featurebanner_bluesbash2013AMBER LOVE 25-MARCH-2013 The two-day annual NJ BLUES BASH was last weekend at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown. Joe Hirsh Productions never ceases to find incredible talent to tour through even our smallest towns.

This week’s VODKA O’CLOCK podcast is very short and contains the backstage interviews with Lee Delray and Gary Wright. I have video content to edit which will be uploaded to YouTube soon.

Download on iTunes or listen here.


Ashley and I spent both nights assisting the producers and bands. We were fortunate to have some time to sit and soak in the music for a while when not running around. All the bands performed admirably but there were certain performances that truly stood out. Friday night’s audience was disappointingly low with around 100 seats filled out of nearly 500. People that didn’t get passes for both days had no idea what they’d be missing. Saturday’s headliner JOHNNY WINTER is probably the reason behind the sold out tickets. Yet, his show wasn’t nearly as great as it could have been. More on that in a bit.

The sound checks created delays which irritated the people that did come out for Friday’s show not to mention how frenzied it made the staff. Sure, everyone wants to sound as good as possible but at a certain point, you want them to realize this is Hackettstown, not Madison Square Garden. I like things to run smoothly and I had no bones about speaking up. When a band was not getting their sound check moving along, I let them know.

2013-03-23 nj blues bashSLACKJAW was the first band to play on the stage of the Sitnik Theatre. They managed to make a darn good impression on me. With only three members in the band, they projected a palpable mood reminiscent of THE BLACK KEYS, one of my old favorites for sultry tones.

* John Thompson – guitar, vocals

* Carl Capodice – bass

* Randy Marinelli – drums

One of my favorite things about Slackjaw wasn’t about their music. It was backstage. The crowd of people in the wings and green room weren’t an entourage. It was a  genuine support network of family and friends. Sure, they’re a small time local Jersey band at the moment but they could easily have seen the many empty Friday night seats and been discouraged. Instead, they were laughing, glowing, and elated as were all the good folks with them.


When I had been given the lineup of the bands, I made a couple blog posts and had a glaring error. The research I did regarding GARY WRIGHT turned up only the artist from the 70s who was known for disco. Now, I’ve seen musicians cross over genres before; lots of them do it. Darius Rucker switched from pop rock to country, Jewel is another classic case, and of course Amy Grant was known for appealing to multiple audiences flipping from contemporary Christian to pop. Since the promo flyer I received didn’t have a photo of Gary Wright, I didn’t have an idea that the one performing at Blues Bash was an entirely different man. This one is a Red Bank singer/guitarist with dynamic projection of his raspy voice. He’s as easy going as they come.

I’m no expert on Howlin’ Wolf but I think Gary’s tribute included his unique takes on “How Many More Years” and “The Red Rooster.” He varied his presentation throughout the hour moving from sitting to walk around a bit of stage right with his band mates. Gary made his connections even more intimate with the audience during his finale when he left the stage and played his way up and the down the aisles and through the rows not missing a beat. His guitar solos lasted anywhere from a minute to nearly eight. His “One Love” philosophy rooted in the Marleyesque tradition comes through with Gary’s delicate nature and pure joy in seeing other musicians and fans. Ashley and I were able to chat with the band backstage for a few minutes and all of them were incredibly friendly. You can follow Gary on Facebook at his Roots ‘n Blues page.

NJ blues bash 2013* Gary Wright – guitar, vocals

* Max Carmichael – guitar

* James Keenan – bass

* Frank Tambone – drums

Headlining Friday was LEE DELRAY and band. I was happy to get a few minutes in the green room to interview Lee about a couple things going on in today’s headlines about music. He’s clearly someone who has been playing all his life because he loves to and has the burning need to regardless of trends, news and buzz. Perhaps my questions were naive but they were genuinely things I wanted to know, including how someone from Florida find the blues in Staten Island, New York. When I think of a New York music scene, my brain only considers two options: punk and Harlem jazz. No idea why that’s my grey cells conjure.

Lee and his band have a hardcore rhythm and blues composition. I would love to hear a stand up bass with them but it certainly wasn’t lacking with the five-piece ensemble they have. Lee would break out into solos that ranged from weeping guitar to screaming. He worked the stage back and forth and moved his spotlight occasionally to the very edge. He talked directly to the audience even if that meant he was away from his mic. It was all about making an effort to show them that they were appreciated for coming to listen.

Lee’s new CD “570 Blues” was available that weekend and is scheduled for release in May. He played selections from that and some older work. Ashley and I were fortunate to find some space on the couches backstage behind the curtains so we felt like they were playing just for us. I felt every vibration through the seats tingling my back and the floor behind my feet hummed along. At one point, they brought the music down soft and low with gentle tapping of the rims of the snare. Then Lee serenaded the crowd while he was away from his mic again and brought the chorus as close to the edge of the stage as possible. Slow and gentle was changed to what Lee calls, “rocking your face off,” which he achieved through more powerful and loud slow beat that thumped a certain steadiness. His guitar whispered sexy sweetness contrasting the earlier screaming riffs. One of the tracks featured an energetic keyboard solo. The band also welcomed a guest harmonica player for a couple songs, Mike “Sweetharp” Smith. It appeared that there was some kind of sound issue or mix up when he took the stage but the songs played out just fine. The encore wrapped up with Lee strumming his guitar behind his head à la mode de Jimi Hendrix.

2013 nj blues bash lee delray* Lee Delray – guitars, vocals

* Randy Adams – bass

* John Scanlon – keyboard

* Papa John Mol̩ Рdrums

* Mike “Sweetharp” Smith – harmonica

I didn’t catch much of what were called the “Tweener” acts. Terrible name, in my opinion – makes them sound like the upcoming pop stars of Disney. These were low key performers stationed in the lobby to entertained people during all the intermissions. The only one I heard at all were the talented Pfeiffer Twins, Carrie and Lindsay from Newton, New Jersey. They have the camaraderie of the Indigo Girls but without the huskiness in their vocals.

Saturday had three bands in front of headliner JOHNNY WINTER. STONE COLD FEVER are a local ensemble. I can’t say I was impressed by their sound at all but they were certainly having a great time and that’s delightful to see. Things picked up exponentially when THE BAD HANDS took stage. They’re described as being a Chicago blues style that blend everything from funk to southern rock. They’re a younger group with the jeans, tee shirts and leather accents that made for great eye candy to enhance the seriously solid jams they played. If I were selecting for a talent search, they’d move on to the next round for sure.

2013 nj blues bash bad hands* Mike Gallemore – guitar, vocals

* Joe “Bee” Benedetti – slide guitar

* Mike Foli – harmonica, vocals

* Jim “Poppa Dukes” Benedetti – drums

* Steve Mahady – bass

By far, the best part of the festival was THE SAMANTHA FISH BLUES BAND. I’m sorry if that’s sacrilegious since a legend took the stage after her. Mark my words, Samantha will be a legend in time too. I keep saying she’s this generation’s Bonnie Raitt and that’s no exaggeration. Aside from the videos Ashley was able to shoot, I’m aiming to have Samantha on an upcoming episode of Vodka O’Clock when she isn’t surrounded by crowds of fans.

NJ blues bash 2013Her website is slightly outdated as Samantha is now 24 and sporting gorgeous ginger locks. She rocked a cigar box guitar in a way that I’ve never seen before. Anytime I’ve caught a glimpse of a cigar box guitar, it was usually plucked whimsically and cheerfully; but Samantha made hers howl resonating throughout the theatre. She was sweet and friendly but unlike the other band leaders, she kept herself isolated when she wasn’t working on stage or at her merch table. I wanted to respect her pre-show ritual and not track her down in her tour van just to get an interview. I think we’ll have a more meaningful chat over Skype.

If you put the soul, voice, and energy of Tina Turner and put in a body like Taylor Swift, that’s pretty much what you can expect. I do not use Taylor Swift as the brunt of jokes like most people these days; that girl has talent and she’s hugely successful.

 After the standing ovation for Fish, the crowd once again rose out of their seats as the band for Johnny Winter warmed them up. The white-haired legend walked briskly with his crooked spine bearing the weight of his guitar to the front of the stage. What’s sad that the sound engineering on this part of the concert was so terrible. The drums were overpowering but the rhythm guitar and bass were okay. Johnny’s picking was a bit too quiet and we could never tell when he was singing which he most certainly did in every song. We were only a few feet away so we know there wasn’t any backup track doing it for him.

2013 nj blues bash johnny winterAshley and I were tucked behind the curtain in the wings backstage with all the other staff and musicians. We were stage left and being entertained by the jovial bassist who kept checking to make sure he wasn’t blocking our view of Johnny for photos. Knowing that we weren’t getting usable audio or video, we sat on the comfortable couch and tried our best to enjoy it, tweeting the whole time. When there were about three songs left in the set and presuming an encore, it was time for us to bail on the earsplitting amp seats and go back to the lobby where each of us purchased CDs from Samantha Fish and waited for her to arrive at her table for signing.

After Saturday’s performances, there was supposed to be a gathering at the local watering hole, Marley’s Gotham Grill on Hackettstown’s Main Street. Two years ago, we used to love Marley’s. The service was good and there was paper on the tables where we could make bar art for hours and tweet the pictures of it. Sadly, Marley’s went through changes that didn’t suit our tastes and we rarely bother venturing in there. Ashley was exhausted but I wanted to get myself slowly acclimated to our comic con schedules of stupidly late nights so I suggested the trip downtown.

The night became windy and frigid. March was not being kind despite all the groundhog predictions for early spring. The bar booths were empty and the stools were full of townies. We took our old favorite spot at a booth with an outlet (a must after any long day) but Ashley received the bad news from the bartender that they were on a limited menu that time of night. By “limited menu” they meant three things none of which were options my near-vegan lifestyle would want. No one else from the concert was there anyway so we left. It’s a strange situation when there are perceived formal plans and yet no details made with the establishment. There were Facebook invitations and announcements about this party. So where the hell was it? What kind of after party leaves people hungry? Perhaps it wasn’t made clear to us that we could have helped ourselves to the craft services tables where there was at the very least a mixed salad. However after seeing bare hands digging into everything, I was turned off to any buffet style dining. The only thing we helped ourselves to was small sample size cups of the Shawneecraft beer in the green room. I had about a half cup of each the lager and the porter both of which were surprisingly refreshing though neither were heavy bodied in flavor. We headed home and to fend for ourselves there, got into flannel pajamas and ate in bed.

The two days were packed with activity and I think we did a decent job of helping with the production team. Honestly, how many journalists are going to get on their knees to clean up spilled barbecue  collect trash and tear tickets. Ashley and I did almost every non-tech job there was and still had an outstanding time.

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