The Big Orange Music Festival in Punta Gorda came roaring back in a big way on Saturday, November 18, after Hurricane Irma nearly demolished the original event along with everything else in her path in early September. Irma’s lingering effects would be no match, though, for headliners JJ Grey and Mofro, North Mississippi Allstars and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who blew away any doubt that this festival would be one for the books.
Initially scheduled for September 9, the weekend of the hurricane, the festival had to scramble to replace big-name acts Los Lobos and Eric Lindell, who could not make the new dates due to scheduling conflicts. Promoters Matt and Nick Nemec also had to find a new venue, which became beautiful Laishley Park on Charlotte Harbor in historic downtown Punta Gorda, a perfect waterfront setting for the event.
In addition to the headliners, the festival’s two stages showcased Atlanta bluesman Tinsley Ellis laying down his take on the Grateful Dead with Tinsley Ellis Blues Is Dead, Southwest Florida’s favorite blues guitarist Sean Chambers, and Orlando’s soul/funk/blues rocker Evan Taylor Jones.
It’s never easy being the first act up during an afternoon slot when festival-goers have just started trickling in. But The Evan Taylor Jones Band rocked those lucky enough to be there with songs from their new album Denim Heart and a few covers to boot. Jones’s musical stream flowed effortlessly from soul to rock to blues, all of it beautifully blended together in covers of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” and originals like “Peace Tree” a and fiery version of “Denim Heart” to close.
There was no shortage of enthusiasm for Southwest Florida’s native son and critically acclaimed bluesman Sean Chambers. The crowd stayed on their feet as Chambers and his stellar touring band blew through songs from his latest album Trouble & Whiskey, including a rollicking version of the title track. Chambers also dished up covers of Johnny Copeland’s “Cut Off My Right Arm” and Rory Gallagher’s “Bullfrog,” which blues lovers happily ate up. Rest assured the blues are alive and well in the Sunshine State in the deft hands of players such as Sean Chambers.
Georgia’s legendary blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis went straight for the heart of Deadheads with Blues is Dead and a full set of Grateful Dead songs opening, with “Railroad Blues” and finishing with a heartwarming tribute to the late Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., with “Turn On Your Love Light.” It wasn’t hard to imagine the Colonel and Jerry Garcia cracking appreciative smiles at Tinsley Ellis Blues Is Dead, because fans of The Dead and Ellis left grinning, too.
Luther Dickinson doesn’t play the guitar. He attacks it. Combine that with brother Cody’s dominance on the drums while, at times, simultaneously playing keys (plus a guitar in there somewhere), and you’ve got the force of nature that is North Mississippi Allstars. The brothers get their monstrous talents from their father, legendary Memphis musician and record producer Jim Dickinson who worked with The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan among others. Dickinson, whose career spanned more than four decades before his death in 2009, was also the founder of Zebra Ranch, a world-renowned recording studio complex in Hernando, Mississippi.
I told friends at the festival, who’ve never seen the band, to hold on to something or risk getting shaken out of their shoes. I wasn’t kidding. They watched slack-jawed and breathless as the band tore through songs from the their last album Prayers For Peace, including “Need To Be Free,” “Miss Maybelle,” and the title track, plus a few covers like “You’ve Got To Move.” By the time they finished off the crowd with a blistering rendition of “Shake ‘Em On Down,” only a couple of words escaped the lips of one of my stunned companions, “Hot. Just Hot.”
With a sliver of a moon rising over Charlotte Harbor, Karl Densen’s Tiny Universe took the stage for a set that proved my theory that there are only a couple of excuses for not dancing your face off to these funk and jam masters – (a) you’re too drunk to get off the ground or (b) you’re dead.
Densen began the set with an apology for band’s alleged low energy due to lack of sleep the night before and then proceeded to blow us away away with a performance that begs the question, “If this is what they’re like exhausted, what the hell are they like rested? A volcanic eruption of Krakatoa-like proportions?”
With horns going at full tilt, the septet plunged headlong into crowd-pleasing tributes to the dearly departed Gregg Allman with “Stand Back,” “Dreams,” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time.” A 12-minute, jazz-laced jam of the band’s “Grunt” and “Mighty Mouse” were in there, too, along with a soulful version of “So Real” that left the dancers down on the lawn wanting more.
Clearly this was JJ Grey’s crowd from the get-go. Many had seen Grey headline last year’s Big Orange Music Festival and were deliriously happy to have him and his band Mofro back for a festival they were not sure was going to happen. A dapper, relaxed and cheerful Grey seemed equally happy to be there and returned the love with fan favorites such as “Every Minute,” “Brighter Days,” and “Orange Blossoms.”
Now I love JJ Grey any way you’ll serve him to me – solo, with his outrageously tight band, Mofro, or sitting in with bands like Galactic. But one of my favorite ways to get my fill is when he lets loose on a harmonica. Yes, I love me some JJ Grey on a harp. My face nearly broke grinning so hard when he did his thing on the opening number “Junior,” and I swear he can sing, talk and play harmonica at the same time as he did on several tunes that night.
“Ho Cake,” Grey’s homage to his granny’s cooking and Southern cuisine, closed the set, but fans were not leaving without an encore. With a 10:30 p.m. curfew closing in, JJ Grey and Mofro brought the buzzing crowd down gently with “Shining Down” and a sweet, sing-along-worthy cover of “Hey Jude.”
In the end, it was clear that The Big Orange Music Festival made a full recovery from Irma. We are looking forward to what promoters Matt and Nick Nemec will have in store for this festival next year and many years to come.