Gloucester Blues Festival

By Matt MacDonald
September 2015

The 4th Gloucester Blues Festival went off on Saturday, August 8th at Stage Fort Park overlooking Cressey Beach and the harbor. Seven bands were featured, starting with local favorites the Juke Joint Five (disclaimer: I arrived after their set had finished) and ending with harmonica master Sugar Blue.

Walking down from the parking lot ($15), Alexis P. Suter’s rousing version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” ushered me into the football field-sized festival grounds ($28 online, $40 at the gate). She followed that up with “It Ain’t Over… ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings”, donned a black top hat, and exited the stage. Big woman. Big voice. I was bummed to have hit traffic.

The sets were necessarily short; the environment relaxed. Aside from a cordoned off VIP section in front of the stage, people brought their own beach chairs, towels, and blankets, while others just wandered around, taking in the music, the sights, and the vendor booths at the edge of the park.

Albert Castiglia (“It’s Ca-steel-ya, dammit!” …so said the T-shirts.) followed with a full throttle mix of originals, covers, and instrumentals, along with a dose of some Buddy Guyesque showmanship when he played part of a solo one handed while drinking a beer. If you like your blues with some in-your-face guitar, then Castiglia - a Junior Wells alum – may be your guy.

Throughout the comfortably warm, bright day, the booths stayed busy selling the not-exactly-bluesy refreshments of shave ice, wine spritzers, and stuffed flatbread, as well as lemonade, cider, barbecue and beer. Sun hats were also for sale (no porkpies or fedoras), as were festival T-shirts and caps. Two Fender guitars were also up for raffle. The BBS also had a booth.

San Francisco-based piano man Mitch Woods took the stage around 2PM and, almost immediately, the open area just outside the VIP section filled with dancers. His good time “rock-a-boogie” music kept it that way, thus satisfying one of the standby guidelines of playing live music: “If the asses are shaking, then you’re doing just fine.”

After his set, newly elected Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said some encouraging words about alcohol consumption: at prior festivals, it had been restricted to an enclosed area but, thanks to her efforts, drinkers this year were free to roam. This occurred with no visible ill effects and a number of positive ones.

Joanna Connor played the most interesting set of the day. It was comprised almost entirely of covers. That isn’t usually noteworthy, but what she did with those songs was. I didn’t realize she was playing “Fever” until she was halfway through it. Although nearly unrecognizable, it was still very cool (unlike Madonna’s unrecognizable version). Very nice. And then she did it again, although not as severely, with her very next song, “Shake Your Moneymaker”. Listening to these and her guitar tone, I couldn’t help but think that, if Jimi Hendrix had lived and made an album of his favorite old blues tunes, it might have sounded something like this. She closed out the set with “Sweet Home Chicago” and was joined by Tyler Morris on guitar. Morris, who fills in for Matt Stubbs when he’s on the road with Charlie Musselwhite, was very well received, with a fair amount of pleasantly confused “Who is this kid?” looks and comments filtering through the crowd.

Waiting in the wings was Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Take one look at Lil’ Ed, in his glittering sequined fez, costume bejeweled silver vest, and low cut Chuck Taylors, and you just know that something entertaining has to happen. And that it did, in the form of straight ahead South Side blues. It was good rockin’, good dancin’ music, helped along by Ed going into the crowd with his guitar and fez (which I never once saw leave his head) and then thrilling – and possibly chilling a few – by sitting on some VIP laps before climbing back onstage.

Before the last set of the day, those Fenders were raffled off. Amazingly, there was a repeat winner from the year before.

Sugar Blue closed out the festival. The majority of pop music listeners have heard his playing before on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” but, as great as that song is, along with Sugar’s harp, it’s not the most representative example of his sound. For that, you have to look a little harder. When you do find it, even the most casual listener will hear something very special. It’s a sound that’s just about inimitable and, when he’s really on, it can be downright otherworldly. This is what he brought to Gloucester with his band and his family (his wife, Ilaria, was onstage playing the bass, and his two-year old, James, was also onstage in his stroller, wearing ear guards).

For this set, Blue stuck with his particular variations of some standards, with the exception of his and his wife’s own composition, “Cotton Tree”, a tribute to James Cotton. Those who hadn’t packed up with the setting sun moved closer, drawn to the sound: tattooed bikers, flower child types, retirees, families, young people, different races. All of them have probably fooled with a harmonica at some point in their lives, maybe as children, maybe after pulling one from a Christmas stocking. That’s more or less the same thing Blue plays. That’s probably why so many mouths were hanging open.

Promoters Bob Hastings and Paul Benjamin deserve a lot of praise for bringing this festival off. If it can continue providing as diverse a selection of blues musicians to go with the beautiful setting and laid back feel, then it will hopefully become a summertime staple in New England.

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