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TAMPA BAY BLUES FESTIVAL WAS BACK AND BETTER THAN EVER

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By Brenda Lorenz, photos by Jayne Drooger

After waiting for two long years, the Tampa Bay Blues Festival of 2022 was a record-breaking success! The weather was pristine, and the blues music was on fire! A huge “thank you” to Charles Ross for once again putting together an incredible lineup of amazing musicians.

Day 1:
Kilborn Alley Blues Band
Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers
Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters
Samantha Fish
JJ Grey & Mofro

The Kilborn Alley Blues Band lit the fire that burned all weekend long. Hailing from Champaign, IL, they brought their blend of R&B soul and Chicago blues with them, making their first appearance at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival. With Chris Breen on bass, Aaron “A-Train” Wilson on drums, Jim Pryor on keys, and lead vocals and guitar, Andrew Duncanson, they delivered some of the best Chicago blues you’ll ever hear.

The only thing that could have made this weekend’s music any hotter was a saxophone; and that’s exactly how Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers turned up the heat! Bringing her flare to the stage, her talents are endless! She sings and she plays the sax (following in her dad’s footsteps) on a level that you have to see and hear to believe! Mindi is a St. Petersburg native so she was literally right at home on this festival stage even though this was her first appearance. She was scheduled to be here in 2020 but we all know what happened in the world there.
Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, originally from Queens, NY, carried the torch for the next 90 minutes. This was his third appearance and he was also one scheduled to be here in 2020. Bruce Katz joined him on stage on keys giving a taste of what he had in store for his Sunday performance. The depth of intense emotion Ronnie Earl plays with is transcendent. There was moment where it appeared that Ronnie “fell” out of his chair while playing but he had put his hand out to catch himself so he was then playing on his knees on stage. Diane Blue, his amazing vocalist, stepped over to check on him but he kept playing, not missing a beat. I got the feeling that he needed to express his passion as deeply as possible. His playing did not pause even for a second – he continued playing as though he was pouring out his heart through his guitar! That powerful moment brought tears to me eyes and the crowd poured out their collective hearts in return showing appreciation to this amazing icon of the blues!

Samantha Fish exploded onto the stage with her cigar box guitar, opening with “Bulletproof” from her 2019 album “Kill or Be Kind”. She switched guitars several times during her high-energy set. There was a moment where her mic went out but that did not rattle her at all because she’s “bulletproof”! She kept playing and that was quickly corrected to the crowds cheering! She pulled her selections from her seven-album repertoire including her most recent album, “Faster” which was released in September 2021. She also gave us “Twisted Ambition”, “Bitch OnThe Run” and several others. This was Samantha’s third appearance (2017, 2019) and surely, there will be more!
JJ Grey & Mofro (from Jacksonville, FL) and his incredible harmonica could be heard for miles as he began “99 Shades of Crazy”. He, of course, did his amazing “Lochloosa” along with “Orange Blossoms” and “Ol’ Glory”. His uplifting attitude and positive outlook is always inspirational. This was JJ’s third appearance (2010, 2016) and he was also scheduled to be here in 2020.

Day 2:
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones
Danielle Nicole
Eric Gales
Robert Randolph & The Family Band
Jimmie Vaughan

Day two started with just as big of a bang as day day one with Sugar Ray & The Bluetones bringing their Chicago blues to the stage. Featuring Michael “Mudcat” Ward on upright bass, Troy Gonyea on lead guitar, Neil Gouvin on drums and Ray Norcia on those smooth vocals. This was Sugar Ray’s fourth appearance at the TBBF.

Danielle Nicole from Kansas City, MO with Brandon Miller (lead guitar) and Go-Go Ray on drums, opened with “It Ain’t You”. This lady does NOT go easy; with leg kicks, and back bends – all while playing her bass guitar, Danielle Nicole is phenomenal! I have not heard a better voice in the business! Powerful blues straight from her soul; full of emotion that is also reflected in her expressions! “I’m gonna tell you a little bit about where I grew up” as she started, “Wolf Den” from her 2015 album by the same name. She did a rare cover of “I Feel Like Breakin Up Somebody’s Home”. Let me say, none better! Brandon Miller is also, hands down, one of the most gifted guitarists in the business. Don’t take my word for it, check them out for yourself! I have to give Go Go Ray some attention because he is one of the most expressive and brilliant drummers you’ll ever see. As an example, during his 5-minute drum solo, he literally juggled the sticks, tossing them into the air, flipping them and catching them, and continued his solo! Can’t say I had ever seen that before! Danielle had played this festival twice before. She and Brandon played in 2016 and in 2012, she was here with her previous band, “Trampled Under Foot”.

Eric Gales came out with some honesty showing his not-so-pretty past that included drug use, prison, and the pain that involved. The main point was that he survived and is now about to celebrate six years of being clean and sober! His message was that others that may be facing similar situations can do the same. Because of that survival, he lives every second to its fullest! Eric’s playing style is rowdy -in a good way- allowing him to display his extreme guitar talent without holding back! He came out into the audience and walked around while playing his guitar in that spectacular way only Eric Gales can! A special moment was when Ladonna, his wife, who normally plays percussion and is his background vocals, came to the front of the stage and showed us her bluesy vocal ability and she was outstanding! The crowd loved that! This year was Eric’s second appearance at the TBBF.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band brought a bit of a twist to the stage with the soulful swagger of his pedal steel guitar. The crowd loved his use of the pedal, making his guitar almost “speak” at times. This New Jersey native was making his first appearance at the TBBF this year.
Making his sixth appearance (1999, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2012) at the TBBF, Jimmie Vaughan jazzed things up a bit. Adding his debonair flare with what was the biggest band there – consisting of a trumpet, two saxophones and an upright bass along with drums, rhythm guitar, and keys, plus his unmistakable vocals. To hear that famous “Vaughan” voice live was almost surreal!

Day 3:
Backtrack Blues Band
The Bruce Katz Band
The Nick Moss Band
Ronnie Baker Brooks
Larkin Poe

Backtrack Blues Band, led by Sonny Charles on vocals with his amplified harmonica, Kid Royal on lead guitar and vocals, Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Stick Davis on bass, and Joe Bencomo on drums, with guest Wayne Sharp on keys got the final day of music started. The Backtrack Blues band is the longest running blues band in the Tampa Bay area, having played original blues music since 1980. They have played every year at this festival since Charles Ross (Sonny) is the creator and founder of TBBF.

Bruce Katz is the master of the keyboards! He fuses blues, jazz, and classical styles together in a way no other musician can! One of his many originals he performed was, “Get Your Groove”. He showed us how to do that as he was nearing the end of this song. He did a “creative diversion” where he just let it all out! It was all about letting go, and, yes, getting your groove! Bruce Katz does not play inside the lines; He creates his own lines, shifting them as he sees fit creating a moment as what can only be described as spiritual. Hailing from the New England area, he was joined on stage by guitarist Aaron Lieberman, and drummer, Liviu Pop. He had a Ukrainian flag hanging on his piano, which I thought was pretty cool.

Nick Moss is yet another musical virtuoso. His voice is as bluesy as they come; his guitar is off the charts! The Nick Moss band consists of Brett Brandstatt on keys, Patrick Seals on drums, and as Nick put it, “the Prince of Harpness” on harmonica, Dennis Gruenling. His regular bass player was in Europe so he snagged local bassist, Andrew Gohman for his set. The last time he played this festival was in 2008 so this was his second showing.

TBMN had the opportunity to speak with Nick after his set. He and his drummer, Patrick, had just driven from Chicago where they both live just for this festival and had gotten in Friday night while everyone else flew in; Dennis, from Los Angeles, and Brett from San Jose. This was the first time he had done a show with Dennis and Brett since the country shut down. They were in New Orleans in March then Dennis flew back home to Los Angeles, and Brett flew back home to San Jose and this weekend was their first reunion but they clearly did not miss a beat! He said they also played at the Floridian Social Club on Saturday (4/9/22) and they had one more show Wednesday (4/13/22) in another part of Florida and would then be driving back to Chicago. In asking about what the weather is like there now compared to Florida, he had spoken to his wife and she said it was in the 60s but had snowed the day before. She tours with him sometimes, as she is also a musician but her main occupation is freelance graphic designer. He jokingly said, “She can’t take too many days off to come with me because she makes way more money than I do!”

Something ironic happened to him, especially given the name of this album, during the shutdown. His last album, “Lucky Guy”, which was released in 2019, won album of the year, song of the year and they won Band of the year – all during covid so they couldn’t even tour on it! He had been nominated 26 times and when he finally won, he couldn’t maximize the opportunity. That was so frustrating but he said it was still nice to finally win! They are working on some songs for the next album but it is in the early stages and may not be out until next spring.
After the events of the last two years, Nick said he very happy to be back to normal, traveling, and doing what he loves – playing music!

Ronnie Baker Brooks was on fire with his amazing Chicago blues style! As he was still on stage, he was shaking hands with people near the stage, then, as Eric Gales had also done, he ventured into the crowd with his guitar, doing a little impromptu meet-and-greet with the crowd. This was Ronnie’s third showing at the TBBF. He was scheduled to play in 2020 as well.

There could have been no better way to close this weekend out than with the amazing Larkin Poe! They had been on my bucket list for a few years now and they blew me away! Hailing from Calhoun, Georgia, Megan and Rebecca absolutely killed it! Playing songs from several of their previous eight albums, they opened their set with one of my favorites, “Self Made Man”! Rounding out the full band with Megan and Rebecca was Kevin McGowan on drums and Tarka Layman on bass. That final 90 minutes was epic!

TBMN caught up with Megan and Rebecca before their set. Megan Lovell, who is older at 32 and is the lap steel genius and vocals, and Rebecca Lovell, who is right behind her at 31, is the amazing lead vocals and also plays guitar. They also have an older sister and a younger brother. They grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, which is about an hour north of Atlanta.

In asking how they got into music, they said that at the age of 3 or 4 years, their mom put them into music lessons where they learned classical violin and piano. As they got a little older, around the preteen years, they found blues and roots music and were blown away by the improvisation and people writing their own music. They dropped the classical lessons and went full force into roots music.

It all started out as a hobby with their first real gig came at the age of 14. Their parents were very supportive and receptive to allowing them to follow this passion. “They are both physicians so having two daughters follow a passion for music was a big departure so that had to be a little scary for them”, as Rebecca states. They had not yet “planned” for this to be a career but as time went on, it seemed the career picked them, as they were already into it before they realized it could be a career. They had been performing for a few years as “The Lovell Sisters” with their older sister. She later decided that wasn’t for her. They took a step back to reevaluate things and at that point, Rebecca and Megan made a concerted choice they they would make music their life – and that was 12 years ago. That’s when they became “Larkin Poe”. My next question was something that I had been very curious about. “Where did the name ‘Larkin Poe’ come from?” The answer is quite intriguing. Rebecca explained that Larkin Haskey Poe was their Great Great Great Great grandfather’s name and he was a cousin of Edger Allen Poe! How cool is that?!
Rebecca said they have control over what they do; how and when, so that allows them freedom to make their own decisions and be themselves. They are doing a lot of touring and will be leaving in two weeks to go to Europe for two months.

There is an album in the works, which will be coming out this year! I asked if there was a name for the upcoming album, and they looked at each other, “are we supposed to talk about that yet?” It hasn’t been released yet but…. {BREAKING NEWS ALERT}… the first single is slated to come out the first week of May! You read it here first!

Megan and Rebecca were very gracious with their time in this interview. They are both clearly grateful for the opportunity to live their dream and give people some amazing blues music.
“We feel lucky to have found a passion in life that we can share with others and to be able to do this as sisters and travel the world, makes everything worth it!” Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe.
What an amazing, blues-filled weekend this was! From the first song by Kilborn Alley Blues Band to the last song by Larkin Poe, there was not a single dull moment! That’s saying a lot given there were 15 performers over a 3-day period. Again, thank you to Charles Ross and to all that were involved in making this happen. We’ll see you in 2023!

Brenda Lorenz

Brenda formerly covered the Atlanta music scene and wrote for Beat Atlanta Online Magazine. She is now a Pinellas County resident. Brenda has always loved to write and really found her niche in writing about music and musicians because she says it brings me something I can't live without - live music! We look forward to her continuing to contribute to Tampa Bay Music News.