For eleven years now, music lovers have enjoyed the annual Roundhouse Blues & BBQ Festival. Originally known as Night In Old Savannah, the event initially featured a variety of popular artists in the country, rock and soul arenas (such as Sawyer Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis), but for some time now, the live entertainment has focused squarely on blues and its related genres, such as R & B and zydeco.
That —combined with a menu that’s geared toward outdoor-cooked, autumnal Southern delicacies such as smoked Boston Butt sandwiches, corn on the cob, steamed oysters and old-fashioned, homemade hush puppies— makes the event’s revamped moniker a particularly apt choice.
It should be noted, though, that there are a few important changes between this year’s event (which takes place this Friday and Saturday evenings), and those past.
Firstly, the name of the gathering has been tweaked slightly. Some time ago, the rather unwieldy title of “National Historic Landmark Central of Georgia Railway Shops” was officially shortened to “The Roundhouse Railroad Museum,” due in no small part to the fact that most people have referred to it by some slight variation of that for ages. Yet, starting with this year’s happening, the event itself is now being billed as The Battlefield Blues & BBQ Fest — which makes plenty of since once one takes into consideration that the Coastal Heritage Society (which runs both the facility and this annual fund raising concert) is doing their darnedest to re-brand everything connect with the Roundhouse to the Battlefield Park name.
Secondly, the festival —which for many years now has been completely free to all ages— is now a ticketed event.
But, before you start grumbling, dig this: There’s a mighty fine reason for this change. According to some in the know, by accepting a grant from the city to help stage the festival, organizers had to keep admission to the two-night party completely gratis. However, after crunching the numbers, those same organizers realized that if they did without the city’s financial help, but charged a very small admission fee (as they had done the first few years the festival was held), there was a strong possibility they could not only raise more money for their non-profit organization’s cause, but that they could increase the quality of the musical talent on display.
Sure, there may be some folks who decide not to attend the festival this year because they’ll have to pay at the gate, but as I’ve noted at the bottom of this article, the most expensive tickets are only $7 each night, and students, Seniors and kids all enjoy discounted admission. Plus, active duty Military get in for free.
That means that showing up at the beautiful Roundhouse Museum grounds to mix and mingle with friends and neighbors, while catching up to three solid sets of live music by nationally (and even internationally) known artists costs less than a bad movie out by the Savannah Mall.
Now, that’s what I call a no-brainer.
So, besides the beer, soft drinks and food (which usually includes corn on the cob which is steamed in the husk by one of the facility’s restored locomotive engines), what can one expect from this weekend’s music and BBQ party?
Well, Friday night’s show starts at 7 pm with an opening set by The Motor City R & B Pioneers, a group featuring some of the original Michigan rhythm and blues vocalists who helped make that city’s reputation for great soul music — long before the Motown record label branded itself on the public’s consciousness as the premiere outlet for Detroit soul.
They’ll be followed by a one-hour set from the Creole Zydeco Farmers, a popular Lafayette, La.-based party and dance band that tours both here and abroad. For those unfamiliar with zydeco music, it’s a swampy offshoot of the blues that was developed in the bayou country, and is based around both accordion and the percussive elements of old-fashioned washboards. Zydeco places a strong emphasis on infectious, danceable rhythms and boisterous, exuberant singing.
Headlining that first night will be celebrated singer/songwriter Randall Bramlett, whose career began in the with a string of releases through the famed Macon-based Southern rock label Capricorn Records, and on through a couple of Polydor releases in the mid-’70s. Over the past few years, the Jesup, Ga. native has seen a resurgence of interest in his work, aided by the fact he’s been touring and recording with a top-notch group of pros from the Athens and Atlanta music scenes, and has been afforded high-profile opening slots with everyone from Steve Winwood and Traffic to Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule.
Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell says of Bramlett, “Randall is in my opinion the most gifted & talented southern singer-songwriter musicians of the past several decades,” and R.E.M.’s Bill Berry calls him “the most talented and prolific songwriter I know.”
Saturday night’s show kicks off with what may be a first for this festival — a performance by a gospel choir. In this case, it’s the crew from St. Philip’s Monumental AME Church that’s offering sanctified music at an otherwise secular showcase.
Hot on the heels of that glorious outpouring of faith will be an hour-long set by the reunited JoJa Band, which in their heyday a few decades back was one of the most popular and promising Southern rock and boogie-woogie bands to ever emerge from our local music scene. This group maintains a steadfast following of locals who remember their rollicking, soulful, harmonica and piano-based blues-rock, and — as at least one of the bandmembers lives in Nashville — live gigs by the band (now fronted by Dennis “Chief” Hinley) are extremely infrequent occasions.
The festival winds up with a rare local appearance by one of the most revered blues harmonica players in the history of the genre — and one of the blues’ most influential old-school lead guitarists.
James Cotton served for years as the legendary Muddy Waters’ harpman, playing with him in the early ‘60s, as well as in his late-period renaissance of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Before that, he blew mouth harp for the great Sonny Boy Williamson, and in the intervening years, he led his own band as both a singer and harpist.
While a bout with throat cancer twelve years back has reduced his once formidable voice to a low croak (his ace backing band features a lead vocalist), his harp playing remains as strong as ever, and in fact, many (including Cotton himself) feel that his technique on the instrument has actually improved since his illness. His last two albums on the Telarc label were both nominated for Grammy awards, and he is about to begin a worldwide tour commemorating his 40th year in showbiz.
Joining him as a special guest at this gig will be Hubert Sumlin, who last appeared in town a few years back as part of the Savannah Music Festival. He’s a Grammy Award-winner himself, and a beloved influence on Eric Clapton.
Cotton’s manager says James hasn’t played this area for ages, and the artist himself (who’s in his early ‘70s) tells me the last time he specifically remembers gigging in Savannah was well before I was born.
“I played there a long, long time ago,” says Cotton by phone from his home.
“It was about the third or fourth gig I did after I quit Muddy’s band for the first time. That would have made it 1966!”
These days, despite a recent bout with pneumonia that his manager says has put Cotton on what he terms “a health kick,” the bluesman and bandleader says that he plans to maintain his whirlwind live schedule, and to hopefully cut a new live concert album for release sometime next year.
So, how does a man his age keep up such a grueling pace that has him playing Canada one night, Buffalo, N.Y. the next, and then flying back to Texas for a few days off before hitting the road again?
“Well, like I’ve said before, I love what I’m doing,” he explains. “It keeps me motivated. Besides, I’m in my seventies. What else can I do but play music?”
When informed that Sumlin will be joining him in Savannah, Cotton becomes excited and animated at the mention of his old friend and bandmate.
“Well, well, well! Alright! We’ll have a good time! You know, mine was the first band he ever played in. I went and got him from his mother and talked her into letting me take him out on the road. He was playing sanctified music in church, and I had to convince her to let him go play blues.”
“I had to promise to bring him back home to see her very week. (Laughs) I just saw him a few weeks ago in San Francisco. You all are in for a real treat.”
6 pm till 11 pm Friday and Saturday at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum (corner of Harris St. and MLK, Jr. Blvd.) Admission each night is $7 for adults, or $3 for kids 6 - 12 (with parent or guardian). There are discounts for seniors and students, plus kids under 6 and active duty Military get in free. Food and drinks will be available, with proceeds benefiting preservation work at the museum. For more info, call 651-2240, or go to www.chsgeorgia.org.