Blues Heaven Festival 2018
Arena Nord, Frederikshavn, Denmark
November 2-3, 2018
By Glenn Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
Northern Denmark might not sound like the most inviting place to go in November, but savvy blues fans know differently. For over 13 years now, the small town of Frederikshavn has hosted one of the most exciting blues festivals in Europe, recently rebranded as “Blues Heaven,” but remaining under the artistic direction of promoter Peter Astrup. Recently upsized to the town’s Arena Nord sports centre, it is still a small enough event to feel close to the action and retains the atmosphere that is the joy of a smaller festival. Logistically too, it benefitted from complimentary coach shuttles running between the local hotels and the venue.
On the Thursday night before the main event, the action traditionally kicks off at Freddie’s Bar, the festival’s semi-official juke joint. It’s a local bar with a decent size stage and plenty of room to watch and, if you feel like it, dance. This year we were lucky enough to get a preview of The Welch Ledbetter Connection up close and personal. These guys take no prisoners and in a small room, it did feel somewhat like drinking from a firehose, such is the power in the voice of Michael Ledbetter evenly matched by the guitar artistry of “Monster” Mike Welch. More to come from this energising combo later; suffice to say that there was a lot of soul in the room, and this was a crackling curtain raiser for the festival proper.
Friday then rolled around, and the action opened on the main “Royal” stage, a large, high space that converted from a sports hall to a 3,000 or so sized space with plenty of standing room up front, seating at tables further back, raked seating behind that. and a pop-up bar! On first in this inviting scene was Don Bryant, backed by The Bo-Keys. Memphis native Don has an impressive catalogue as a songwriter, having been in-house writer for the famous soul label Hi Records (home at one time or another to the likes of Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and OV Wright -- how about that for a pedigree!) and indeed opened with “A Nickel and A Nail” -- one of Otis Clay’s trademarks. Fair to say that as a performer he was energetic, warm and engaging, with a classic soul falsetto voice. The Bo-Keys, no slouches as musicians themselves, likewise have a deep Memphis connection and pumped out a satisfying, fat soul vibe which got the crowd grooving from the outset.
Across the other side of the arena, we found the SpaNord stage, a little smaller than the main stage, but still holding a substantial standing crowd, who were eager to hear Chicago’s own Joanna Connor. Joanna had been scheduled to appear in 2017, but unfortunately was not able to perform. She has been a fixture at the famous Kingston Mines club on Halsted Street for many years and her lineup, a classic power trio, provided a solid backing. Joanna is an outstanding guitarist, notably when she gets the bottleneck slide out. A surprisingly mellow voice contrasted with the guitar shredding and wrapped up a very well-received package, definitely worth waiting for.
For many people the big draw for this festival was about to hit the main stage. There can’t be many blues legends around like Buddy Guy at the ripe age of 82 who are as prolific in recording and performing as ever. Having seen Buddy a few times it is always interesting to see what kind of show he puts on, as often an entertainer and storyteller rather than straight up blues player. So tonight’s Buddy came blasting on with “Damn Right I Got the Blues” and it seemed like he was in the mood to play guitar. A broken guitar string on the next number wasn’t in the script though, but Buddy handled that with aplomb, playing around it and with it to the entertainment of the audience ‘til a new one was fetched.
Time to let guitarist Ric Hall take a turn or two up front and show some of the skills gained in a long career backing some of the biggest names in blues and R&B -- not least the ability to spin his guitar through 360 -- did I really see that? Not to be outdone, a refreshed Buddy launched into a long medley of tracks that he has made his standards, including “19 Years Old,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “Feels Like Rain,” suitably garnished with a few guitar tricks of his own. Perhaps it may have been the fact that there are a couple of new albums out that was inspiring Buddy to play more guitar in this show and the new material was represented by a couple of tracks from the recent Blues is Alive and Wellalbum. A trademark walkabout then followed, Buddy taking full advantage of the space (and wireless technology!) to take the show right to the people.
On returning to the stage, Buddy was joined by a young man making a return visit to Frederikshavn, U.K. wunderkind Toby Lee, the (now) 13-year-old guitar prodigy whose viral videos have gained something like 300 million views. Toby seems to be making a habit of this (he shared the same stage last year with the fabulous Ronnie Baker Brooks) but despite his youth looked perfectly happy to take some lessons from Buddy as the pair jammed through a brace of blues rock classics, “Strange Brew” and “Voodoo Chile,” to close out a great show from the veteran bluesman. Clearly the blues are “Alive and Well” in the hands of the old master, but encouragingly, the young generation is learning the lessons too.
There was just time to run over to the other side of the house for a taste of Popa Chubby, dishing up some hard rockin’ blues. And then a peek into the small ”Athlete” room, tastefully decorated by a rolling display of blues portraits by our own Jennifer Noble, for an acoustic tidbit from Doug MacLeod.
Then on to the second coming of the Welch Ledbetter Connection. Spruced up and sprightly, Michael Ledbetter strutted his West Side soul in style. Bubbling over with energy and emotion, this set really hinged on the interplay between the two Michaels, which has grown over the short time this pair has been together and now allows each one to relax rather than strain to achieve control of the light and shade in their performance. The big stage really suited them well, Ledbetter being able to prowl and pace at will, while Welch could hold the background until he was ready to turn up the dial on his solos. With rock solid backing from bassist Scot Sutherland, this was a powerhouse finish to an evening dominated by some of Chicago’s stalwarts but also newer acts demonstrating the musical quality that the Windy City keeps on producing.
Saturday began, like Friday, with a good slug of soul. This time the vibe was provided by Wee Willie Walker and the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. Memphis-raised Walker put some extra heart into the smooth sound of Paule’s full set of guitars, horns and backing singers.
Taking over the vocal spot, and like Anthony Paule, also from the Bay Area, Terrie Odabi impressed with a commanding presence and powerful voice, featuring material from her debut album My Blue Soul -- well worth seeking out. It would be impossible to talk about this band, however, without mentioning their irrepressible and athletic drummer Derek “D-Mar” Martin, who wowed the crowd with his gymnastic feats, leaping over his kit to begin soloing on the stage, monitors, crowd barriers or anything else he could set his sticks on - quite amazing.
Some old-time blues, boogie-woogie and jazz-flavoured tunes were being purveyed over the way, courtesy of guitar hero Duke Robillard, providing a pleasantly relaxing change of pace for those feeling fragile from the effects of the annual Tuborg Christmas beer launch the night before.
Robert Cray stepped up, rather dramatically, across a darkened Royal stage, to open the headline spot of the night. His music is a rather different kind of blues, ranging over the territory described as soul, blues and R&B without easily being pigeonholed as any one of these. From a performance perspective too, Robert made quite an introspective, thoughtful presence, in contrast to some of the more traditionally engaging acts, but part of the appeal of the festival format is just this kind of variety.
Talking of variety, there was plenty of that on show over on the SpaNord stage where an international harp blowout was in full swing. Billed as a tribute to George “Harmonica” Smith and arranged by Italian ace Egidio “Juke” Ingala, this extravaganza featured the U.K.’s very own Steve West Weston, and Finnish harp legend Helge Tallqvist. Backed by Juke Ingala’s band The Jacknives and Danish guitarist Ronni Boysen, swing was very much the word, as each of the soloists battled it out and culminated in a brawling, sprawling jam that really got the spirits pumping.
Time was by now wearing on, and the action was getting late and loud. Frederikshavn festival favourite and local hero Walter Trout dialed up the volume to 11, giving his son Jon Trout a turn in an energetic set that attracted a whole lot of rock fans into the arena.
However, honours for closing the night go to the fabulous Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. After struggling with delayed flights, and arriving only an hour or so before he was due to go on, the 19-year-old phenomenon from Clarksdale made a triumphant reappearance following on from his festival debut in 2017. While the obvious attribute is his guitar technique and some of the performance schtick, Kingfish has a real feel for the intonations and nuances of the blues which could develop into a genuine talent as he matures.
Peter Astrud (center), Paul Benjamin (right)
So ended another very satisfying festival in Frederikshavn. With a little bit of something to cater for all tastes, and settling into its new home well, the future looks bright for Northern Europe’s friendliest festival. If you were looking for proof, after receiving a Danish Music Award earlier this year, promoter Peter Astrup was further awarded Best International Festival 2018 by French blues magazine Zicazic, which was presented by Paul E. Benjamin of the Blues Foundation who had graciously acted as MC for the Festival. Congratulations and here’s to more success in 2019!