Wed, Sep 11, 2013.
To the tents, everyone! Harvest is here, and the festival gets into gear tonight with three major venues up and running, and on a Wednesday no less. How the biggest festival on the East Coast has grown over the years. Instead of throwing money at huge superstars, the organizers have chosen to grow by offering more events, more days even, and more free stuff. It used to be that Wednesday night was one show, the free festival kick-off, but now it's just as crazy as every other night.
That free show is still part of the night, and that's at the Mojo Tent in Officer's Square, with an early start, 7 PM. It features a fixture of the festival, the venerable STU Jazz Band, ready to swing the thing. And from Halifax comes Gypsophelia, those Gypsy-jazz-world musicians from Halifax, with a sound like no other. I'm MC at that show, so I'll see you there at 7. Down the street, The Playhouse has an acoustic blues night, featuring Samuel James, a guitar and banjo wiz who hails from Portland, Maine. And there's Steve Strongman, Hamilton Ontario's guitar king who won the Juno Award for blues this year, in his first trip to Harvest. And over in the Blues Tent behind City Hall, it's England's World Party, 80's hits from the pen of Karl Wallinger back at it after years off, plus a big festival favourite, J.J. Grey & Mofro.
It's the third visit for Grey, out of Florida, and audiences here have loved his show. I was getting a lift from my mechanic's the other day, and the dude said he was looking forward to Grey more than any other act. His reason was that you can tell he's genuine, loves the music, does it great, and seems like a really honest, good person. Then I had a friend from Toronto who saw Grey last year email with the same message, that I had to check him out, she was blown away. Grey's appeal is easy to understand, he's a showman, a talker, loves to get things going and up tempo, and gives you a great time. His music is modern blues with a strong soul element, lots of horns and southern grooves and grits through it all, and sweet electric guitar. This is blues you can, and will, dance to.
Grey's latest is called This River, and get this connection: It's named for the river that flowed past his childhood home of Jacksonville, Florida, called the St. John's River. Now, he comes back here, playing 100 feet from the St. John River. That song includes the theme of leaving home, and has an impassioned vocal, the kind of killer ballad that will go over great here, with its themes of nature and community. The band, Mofro, really cooks on the disc, lots of funky moments, a stirring horn section, very tight music, and that also promises to make for a great show. My favourite stuff on the new album is when Grey and the band go for the smooth soul sound; he was a fine, hurtin' voice, the horns are punchy, the songs sound like radio singles that could have come out in 1970, great harmonies and lyrics. But the funky stuff is just as fine too, like the cut Florabama, as salty as the Gulf of Mexico, with its syncopated southern charm.
So there you go, quite the night of music at Harvest, lots to check out, and lots more coming in the days ahead.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).