By MARCY STAMPER
Headliner Johnny Winter, with his long commitment to authentic blues and creative flights into blues rock, is the perfect match for the state’s venerable Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival this weekend at the Blues Ranch just west of Winthrop.
Winter is coming to Winthrop for the first time in the festival’s 26-year history, treating audiences to his distinctive guitar playing and mesmerizing vocals. A legend in his own right, Winter has played with storied musicians including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers.
After years battling chemical dependency and health issues, Winter has embarked on an active recording and concert schedule of some 100 shows a year. In an interview last week, Winter said he is always energized by his audiences. Winter has loved the blues since he first heard the music at age 12. “It’s the most emotional music I ever heard,” he said.
He will play numbers from his new album, “Roots,” a compilation of blues classics by the artists who influenced him growing up, as well as other selections from his more than four decades in music.
Winter is joined by festival veterans Otis Taylor and Too Slim & the Taildraggers, as well as exciting newcomers Rosie Ledet, with her tantalizing take on zydeco, and Chris O’Leary, who blazes on the harmonica.
Devotees of the New Orleans sound won’t want to miss Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, which blends the force of funk with gospel, blues and rock; and Bonerama, whose brass band blends vintage funk, classic rock and improv in original numbers. Bonerama also works magic on covers of jazz greats and rock icons including Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
Zydeco aficionados will want to catch Rosie Ledet, the “zydeco sweetheart.” Ledet mixes a sassy, sexy delivery (and lyrics full of double-entendres) with pure, clear vocals and a healthy infusion of funk to get concertgoers shaking their hips.
Category-defying singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor brings his signature music – treating big themes such as love, social injustice and his own personal demons – back to Winthrop for his third appearance at the festival.
Taylor blends Appalachian and African influences (his first instrument was the banjo, which he played while riding his unicycle to high school). Taylor later expanded his talents to include guitar, harmonica and haunting vocals. This year Taylor’s band includes the artistry of classical violinist Anne Harris. Taylor describes his music as “a way of saying something that seems to be more intense.”
Fiery vocalist and soul artist Janiva Magness, who last wooed Winthrop audiences in 2006, pours her earthy, raw honesty into original compositions that recount her personal stories of loss and recovery and pain and redemption. The Chicago Sun-Times called Magness “a master of the lowdown blues who is equally at ease surrounded by funk or soul.”
The Winthrop blues bash would not be complete without regulars Too Slim & the Taildraggers, the quintessential Northwest blues band. Bandleader Tim “Too Slim” Langford recently relocated to Nashville as the band’s career took off, and the move has injected their music with an exciting, gritty sound overlaid on Too Slim’s blazing slide guitar.
Called a “natural-born guitarist” and “as untamed and menacing as ever,” Too Slim has just released a new album, “Blue Heart.” The eclectic trio has racked up awards for lifetime achievement and been inducted into one of blues music’s halls of fame.
Songwriter and acoustic guitar virtuoso Doug MacLeod is known for storytelling through music that can bring characters to life. Last heard in Winthrop in 2010, MacLeod has built a dedicated following. With his original compositions and wit, MacLeod follows the dictum of one of his musical mentors to “never play a note you don’t believe.”
Vocalist Nikki Hill and her band deliver up American roots music generously spiked with the intensity of vintage soul, blues and R&B. Hill’s raw, soulful singing grows out of her background belting out gospel in the Deep South and her later embrace of rock and roll.
Uninhibited North Carolina-based bluesman Matt Hill won the Best New Artist award in 2011 from the Blues Music Awards for his vocals, guitar playing and magnetic energy. “He drives audiences crazy. A stage can’t contain him, he raves from the floor,” said one reviewer.
Sue Foley described the latest album she and Peter Karp released as “great songs with common themes – positivist, renewal, absolution.” Featuring original compositions by the two singer-songwriters, the album is backed up by boogie piano and slide guitar.
Versatile musician Chris O’Leary leavens his commanding vocals and suave harmonica riffs with rock, stomp, swank and ballads. Backed by a tight ensemble, O’Leary’s sound ranges from laidback to downright rollicking.
Award-winning trombonist Randy Oxford and his band tackle music with a spirit that defies categorization. Combining jazz licks and funky rhythms with solid backing from two talented guitarists and a solid rhythm section – including Winthrop R&B favorite Polly O’Keary – the band offers up blues classics and originals with a full sound.
Seattle-based diva Lady “A” returns this year with her characteristic energy, non-stop movement and engaging lyrics. Her music ranges from zydeco-tinged funk to soul to authentic back-alley blues. Her sultry voice and high-energy performance are sure to get the audience up and moving.
As Winter urged, “Just come out and have fun.”
The festival starts Friday (July 19) with a benefit concert for The Cove. Saturday and Sunday (July 20 and 21) the music starts at 11 a.m., with Winter at 10 p.m. on Saturday night and the last act on Sunday at 9 p.m. Music jams at the beer garden continue until 2 a.m. each night.
Admission to the entire festival is $80 in advance and $90 at the gate. The Friday night show is $10, or free with a weekend pass. For more information on the schedule and purchasing tickets online or at local vendors, see www.winthropbluesfestival.com.
Rhythm & Blues Festival Schedule
All events at Winthrop Blues Ranch
Friday, July 19
7:30 p.m. Matt Hill
9:30 p.m. Lady “A”
11:30 p.m. Too Slim & the Taildraggers
Saturday, July 20
11 a.m. Doug MacLeod
12:30 p.m. Lady “A”
2 p.m. Chris O’Leary Band
4 p.m. Nikki Hill
6 p.m. Otis Taylor Band
8 p.m. Bonerama
10 p.m. Johnny Winter
11:30 p.m.–2 a.m. Methow Juke Joint All Stars featuring the Chris O’Leary Band
Sunday, July 21
11 a.m. Doug MacLeod
12:15 p.m. Peter Karp & Sue Foley
1:30 p.m. Randy Oxford Band
2:45 p.m. Rosie Ledet
4 p.m. Janiva Magness
5:30 p.m. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk
7:15 p.m. Too Slim & the Taildraggers
9 p.m.–2 a.m. Methow Juke Joint Allstars featuring Peter Karp & Sue Foley and the Randy Oxford Band