Loving Tribute To Lead Belly At Carnegie Hall
Where do I start to tell the story of Lead Belly Fest, an amazing tribute to Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter held at Carnegie Hall, first staged at Royal Albert Hall in London last year? Carnegie Hall was the site of Lead Belly’s last performance in 1949, so it was appropriate that the second staging of Lead Belly Fest occurred on the same stage.
Organized by Paul Puccioni to pay homage to the person about whom George Harrison said, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles”, this show honored the memory of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, influences on music in the 20th century.
This was an incredible event, and I am not sure my words or photos can do justice to it. The show was long – over three hours of music – but it flowed extremely well and I would not have minded even more music! Each performer did a couple of songs, which meant that the songs were the stars of the evening rather than the individual performers. As it should be for a celebration of the life and career of an American icon.
After a brief greeting by Paul and Terika Dean, Lead Belly’s grand-niece, the festivities started. Most of the artists performed a couple of songs, some by Lead Belly as well as other standards. All the artists have fantastic voices and stage presence.
First to the stage were Nick Moss and Michael Ledbetter (no relation) performing ‘Backwater Blues’. I knew their names but did not know the extent of their talent. Playing acoustic guitars, they set a high bar for everyone else.
Poet Tyehimba Jess brought gentle power to the stage with his reading of ‘freedom’ from his collection of poetry about Lead Belly. I wish he had read more of his powerful work!
After Tyehimba finished his reading, the house band took the stage where they would remain for much of the show. Jon Cobert on piano (a Steinway, of course) and organ, Mark Rivera on saxophone and percussion, Rich Pagano on drums, Stu Woods on bass, and Peter Calo on guitar comprised the band.
The house band backed John Davis on ‘Eagle Rock Rag’, one of Lead Belly’s songs. He was followed by one of my favorite musicians and people, Dom Flemons. He sang ‘Poor Howard’, another of Lead Belly’s songs.
Following Dom, who emceed the rest of the show, was the winner of several competitions in Europe including best Guitarist in the European Blues Awards, Laurence Jones and his band. He is a terrific young guitarist who performed ‘Swamp Soul River’ and ‘Thunder in the Sky’, both original tunes.
One of my recent favorite musicians, Guy Davis, next took the stage and performed ‘Bourgeois Blues’ that had the crowd roaring! He updated the lyrics to reflect current political times and it was brilliant! Guy appeared with harmonica player Fabrizio Poggi, who supported him well.
Tom Chapin was next, performing ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Midnight Special’. This was my first time seeing him (I am surprised too) but it won’t be my last. He had the audience singing along with him on ‘Midnight Special’, one of Lead Belly’s best-known songs.
I did not know Walter Trout by name until last year (I know, where have I been), although I certainly know the bands with which he has played over the past almost fifty years. He was deathly ill but has recovered and came roaring out to the stage. He is so clearly grateful to be able to perform that he seemed to be giving 1,000% to his songs, ‘Say Goodbye to the Blues’ and ‘T.B. Blues’, the latter being a Jimmie Rodgers tune.
Last to the stage in the first act was Dana Fuchs, another artist whose name I knew but had never seen perform. What a voice she has! She sang ‘Gallows Pole’ and did a wonderful job with that classic song.
After a brief intermission which I know I needed, Ali Isabella came to the stage and, with a video backdrop from ABC, the Association to Benefit Children which was one of the two charities benefiting from the night’s performances (the other was Project ALS). I doubt anyone had a dry eye watching the children in the video sing along with Ali on ‘Take This Hammer’.
The iconic Edgar Winter ran onto the stage to tremendous applause. Another performer I had never seen perform, he has a lot of energy. He performed his song ‘Tobacco Road’ as well as Lead Belly’s ‘Good Morning Blues’.
The next artist was a revelation to me – Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton – playing acoustic blues. One of the songs he played was ‘Mississippi Bottom Blues’. This young man stunned me, and most likely the entire audience. I cannot wait to see him again playing a full set of his music.
Chris King Robinson had a difficult task following Jerron, but he performed one song with the house band backing him. Introduced by Marky Ramone, I enjoyed hearing Chris perform and will look for him in the future.
One of the musicians I was most looking forward to seeing came to the stage next. Eric Burdon (and the Animals) had a huge hit in the 1960s with Lead Belly’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and I was thrilled that he performed it. His voice, fifty years later, brought me back to my youth when I first heard his iconic version of the song. He also performed ‘In the Pines’, another of Lead Belly’s creations. He still sounds amazing!
Sari Schorr is another artist whose name I did not know before this event. She has a powerful voice and sang ‘Black Betty’, credited to Lead Belly but which may be an adaptation of an older work song.
Josh White, Jr., the next artist, was one of the two performers who were in Lead Belly’s presence. Lead Belly performed with his father, and as a young boy, Josh Jr. knew him. He played ‘Precious Lord’ and ‘Strange Fruit’, performed most famously by Billie Holliday. That song is a protest against the inhumanity of racism; considering the current climate in the US, this is an important song.
As we approached the end of the celebration, Kenny Wayne Shepherd took the stage with his singer Noah Hunt to play ‘Shame Shame’ and ‘Backwater Blues’, a Bessie Smith tune. I have seen KWS perform a number of times, both with his band, an Experience Hendrix show a number of years ago, and with The Rides, but this might have been my favorite performance of his. I felt that he almost sat back to let the music take center stage rather than showcasing his guitar work.
The penultimate act was Tom Paley, with his son Ben Paley. Tom actually played with Lead Belly in 1949 right here at Carnegie Hall.
Last to the stage was Buddy Guy, arguably the best-known of the musicians performing this night. Despite appearing in the headlining position, he performed two songs like every other performer. He played two of his own songs, ‘Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues’ and ‘Born to Play Guitar’.
I am grateful to have been able to attend and photograph this show. I wish I had seen Lead Belly perform, but unfortunately he passed away from ALS before I was born. He left a legacy that continue to live and thrive, especially since young ethnomusicologists like Dom Flemons and Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton carry the flame for him.
Thanks to Lead Belly Fest for the ticket and the opportunity; all opinions are my own.
Posted on February 13, 2016, in concert photos, concert reviews, music, Uncategorized and tagged Ali Isabella, Buddy Guy, Carnegie Hall, concert photos, concert review, Dana Fuchs, Dom Flemons, Edgar Winter, Eric Burdon, Fabrizio Poggi, Guy Davis, Huddie Lead Belly Ledbetter, Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, Josh White Jr., kenny wayne shepherd, Laurence Jones, Lead Belly, Michael Ledbetter, New York, Nick Moss, Paul Puccioni, Sari Schorr, Tom Chapin, Tom Paley, Tyehimba Jess, Walter Trout. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.