It began as a dream by local blueshead Chuck Ross and a few friends — and the dream came true. The Tampa Bay Blues Festival, now in its eighth year, keeps getting bigger and better; it's now considered a top national fest that draws top talent. Set in lovely Vinoy Park on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, the Blues Fest jams for three days, April 5-7. Unlike some of the mobbed, sweat-a-thon rock extravaganzas, the blues summit provides plenty of room to move around, spread out a blanket, open a lawn chair and chill.
In an attempt not to retread the same cadre of Chicago-style musicians, Ross and Co. has included the brilliant rock band Little Feat into this year's lineup, as well as R&B legend Ike Turner. But don't fret, purists: There will more than enough Strat-slinging and shuffle grooves to satisfy even the most ardent blues junkie.
Friday, April 5
3:30-4:30 p.m., Sean Chambers — He's consistently regarded as one of the top guitar slingers on the Bay area blues scene, with a rock-influenced style that carries the sting of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
4:30-6 p.m., Tab Benoit — Blues musician as matinee idol? Sounds a little incongruous, but it's rather fitting for singer/guitarist Benoit (Ben-WAH). How many other bluesmen can boast an appearance on the Baywatch spinoff Baywatch Nights? His brooding good looks don't overshadow his formidable talent, though. Benoit, a native and resident of Houma, La., outside Baton Rouge, plays music that's been accurately summed up as "Cajun rock 'n' blues".
6:30-8 p.m., Tommy Castro Band — "Worshipped for his guitar virtuosity, Castro throws a bit more rock and two bits of soul into his basic blues mix ... he has the voice, the band and the guitar to pull it off." So waxed Playboy magazine about the artist from San Jose, Calif. The readers of Blues Revue magazine hailed Castro's Right as Rain one of the best 40 albums of all time. The Tommy Castro Band has been together since '91, having built a dedicated following on the circuit.
8:30-10 p.m., North Mississippi All-Stars — Two of the band's members are sons of fabled producer/instrumentalist Jim Dickinson: guitarist Luther and drummer Cody. Based in Memphis, Jim raised his sons in the hill country of northern Mississippi, where there's a different kind of blues than that of Chicago, Texas and the rest. Hill-country blues eschews 12-bar structure, instead relying on hypnotic riffs. Luther and Cody grew up just a few miles from such regional stalwarts as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. They were also influenced by the likes of the Allman Brothers and other more contemporary acts. The All-Stars' music is effectively an updated version of the crude hill sound, played with chops and finesse, and factoring in other genres. This is a band that speaks more strongly about the future of the blues than the post-Chicago cats and SRV devotees.
Saturday, April 6
Noon-1 p.m., Damon Fowler — For a few years now, Fowler's been Tampa Bay's resident blues guitar prodigy; he continues to show maturity with each year he moves from phenom kid to full-blown bluesman.
1-2 p.m., Michael Burks — A W.C. Handy nominee for Best New Artist in 2000 — at the age of 43 — Burks is known simply as a firebrand, right down to his flashy Gibson Flying V ax. Blues Revue dubbed him a "master showman." Born in Milwaukee and reared into the blues by his musician father, Michael returned to the family home in southern Arkansas in the '70s and helped the old man build a 300-seat juke joint from the ground up. Michael led the house band until the club closed in the mid '80s. After years of performing without recordings, Burks released self-produced debut in '97, which led to a deal with Alligator and a steady spot on the national touring circuit.
2:30-4 p.m., Sean Costello — He's been called an "archeologist," a 22-year-old musician who excels at dusting off the overlooked relics of blues' past and invigorating them with a fresh spin. To this he adds originals. CD Reviews said of the Atlanta-based singer/guitarist: "In terms of Sean's contemporaries such as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepard, Costello is operating on a completely different level of blues consciousness. Unlike his guitar peers, Costello is no Stevie Ray wannabe. Keep an eye on Costello — he's the real future of the blues."
4:30-6 p.m., Kenny Neal — Celebrated bluesman Slim Harpo once gave a crying, 3-year-old Kenny Neal a harmonica to pacify him. The youngster, son of Louisiana titan Raful Neal, eventually learned the harp, as well as bass (he backed Buddy Guy in his teens), trumpet, piano and — most notably — guitar. After leading a band in Toronto for several years, Neal returned to the States and further developed his swampy, bayou-based sound. In '91, he took a respite from the circuit and landed the lead part in the Broadway musical Mule Bone.
6:30-8 p.m., Shemekia Copeland — The late blues legend Johnny Copeland began taking his daughter Shemekia on the road when she was just 16. It wasn't long before she was a scene-stealer. Shemekia signed with Alligator in the late '90s and was immediately lauded for her blast-furnace voice and charismatic stage presence. "Raw vocal power and real emotion, boisterous soul and swaggering blues. This woman knows how to sing," effused the Washington Post. "Nobody wants to listen to someone singing just to earn some money," Shemekia has said. "You gotta sing because you need to."
8:30-10 p.m., Little Feat — Like Los Lobos at last year's fest, Little Feat is '02's not-exactly-blues entry. A powerful cult band of the '70s, Feat broke up at the end of the decade in the wake of founder Lowell George's death. The surviving members reconvened in the late '80s and have carved out a formidable niche on the jam-band circuit (although their virtuosity and ensemble cohesion set them well above your garden-variety patchouli act). Feat's music is built on the rock but has a pronounced blues flavor, along with boogie, country, jazz, folk and a penchant for New Orleans funk. The inclusion of acts like Little Feat and Los Lobos to the blues fest allows organizers to appeal to a broader audience without undermining the event's high musical integrity.
Sunday, April 7
1-2 p.m., Backtrack Blues Band — These guys are perennials, a) 'cause they're good and b) 'cause the festival's founder/organizer/honcho Chuck Ross is the band's frontman. This guy works his ass off several months out of the year to put on a first-class music event, so why shouldn't he put his band on stage? If they sucked, that would be why. But BBB definitely doesn't suck — they play spirited, fun, witty Chicago blues, with stinging guitar licks and Ross' wailing harp leading the way.
2:30-4 p.m., Darrell Nulisch — A founding member of Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, the Somerville, Mass.-based Nulisch has established himself as among the elite of the new breed of harp players. The Dallas native is also highly regarded as an R&B belter. "Darrell Nulisch possesses one of the supplest, most heartbreaking male voices in contemporary blues and R&B," is how All About Jazz.com put it.
4:30-6 p.m., Lucky Peterson — The Texas denizen used to call St. Pete his stompin' grounds. His father, James, owned an R&B club on the south side. Before that, the multitalented Judge Kenneth Peterson learned at the feet of blues and R&B legends at his pop's renowned blues haunt in Buffalo, the Governor's Inn. He was playing drums at 3, soon learned some Hammond organ licks from Jimmy Smith and guitar from the guys in James' band. After a brief flirtation with childhood stardom, Lucky has settled into a steady career as a frontman and session player. He's been on the Verve Records roster for nearly a decade. His style, rooted in tradition, is ultimately a modern take on the blues.
6:30-8 p.m., Bernard Allison — Like so many of his peers, guitarist/vocalist Bernard Allison has blues in his blood. His father was the late blues master Luther Allison. Bernard began teaching himself to play guitar at age 10 and did not tell his dad until three years later. Knocked out, Luther promptly featured the 13-year-old on his 1978 live album. Bernard's done stints as musical director for Koko Taylor, and then his father until 1993, when he signed his first record deal. Bernard has never been tethered to genre rules — his sound encompasses about equal parts blues, rock, R&B and funk.
8:30-10 p.m., Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm — See accompanying story.