The wind chill was way into double-digit-negatives and the murky white banks flanking Syracuse’s James Street were way over your waist as the music fans some 150 strong braved their way into the Palace Theatre.
Promoter and host Tom Honan had the right words to set the mood.
“We were going to do it outside,” he said as 7 p.m. struck on the too cold late February night, “but these guys play better inside. I’d like to give you a warm welcome to the first Snow Plow Blues Festival.”
Phil Petroff and The Natural Fact made history as the first band to play this new entry into Syracuse’s long line of cool and good music events.
That it would be a band from Syracuse filled with devoted, hard-working cats who’ve made names for themselves with bands both inside these city lines and outside in the big, bad world was right and proper, too. Later into the night, when wicked lead guitarist Petroff would save Los Blancos’ bacon because Colin Aberdeen’s amp crapped out by jumping on stage to volunteer the use of his sound thrower instead, Aberdeen told of how he and Phil’s younger brother Mike used to play together in the Westcott Jug Suckers, and how Phil and Mike made great blues too in the Lake Effect Blues Band. Dave Olson on the drums, well, he’s been a road warrior for Robert Cray, and that’s just one line on his impressive resume. Greg “Creamo” Liss on the bass, he was a member of Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians, which for a couple of shining years made downtown Syracuse throb like New Orleans under the direction of George Rossi, and then went on the road and won over hearts and minds.
Phil and Greg and Dave were tough and rough as a power three, but Virginia guest for the night, Eli Cook, pitched in his rich guitar for the second tune, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin’,” and the mood was set for the evening.
Here’s a video I shot with my iPhone 6 from the general admission seat I chose, center and a half-dozen rows back.
Next up was the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, again loaded with top Syracuse talent. Guitarist Terry Mulhauser and keyboardist Jerry Neely played with the Kingsnakes, the Salt City blues band that made national waves, and bass player and drummer Jim Paventi and Don Sollars were the foundation guys for the late, great Roosevelt Dean, the Voice of Syracuse who brought Kelly back to the stage with his band before he succumbed in his long battle to cancer.
“If you didn’t come here with a friend, you’ll have one on the stage here tonight,” band leader Pavente said as the musicians played Kelly to the stage, and, indeed, she sang her way into hearts with her rich, forceful and golden blues ways. Yes, she earned her standing ovation callback as she walked down the aisle and back up for her stylish finale.
Professor Louie is working his way into becoming an honorary Central New Yorker, the Woodstock citizen and leader of the Cromatix using the Palace Theatre and the Polish Home, another venue booked by Honan’s Live Space Entertainment, as a weigh station as he performs around upstate and Canada. Louie brought his singer, Miss Marie, from that band with him for this show. But before they started, he made sure to shout out warm wishes to Donna Colton, who’s recovering from surgery to fight cancer and will be the focal point of a benefit show on March 1. “I played with Donna here at the Bob (Dylan tribute) show, and I hear she’s not feeling well and can use our wishes,” Louie said.
Louie and the Cromatix were the backup band for The Band back in Woodstock, so after that announcement, he and Miss Marie started the set with a marvelously medicinal rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” Then wonderful storyteller Louie grabbed the crowd with the one of how they were in the studio to back up on a record made by legendary bluesmen Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and how every time Waters would discard a song sheet that did not meet his standards, Louie would pick it out of the trash can and pocket it. They played a quite lovely “Clouds in My Heart,” which, no, did not make that album recorded in Woodstock.
Louie invited veteran Syracuse harp blower Skip Murphy and young Virginia bluesman Cook as new friends to share the stage, and told how “geographies” were always a chapter of the blues story. “A big part of it was where you came from,” he said, as he led this diverse foursome into a tribute to Jimmy Reed, “You Got Me Dizzy.”
Cook came out for his featured solo set after that, and the guy flat out sizzled.
He used a foot stomp on a red box to set the beat for the rich blues created from his beautiful guitar, and his gritty voice attacked the lyrics with undeniable passion on “Big Legged Woman.”
He shifted into a wonderfully manic “Mama Don’t Allow No Guitar Playing,” and all eyes were on the genius created right in front of us all.
Los Blancos closed the night with a serving of Syracuse gumbo, and the cats were cooking. Aberdeen, bassist Steven T. Winston and keyboard player Mark Nanni all were in fine form when they took their turn with the lead vocals. And Aberdeen led the boys through blues — a conversation earlier in the day with a friend in Florida had led to her statement about attending too many blues festivals that made her declare “When are they going to play some blues?” he said — and more, ballads and dance music and much to love.
And then Petroff came up to play guitar, and Kelly came up to sing, and Professor Louie came up to play side-by-side squeeze boxes with Nanni and Mark Tiffault took all of this in and kept the steady beat on his drum kit, as always the rock.
Couples got up from their seats and danced in front of the stage. The vibe was right, this special blend of musicians and music.
At the end, Honan jumped back up on stage and told everybody he’d see them again next year. Great sign that is.
Below-zero wind chill: Go out for live music or stay in? Do you enjoy festivals where the musicians jump in and play with each other’s bands, and what special moments may you have witnessed because of it? Would you get up to dance in front of the stage or seat dance?