist Brian Keith Wallen and his "cupboard door/mixing bowl stompbox" (you have to hear it to believe it).  Long time Marquette favorites the Flat Broke Blues Band celebrated fifteen years of playing together with a driving set of new and old material.  West Michigan's Hank Mowery & the Hawktones brought not only his solid harmonica licks and smooth, soul singing to the stage, but surprised the crowd with the addition of Kate Moss on guitar.  As an unexpected bonus, south east Michigan's own expatriated Marquette native, George Friend (of Laura Rain & the Caesars) got up on stage and flat out KILLED a couple of tunes on a telecaster. Hank later hosted the after party jam and brought some ridiculously cool combinations of these acts to the stage (including a funky Motown-inspired number by Ms. Rain herself!).  The Kinsey Report kept the energy high with soulful blues, witty stage banter and even channeled the late Bob Marley for some reggae tunes (or "island blues" as I like to call it).  The Samantha Fish Band closed out the festival giving the crowd everything they asked for (including a "War Pigs" finale).

This Guy Can PLAY!
This was truly a weekend of exceptional acts.  However, since this is a "southeast Michigan" music blog, I'm going to pick the set from the Chris Canas Band as my "standout performance" of the weekend (OK...I'm definitely biased here).  From the moment the band rolled through the artist entrance backstage you could tell they were here to entertain.  Disregarding the festival's legendary (epic?) green room, the members of the band arrived early, took in the opening acts, talked to the other bands and started working the crowd.  Professional to a tee, they showed up in stage clothes, shook every hand and answered every question people asked them.  Any festival promoter thinking of booking this band should know that this might be the very best decision they make.   Besides their exceptional talent, the band has amazing stage presence, contagious likeabilty and complete professionalism.  A rare combination now days.

Angie Adding Some MoTown Soul to the Band
On stage the band worked though a polished set of both original and classic blues numbers.  The focus of the band is definitely Chris' stellar work on the Les Paul--equally versed in tone-dripping slow blues numbers and finger-flying, rocking blues solos.  His classic voice is powerful, rich and versatile (especially when singing harmony with the band).  Joining him on stage is his Mother Angie (or older sister, depending on who you ask).  Her classic Detroit R&B voice adds a touch of MoTown the the band's sound, hearkening to the energy and vibrancy of a young Aretha Franklin with a bit of Big Mama Thornton's grit and soul thrown in to keep it real.  A stellar rhythm section of Chris Nordman on Keys, Kevin Schoepke on Bass and new (to me) drummer smiling ear-to-ear throughout the set laid down a funky groove that kept the crowd on their feet.  A completely unexpected finale was Chris' cover of country legend George Jones' Tennessee Whiskey.  In a stroke of pure genius, Chris combined Chris Stapleton's vocal arrangement with his own sorrowful blues licks to build the tension; hushing the crowd with the quiet opening licks and then slowly, agonizingly building the suspense through the bridge and finally letting them have it with all the power and emotion his voice could supply.  When you added in Angie's completely amazing harmony parts on the chorus,  the band provided one of the most memorable, and crowd-pleasing moments of the entire festival.  I was completely blown away, and once again in awe of the incredible musical talent in southeast Michigan.  This was the perfect way to end my summer of fun and music.--until I start all over with live, local music in the fall.  ;-)

Lots and lots of pictures from the festival below.  Please feel free to use, share, tag with credit to SeMiBluegrass.com.  Like us on facebook or subscribe to the blog for more great music and events like this.