SILVER SPRING — Singers pined for old lovers, protested social ills, and asked the timeless question, “When I get drunk, who’s gonna carry me home?,” at the 10th annual Silver Spring Blues Festival on Saturday.
The 12-hour-long concert featured 12 artists performing on two stages in downtown Silver Spring. The show marked the end of Blues Week, a series of concerts in the area leading up to Saturday’s festivities, in which 1920s-era blues classics shared the stage with new original songs to create a lively mix of styles.
Alan Bowser, former president of Silver Spring Town Center, started the Silver Spring Blues Festival in 2009. He created the festival to be something unique to Silver Spring, and to help support local businesses.
“Over the years we’ve grown from one stage from two stages. We’ve gone from all-electric blues to electric blues and acoustic blues. We’ve gone from one day to Blues Week because there wasn’t enough time for just one day of blues,” said Bowser.
The first two acts, the Capitol Hillbillies and The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation Ensemble brought a country-influenced sound to the festival. The Hyattsville-based foundation traces its roots back to the barbershop jam sessions that the organization’s namesake used to host.
“Archie would cut hair five days a week,” said saxophonist/clarinetist David Bird. “On Saturdays, he would open up the shop; people would come in ,put down the blinds, get the moonshine out, and play blues.”
The foundation formed the year after Edwards died, in 1999, and now hosts jam sessions every Saturday in an old train station. The group performed Piedmont Blues, the style of blues that Edwards helped popularize in the area. Piedmont Blues has its roots in Appalachia and is marked by country-style alternate bass lines and ragtime-based rhythms. The classic style is relatively straight but has a trick up its sleeve: David Bird’s saxophone and clarinet lines gave songs like the Sister Rosetta Tharpe classic “Strange Things Happening Everyday” a new coat of paint.
“These songs were predominantly written by black people and predominantly written by people who were impoverished,” said singer Ya-Ya Peterson. These songs often talk about police brutality, they talk about sexual harassment…and these problems are still happening today,”
Peterson handled the vocals with a master’s touch; her vocal lines featured great phrasing and nuance. The set showcased the diversity of blues music with fun dance tunes like “The Georgia Sway,” being played alongside works featuring social commentary.
The next group, The Harried American, had a more country-rock approach. The group didn’t take itself too seriously, with a strong dose of comedy injected into the set. Their wit showed itself with a cover of folk singer Tim O’Brien’s song “You Ate the Apple.” The 2010 song reimagines God as an exasperated parent disappointed that Adam and Eve managed to disobey His one rule.
Little Bit of Blues – featuring local institution Warner Williams, with harmonica player Jay Summerour and drummer Eric Selby – provided a great avenue for the for the 88-year-olds’ brand of energetic blues. Williams had a mastery of the genre that could only come with his age and experience, and with a carefree style that made his guitar playing and singing appear effortless. The Takoma Park native won a National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 2011. His cover of the Fats Waller classic “Honeysuckle Rose,” featuring Summerour’s whistling melodies and singing backup vocals, elicited a great response from the crowd – with audience members clapping and leaving their seats to dance.
“I’ve been on the road a lot; I used to do 25 nights a month in the 1980s,” said Summerour. “It’s tough, but it’s a way of life, and I like it.”
Swedish-born Robert Lighthouse had a set of entirely original music, making him stand out among the cover artists at the festival. His songs were personal, about everyday relatable topics, like missing a bus to get home or taking his son to the Potomac River. His song “If I Was President”– a social commentary about what he would change in America, including lines about creating universal healthcare instead of war, and refusing to take money from the NRA – endeared him to much of the audience, who cheered him on after each proclamation.
Other notable artists included touring artist Biscuit Miller and the Mix and keyboardist Daryl Davis, the former piano player for Chuck Berry.
“I’ve played down in North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Arizona, Washington State, Mississippi,” said Summerour. “You know people are different, but when you’re playing music, everyone is the same.”