Bobby Blue Bland, Mavis Staples and Canned Heat will headline the three day Blues Fest July 20-22 at Heartwood Acres.
BOBBY BLUE BLAND
When Canned Heat played the Civic Arena in 1969, fresh from appearing at Woodstock, lead singer Bob Hite used a nine-letter word to describe the sound system’s quality, then tore the microphone from its stand and threw it into the cheering audience. They were banned for life.
Now, the arena is gone, but Canned Heat is back, with three of the original members, and will be playing their signature boogie blues hits like “Goin’ Up The Country” and “Down The Road Again” as one of the headliners at this year’s Pittsburgh Blues Festival at Heartwood Acres.
They will take to the main stage Saturday, July, 21 just prior to blues legend Bobby Blue Bland, who is still performing at age 82, and in fact, celebrated his 81st birthday with a concert in New York City.
Bland hasn’t performed in Pittsburgh since he and B.B. King played the Stanley Theater, now the Benedum Center, in the mid 1990s.
Unlike most blues artists, Bland made it to the top the hard way—without playing an instrument or writing his own material. With just the dynamics of his stage presence and his voice, Bland had several number one hits and has been inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Growing up in Memphis, Bland became one of the Beale Streeters, playing and learning with the likes of Johnnie Ace, Junior Parker and his longtime friend King.
“I learned a lot from them, and because I couldn’t play an instrument, I learned I had to do something differently with the lyric,” he said in a phone interview. “But it really started in the church. You can’t be a good singer unless you’re a good listener, and those hymns I sang with my grandmother in the kitchen sounded pretty good to me.”
Bland said his musical education was made easier by the generosity of the people he worked with.
“The older artists were always willing to pass on what they knew, and to help the next generation coming up, and I try to do that, too, because someone gave me a chance I want to pass that on,” he said. “It’s like ‘Stormy Monday,’ T-Bone Walker wrote that tune, but one time after I’d recorded it, he said to me, ‘that’s your song now because of how you changed the structure.’”
Bland said “Stormy Monday” is one of the classics his audiences want to hear, plus his hits like “I Pity The Fool,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Further Up The Road,” “It’s My Life, Baby” and “That’s The Way Love Is.” But he might have some more material if he and King can get into the recording studio one more time.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it. He’s a good friend and a great role model,” he said. “So, whenever he’s ready. His schedule is pretty tight, he still works a lot.”
Bland said his wife Willie handles all his appearances and doesn’t schedule him too much, though he did play that birthday concert.
“That was just one of those things, it wasn’t planned. Some of the folks knew it was my birthday, so it was nice,” he said. “Hey, New York, it was one of those dates I couldn’t refuse. “
Following Bland on Sunday, the legendary Mavis Staples will headline the final day’s concerts. Staples developed her signature vocal style of gospel, R&B and soul in the 1960s and 1970s with her father and sisters as part of the famous Staple Singers. The group twice topped the US and R&B charts with “I’ll Take You There” in 1971 and “Let’s Do It Again” four years later. They also reached a broader audience covering tunes by Bob Dylan and Steven Stills, and were featured singing “The Weight” by The Band in the documentary film of their final concert “The Last Waltz.”
Staples began her solo career while still with the Singers in the 1960s, and over the course of the next 40 years worked with everyone from Steve Cropper, Ray Charles and Ry Cooder to Prince, Los Lobos and Natalie Merchant. Her voice has even been sampled by hip-hop artists Ice Cube and Ludacris. In 2011, she won her only solo Grammy Award for the album “You are Not Alone.”
Just before she takes the stage, the audience will get to welcome back blues guitar great Bernard Allison, who last played the festival in 2007. Allison literally grew up with the blues learning at the feet of his late father Luther Allison. He learned so well that a week after graduating high school, he was asked to join Koko Taylor’s band. Throughout the 1980s, Allison worked with his father as well as guitarists Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
“I can’t be Luther Allison, I’m trying to pick up where he left off,” Allison said of his playing. “Blues is about experimenting and getting your feelings across to someone else. And if you want to keep it going, people are going to have to give it all a chance because we’re losing all our creators. “
In addition to the headliners, this year’s festival also will feature local artists like Jimmy Thackery, performing Saturday, and Pittsburgh native, now living in Memphis, Barbara Blue, who will perform Sunday.
And, as always, the Friday, July 20 shows are free to anyone who contributes a bag on non-perishable groceries. The theme for the Friday performances is Mardi Gras and features Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience.
For a complete list of artists and show times, got to www.pghblues.com.
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