Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Merlefest 2010 - Acoustic Blues

One of my favorite aspects of Merlefest is Roy Book Binder's World's Greatest Acoustic Blues. Every year Book Binder brings in some amazing talent to fill this bill - usually a couple headliners balanced with a couple "unknown" artists. On Saturday these artists take over the Austin Stage for the entire and on Sunday a few perform at a Gospel blues session at the Americana stage. At least that was the standard operation. This year the organizers added a new wrinkle and schedule some of the blues artists to play at several stages in between sets on Friday. What a great idea - entertain the crowd during a lineup change. Plus it gave the audience a preview to Saturday. And that's how I first heard two "discovered" artists Ben Prestage and Harry Manx. Both are extremely unique. Manx is referred as a “Mysticssippi” blues man and fuses Indian ragas into his misssissippi blues. In fact his signature instrument is the 20-stringed Mohan Veena and he studied for five years under the tutelage of the instrument's inventor Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Not surprisingly his sound is rather unique - but it has a memorizing affect on the audience.

Ben Prestage is a one man band and blends Memphis blues with Florida swamp blues while playing a drum kit with his feet and picking an electric or cigar box guitar. He actually has two cigar box guitars, with each containing a couple bass strings plugged into a separate amp. But even with the novelty setup, the guy can play and sing the blues. My favorite performer of the weekend. Yet I almost left him off the itinerary. With a festival as talented as Merlefest there are conflicts arising each hour. And it seemed that Prestage was scheduled against someone else I really wanted to see. But after watching the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Creekside stage I noticed Ben picking up a cigar box guitar and thought, let's give this kid a listen. Wow - what a performance - love his act introducing the band - all four or five Ben Prestages. I'm sure glad Mrelefest scheduled the blues acts in between sets. I immediately chanced my entire itinerary in order to see his full set Saturday. Plus I purchased his two CDs available in the record tent. Yea, I'm now a Ben Prestage stalker, but take my word and listen to this guy.

The headliners that I was really looking forward to seeing were Corey Harris and Phil Wiggins performing together and blues legend John Hammond. How did Book Binder get Hammond scheduled. And his 45 minute set was awesome; he played a mixture of originals and covers of the fathers of the blues. Plus he was able to introduce each song and recollect when he first heard or met that particular artist - a semi history lesson. Hammond still has it, he can pick, play the harp, and sing - just as when I first heard him two decades ago.

I was able to catch Harris & Wiggins twice, first on the Cabin Stage Friday, then at the Austin Stage Saturday. The two have nice chemistry with Wiggins on harp and Harris on guitar. I've been following Harris since listening to his Alligator release Fish Ain't Bitin'. And its nice to see that he has found a regular spot in the Americana\Bluegrass markets. Wiggins is a DC native, and is better known as one half of Cephas & Wiggins. Soon Harris & Wiggins may be as popular as that duo.

Photos of all the acoustic blues acts are available at the MyJoog Gallery.

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