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Reflections on the 14th annual Big Wheel Blues Festival

By John Gregory

FOR those not in the know the Isle of Man is a music-loving Island right in the heart of the Irish Sea.

And without question one of the most important - and impressive - events on its calendar is the Big Wheel Blues Festival.

Now in its teenage years, the festival, held annually in Laxey, combines the very best of the blues scene internationally with a high class standard of Island-based performers.

Over the years truly great acts such as John Hammond and Watermelon Slim have graced the main stage, raising the bar so high you wonder if such performances could ever be matched.

Yet the 2012 festival, headlined by Muddy Waters’ eldest son Mud Morganfield and John Mayall’s former right hand man Buddy Whittington, left many – including myself - believing they had witnessed the very best Big Wheel Blues Festival yet.

The Manx festival differs from so many others in that it offers two afternoons of music on two stages plus activities for children, all for free. Only the evening gigs are ticketed events and tickets for them are a bargain considering that there are always three world class acts on the bill each night.

In the afternoons you will hear some fantastic blues and roots music from local musicians in a range of styles.

The electric stage is always indoors, while acoustic musicians play outdoors, weather permitting.

The sun shone on day one of the two day festival, giving music lovers a chance to relax outside and hear some laid back sounds.

Day two saw some mixed weather so the decision was rightly made to move the acoustic performances indoors.

Among the electric acts was the Big Wheel Blues Band consisting of members of the organising committee who are all accomplished musicians in their own right.

The evening acts for day one were slide guitar ace Kris Dollimore, energetic singer Cherry Lee Mewis and her band and the aforementioned Mud Morganfield with his band.

Kris is a phenomenal slide player and while his music took me back to the greats it was somehow modern too.

His performance – which featured a truly great cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man - was an incredible start to two evenings of stunning music.

Up next was Cherry Lee Mewis and the contrast in styles could not have been greater. The festival prides itself on being open to different sounds and certainly Cherry and her band had commercial appeal. Her bubbly personality and strong voice was a huge hit with the crowd – particularly when she performed Janis Joplin classics including Mercedes Benz.

The headliner Mud Morganfield and his band (featuring harmonica ace West Weston) brought a true taste of the city of Chicago to the evening.

Mud looks like his dad and shares his mannerisms. And while Muddy Waters songs were an important part of the set, this was no straight forward tribute act. Mud is a great performer in his own right and his own music sat side by side perfectly with that of his father’s.

At times I could almost picture being in a South side club in the 1950s or 60s when Muddy ruled the Windy City - the sound was so authentic. And it sounds as cool now as it no doubt did then.

Mud Morganfield is not only ensuring 21st century audiences hear a style of music his father pioneered - he is doing it in spellbinding fashion.

My verdict of Saturday night was that it one of the best at the festival for years.

Sunday night was perhaps my favourite ever.

The main stage action began with Marcus Bonfanti – one of the best acts in British blues today.

He’s also been a regular visitor to the Island in the past few years so has built up something of a fan base here. Marcus has it all – the musicianship, the songs, the voice, the look and bags of charisma.

One man, one guitar and a growl that’s somewhere between Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits.

Next up was Marcus’ mate Paddy Milner and his band. Within minutes the spirit of New Orleans was conjured up and remained in the room for the duration of Paddy’s virtuoso performance.

As a pianist Paddy is a genius. As a band leader he is phenomenal. And his songwriting skills are superb.

The festival ended with an amazing performance by Buddy Whittington and his band. Buddy comes from a long line of legendary Texan guitarists. He might not (yet) be as famous as some of them, but he deserves to be.

Armed with a battered Fender Stratocaster and an impressive voice, Buddy proved why his former boss John Mayall described him as ‘probably the greatest Bluesbreaker of them all’. When someone follows in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor among others that’s a big claim to make.

But after seeing Buddy in concert Mr Mayall may have had it spot on.

The festival committee – who are all volunteers – were responsible for a world class event that was fun, family friendly and, quite simply, fantastic.

Money was also raised for a Manx charity too – the Children’s Centre.

The 2013 festival has a lot to live up to but if anyone can face that challenge it’s the Big Wheel Blues Festival organisers.