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Thursday, Aug 21, 2014
Arts & Music

Blues legends arrive in St. Petersburg this weekend


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There are a number of venerable acts slated to perform at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, which is slated for Friday through Sunday at Vinoy Waterfront Park.

There's a pair of five-time Grammy winners Buddy Guy and Michael McDonald. There's the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas. Shemekia Copeland is making her late legendary father Johnny Copeland proud as one of the finest guitar slingers on the circuit. And there is The Blind Boys of Alabama. The iconic group, which will perform Saturday, must be doing something right. The veteran gospel act, which formed in 1939, somehow keeps on rolling.

“It's been a long time since this all started but we continue on since we have always been good at communicating,” vocalist Jimmy Carter said during a telephone interview from Des Moines, Iowa. “We talk things out. If something is bothering one of us, we talk about whatever we need to talk about. We also love what we do. We love singing gospel songs. That keeps us motivated.”

There's another important element that keeps the Blind Boys of Alabama intact and relevant. The act takes chances. Its latest walk on the sonic high wire is working with celebrated indie rock artist Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.

Vernon produced “I'll Find A Way,” which dropped last September. The uplifting album includes appearances by singers Patty Griffin and Sam Amidon and Vernon.

“It was a joy working on the album with Justin,” Carter said. “We knew nothing about him. We didn't know he was (an alternative artist). When we were told about his interest in working with us, we found out about him and we were very excited. We trusted him and it worked out since he chose great material and he had some great soul food for us. It was well worth it for us to travel to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to work with Justin.”

It's not the first time that the Blind Boys have worked with a celebrated member of the rock community. The five-time Grammy Award winning group has collaborated with such icons as the late Lou Reed, Ben Harper and Willie Nelson.

“I think it's very important to be receptive to new ideas,” Carter said. “I always say that a mind works best when its like a parachute, it works better when it's open. So we were open to working with Lou Reed and Ben Harper and it worked out very well for us. I never met anyone like Lou Reed. He was tremendous. And then there's Willie (Nelson). We went on his bus and talked with him and he's so kind and mellow. We had fun working with him. Willie and Lou are both incredible musicians.”

Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson are other icons, who have joined the Blind Boys in the studio. “It's been wonderful,” Carter said. “So many talented people are fans of the Blind Boys of Alabama and we've benefitted since they've helped us make some terrific music.”

The guests have added so much to the Blind Boys canon but at the end of the day it's all about the members of the group, which also include vocalist Ben Moore, drummer-vocalist Ricky McKinnie, guitarist Joey Williams, bassist Tracy Pierce and organist Peter Levin.

“There's nothing we like more than getting in a room and harmonizing,” Carter said. “We still love to create. We want to make new albums like 'I'll Find A Way.'

Carter, who is on the edge of octogenarian status, isn't thinking about retirement. “I don't want to consider that right now,” Carter said .”I hope we have a few more years left. The music keeps me going. I want to do this as long as possible. But at some point we will have to stop but there will be a legacy we will leave behind that I hope is that we touched people's lives and given people hope. We try to bring joy and peace. We want to show that there is possibility.”

The group, which features three blind singers, Carter, Moore and McKinnie, do just that by recording consistently warm, moving songs. “We might be disabled but we don't look at what we can't do,” Carter said. “We look at what we can do. Nothing is stopping us from singing gospel music. Maybe we can provide inspiration for others. If we can do what we do, just think about what you can do.”

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What you can do is immerse yourself in the blues.

Guy will headline Friday. Guy is a blues legend who failed to get his due during his salad days back in the '60s. Leonard Chess of Chess Records fame failed to get the guitar genius of Guy and him from his label but eventually acknowledged his oversight. Guy, who counts Eric Clapton among his legion of fans, plays with passion, dexterity and is arguably the greatest blues axeslinger of all-time.

Also on Friday's bill:

♦ Shemekia Copeland, who made a splash as a blues guitarist when she was just 19. Her debut album, 1998's “Turn Up The Heat!” turned ears. She is out behind her latest “3 and a Third.”

♦ Former drummer Coco Montoya learned blues guitar craft while playing with Albert Collins and John Mayall. Montoya, who won Best New Blues Artist in 1996 is crafty and at times spectacular.

♦ Selwyn Birchwood is a local guy made good. The 28-year-old honed his skills at Skipper's Smokehouse.

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On Saturday, former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald headlines. McDonald possesses that familiar baritone, which is one of the most distinctive voices in the industry. His blue-eyed soul and soft rock made him a star.

Also playing Saturday:

♦ Tommy Castro and the Painkillers features Castro, a passionate and inventive guitarist.

♦ Lil' Ed and the Imperials is led by Ed Williams, a monster guitarist, who delivers visceral licks and sings his heart out.

♦ Nikki Hill is a young, sultry blues belter, who mixes punk and funk.

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On Sunday, Irma Thomas will belt it out. The iconic Crescent City singer is stylish and saucy.

Also performing Sunday:

♦ James Hunter is one of Britain's best blue-eyed soul singers.

♦ Big Sam's Funky Nation is led by Sammie Williams of Dirty Dozen Brass Band fame. The band is loose, funky and energetic.

♦ Tad Robinson is a veteran blues singer, who delivers raw, gritty tunes.

♦ George Porter Jr. is moonlighting. He's normally the bassist for the Meters but Porter will hold court solo.

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