Peaceful Easy Feeling
30th Schöppingen International Blues Festival
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
Without question, the northwestern German town of Schöppingen’s annual blues festival has a special kind of flair. Held in an enclosed grassy area next to a public swimming pool, it’s just the right size for a relaxed communal experience – not so huge and overcrowded that the music becomes secondary to partying and distracted wandering, as at some bigger name events. Instead, Schöppingen feels intimate. As a guest, you can almost always find a spot close to the stage if that’s where you want to be. The food stands aren’t a mile away, so you can enjoy a pizza, a beer or a helping of fries and still see and hear the bands. A small tent adjacent to the stage is the meet-and-greet area; musicians gather here after their respective performances to sign autographs, sell merchandise or simply say hello to their (mostly) adoring fans.
All that – plus the consistent high quality of the music – is what keeps me coming back year after year.
This year’s two-day event was a study in contrasts. It started on a Saturday full of surprises.
Saturday kicked off with Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s Grits & Greens and as I told the band members afterward, theirs was one of the best if not the best festival-opening set I’ve ever witnessed in Schöppingen. The organizers routinely reach out to artists who have never appeared in Europe, as was the case with this engaging electric four-piece. Listening on this sunny early afternoon, I found myself imagining Flower Power-era San Francisco and making musical associations with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, though Grits & Greens’ sound is bluesier and more southern. The cover of The Beatles’ classic “I Am The Walrus” was an unexpected gem. The joy of watching a young band from Mississippi plop down in the middle of Germany and win over the crowd added to the fun and made this a gig to remember. Big smiles all around.
More surprises were sprinkled throughout the day – though maybe challenges is a better word. The ad hoc duo of Samantha Fish & Jesse Dayton premiered their new album Death Wish Blues at full blast. (The record was released a few days before the festival and shot straight to #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart.) Many found the volume to be excessive and didn’t know quite what to make of the song list, which included powerhouse versions of MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” and The Clash’s “Brand New Cadillac.” My conversations the following day suggested those listeners haven’t been paying attention; Fish has allowed herself lots of freedom to experiment with various sounds and styles during the past five years, which is exactly what an exceptionally creative artist like her should be doing. The set with roots music standout Dayton had guts, grit and a breathless kind of energy. After the initial shock, it won this writer over.
As did Fantastic Negrito with his chaotic, wired, late-night performance. Technical problems delayed the start and even after the show began, the singer was fighting it, with more than one annoyed glance toward the mixing desk. Ultimately though, the glitches were just one piece of a thrilling, openly defiant, unpredictable and wildly entertaining musical puzzle. I won’t even attempt to put a collective label on songs like “Lost In A Crowd,” “Chocolate Samurai,” “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” “Bullshit Anthem,” or “The Duffler,” all of which Negrito delivered with a “dare you to like this” arrogance. A freaky 21st century update on James Brown is about as close as I can come. The most encouraging sign was seeing most of the festivalgoers stick around until the end and even call Negrito out for an after-midnight encore. Maybe the blues isn’t such a conservative place after all.
Quick takes: My very unscientific survey says The Devon Allman Project was the consensus favorite act of day one. I’d concur in as much as I’ve never seen him as confident, relaxed and sure of his playing as during this rousing set with his talented six-piece. Their extended jams did the Allman name proud, as the band rode wave after wave of energy. The Allman Brothers’ “Dreams” was a highlight. Ontario native Spencer Mackenzie was compared to a young Joe Bonamassa during his introduction – putting undue pressure on him – but in many ways, the comparison fit: His voice is similarly bright and like Joe, Mackenzie’s guitar playing, drawing on the past legends of the blues genre, reveals him as a torchbearer. Not to be forgotten: Florida’s Selwyn Birchwood, who delivered a strong, bottomy, funky mid-afternoon set and helped break down the barrier between artists and audience with a good-natured crowd walk. Quick, grab those cameras and cell phones!
Saturday’s intensity seemed to galvanize the crowd. When the people reappeared on Sunday afternoon, they brought a peaceful and harmonious vibe with them. Maybe we were all just a little bit exhausted. Opinions were exchanged and mugs of coffee were served as many hung back in shaded areas on another warm and cloudless day.
Even from the remotest areas of the festival – and probably all through the town – Kevin Burt‘s voice could be heard and felt. The Iowa native, strongly influenced by Bill Withers, wowed the audience with his warm, rich, soulful vocals while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. It was a sunny, stress-free first act on a day that – on a whole – went down easier than day one.
Singer/saxophonist Vanessa Collier was the sensation of the festival. There’s no other way to put it. Rarely have I seen any artist, male or female, capture an audience as quickly and as thoroughly as Collier did on this Sunday in Schöppingen. The hundreds gathered loved her to bits, and why not? She sings like an angel, plays like a beast and has a smile that could light up New York City. The enthralled listeners also rained down love on her right-hand lady Laura Chavez, reigning winner of guitarist of the year honors at the Blues Music Awards. Her tone and phrasing was at least the equal of anything else heard at the festival. With the help of a tight rhythm section, the two of them unleashed an ecstasy among the crowd that … nope, there’s no way of describing it. You had to be there.
The Nick Schnebelen Band featuring Albert Castiglia followed Collier onstage, a tough slot to be sure; on the other hand, the two had gone over so big on a rain-soaked night at last year’s festival that there was really nothing to worry about. And just as in 2022, the two premiere guitarists, backed by Schnebelen’s capable band, gave the revelers just what they were looking for: An opportunity to dance, shout, rock out and go nuts. During Collier’s set, most of the people in attendance had already moved in closer to the stage. Now, musicians, staff and assorted other strays flooded the photographers’ pit. In the end, there was no longer any real separation between the audience and the performers. We became one. When you head off to a weekend festival in search of a good time, that’s about the best outcome you can hope for.
Quick takes: Singer/songwriter Anne McCue initially sounded a bit tentative during her early afternoon set, but eventually got her combo to kick it into gear and play some tougher sounding jams. Stylistically, she resided somewhere between psychedelic folk and “St. James Infirmary.” The much-heralded Take Me To The River Allstars followed with a performance that was both entertaining and educational. Bolstered by Memphis’s legendary Hi Rhythm Section, former Tower of Power frontman Marcus Scott shone on vocals; the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band with Shardé Thomas added some Mississippi grit. Kevin Gullage & The Blues Groovers from New Orleans were the final act on this weekend and though the effort was there, the song choices – including warhorses like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Sweet Home Chicago” – signaled to me that there were no more surprises in store at what was a typically outstanding and memorable Schöppingen Blues Festival.