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The Blues Are Alive and Well, in a Place Near You

Tim Nekritz

If you made it to the resurgent New York State Blues Festival in Syracuse the past couple of years, you would have seen a large, happy crowd spanning the generations.

You would have seen many performers from the region, in addition to national headliners, and plenty of fans singing along with blues songs you’ll never hear on the radio.

Although it flies a bit under the radar, Central New York has long been a blues hotspot. It especially peaked during the last big revival in the 1990s, but you can still find it everywhere.

Larry Kyle from Hannibal, who plays solo, leads various jams and fronts his family band Dam Dog, said a blues act could fairly easily book three nights a week in Syracuse in the 1990s. You could find blues performers and fans regularly filling venues throughout the region. Part of the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que’s recipe for taking off in the Salt City and later expanding was having blues music in its backbone.

Over on Franklin Street, every Wednesday was a big show as George Rossi led a band of top-rate musicians in an act that was both a live spectacle and a blend of New Orleans blues and R&B. Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians created must-see entertainment on a weekly basis at Styleen’s Rhythm Palace throughout the mid-1990s.

And even Oswego had its own blues and barbecue joint back then in Mojo’s (where Maria’s Family Restaurant is now on West Second Street) and I remember many a smoking set and spicy meal in that place.

Finding the blues

Yet the blues are far from a mainstream genre these days. Or are they? In the words of the great Buddy Guy, the blues is alive and well.

Kyle continues to play more than 200 shows per year around Central New York, noting recently that he was even taking Tuesday gigs, which is usually an off night for performers. And it would be easy to call him Oswego County’s greatest blues export … but it turns out he’s not even the most famous blues performer living in the Hannibal area.

That would be Kim Simmonds, who was born in Wales and in 1965 started fronting Savoy Brown, which gained an international reputation bolstered by hit records and critical acclaim. But Savoy Brown is no museum piece, topping the Billboard Blues Chart as recently as 2017 with “Witchy Feeling” and continuing to tour the world.

The Kingsnakes, who played a reunion gig for this year’s 30th edition of the New York State Blues Festival in June, served as the backing band for the great John Lee Hooker in the late 1980s. With him, they got to headline the 1990 Chicago Blues Fest.

The Kingsnakes lineup at the festival included Mark Doyle, who performed and arranged for national and international acts. Doyle moved to Syracuse in the 1990s and now performs blues-heavy rock fronting Mark Doyle and The Maniacs.

One of the CNY music scene’s biggest names, Joe Whiting, joined the Ron Spencer Band on stage earlier that day and looked amazing in his 70s. He’s toured with national acts, including Savoy Brown (those folks again), but remains a Syracuse icon.

You could also feel how genuine and kind these blues performers are. After leading the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band on a hot set, Kelly was in such a great mood she came over and gave me a hug on her way off the stage. Whiting offered me tips on where to buy rockabilly shirts. Phil Petroff, after playing a smoking session leading his band Natural Fact, seemed just as delighted hanging out with his granddaughters.

And the headliners, including rising star Vanessa Collier — who was so popular in 2021 that the fest broke with tradition and invited her back to the New York State Fairgrounds this year — are so gracious and grateful for the audience. They all keep the blues alive and well.

The blues had a baby (well, several)

You might say you don’t listen to the blues. But you almost certainly listen to music informed and influenced by the blues. 

The blues had a baby, the old song goes, and they called it rock’n’roll. Early blues patterns and styles influenced country pioneers from Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, and then blues and country came together to create rock —which through Elvis Presley and others became the pre-eminent genre.

In addition, the blues either directly launched or greatly influenced styles such as jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, rockabilly and Western swing. In the 2020s, it’s hard to easily explain how much the blues of the 1920s changed the musical landscape, but without the success of groundbreaking blues queens, our music would sound a lot different.

But perhaps the best story involves the most famous band ever finding blues at the root of their family tree. Folk blues performer Lead Belly popularized “Rock Island Line,” which inspired Lonnie Donegan (who took his stage name from blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson) to cover that song. In 1955, Donegan’s version became a smash hit in the United Kingdom, which started the “skiffle” craze, a folk-blues hybrid that launched many bands.

These included The Quarrymen, founded by John Lennon in 1956. Paul McCartney joined a year later, followed the next year by George Harrison. By 1960, they had become The Beatles and a few years later would change the music industry, pop culture and the world at large.

But Harrison never shied away from the band’s origin story. “No Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan,” he explained. “Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

Without the blues, you don’t have Elvis, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. Even as the genre struggles for respect, let alone airplay, that’s a heck of a legacy.

Still got the blues

That legacy continues today. Harborfest has long had blues headliners on its main stage — including The Fabulous Thunderbirds in 2022 — as well as top regional performers playing blues or blues-rock hybrids on other stages.

In addition to the big show in Syracuse, you can find smaller gems like the Newark Blues Fest, which packs bands and fans of all ages into the Wayne County village’s Elks Lodge.

In addition to the aforementioned performers, you’ll find blues revivalists including Tas Cru, The Shylocks, Nate Gross, The Movers, Brian Francis and many more serving up some flavor of blues around the region.

Visit any open mic and you’ll almost certainly hear blues. Visit The Night Drop on Westcott Street in Syracuse on Sunday nights and you can catch or even sit in on a blues open jam.

The Mohawk Valley Blues Society also keeps the flame burning. This local affiliate of the national Blues Foundation hosts monthly blues open jams every second Wednesday (location varies) and annual events like its blues picnic in Sylvan Beach.

So the next time you see a blues act playing locally, think about checking them out. In addition to catching a powerful performance, you also can help pay homage to an art form that has greatly influenced the past century of music — with more to come.