Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Zac Harmon- hear some downhome blues

When you think of the Poconos, you usually think of the mountains and getting out of the city. Not too many cybercafes there (I didn't see any) but lots of horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, fishing, hiking, swimming and all the other nice stuff you're supposed to do at an outdoors vacation. But a blues festival too? Sure, why not?

The Poconos Blues Festival was held last weekend in an area called Big Boulder, which gets used for skiing in the colder months. For PBF, hundreds of people invaded the ski lodge area to see the likes of James Cotton (who still blows a mean harp), Shemekia Copeland (who paid a nice tribute to her daddy, Johnny Copeland), Bernard Allison (who does a set that's heavy on Jimi material) and New Orleans modernist Trombone Shorty (who including Marvin Gaye, Guess Who, James Brown and AC/DC numbers in his set).

And that was only the Saturday show that we caught. Sunday had Buckwheat Zydeco, Chris Thomas King and Saffire- the Uppity Blues Women, among others. And the food was even good, featuring chicken wings and pulled pork. There were also booths for homemade crafts, local art and even the ACLU.

But amid everything else, the one artist that stood out was someone I hadn't heard about before. Not far from the main stage area, where there were rows and rows of store-bought lounge chairs set up by the crowd, there was a smaller tent area, with other acts appearing there at the same time. Just out of curiosity, I wandered away from Allison's electrifying set briefly to see what was happening in the tent. I heard a real downhome guitar player belting out Al Green's "Love and Happiness" alongside Muddy's/Bo's "I'm A Man." It was so raw and savage that I had to sit and listen as long as I could, even forgetting about Allison for the moment.

I was under the spell of Mississippi native Zac Harmon, hailing from the same area as Elmore James. Raised in church music and working with legends like ZZ Hill were formative experiences for Harmon before he moved out to L.A. with his family and became a producer, working with everyone from Freddie Jackson, Evelyn “Champagne” King, The Whispers to choirs and even reggae legends Black Uhuru (whose record with Harmon got a Grammy nomination). It wasn't until the beginning of the millennium that Harmon decided to return to his blues roots and strike out on his own. Quite a career, huh?

Though I only caught half of his set (about 30 minutes), I was an instant fan. I made my way to the mersh booth afterward and picked up his 2002 album, Live at Babe and Ricky's Inn (available from CD Baby). Admittedly, it wasn't as scorching as the set I'd just seen but it was a keeper, showing off his good-time music in an appropriate setting. Right now he's got a fall/winter tour booked up for the States and Europe and you'd do well to catch him at any of his shows if you know what's good for you.


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