Home-Grown Chesapeake Bay Blues
At the August festival, local musicians play with musical icons
by Steve Carr
Question: What do James Brown, Wilson Pickett, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Robert Cray, Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, Jerry Lee Lewis, Isaac Hayes and Dr. John all share in common?
Answer: All have played at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, which takes place the first weekend in August at Sandy Point State Park.
I ran into local blues legend Dean Rosenthal the other night. Dean has bopped around the area music scene since 1975, becoming the unofficial Mayor of the Blues around Annapolis.
It was a Friday happy hour at Acme Bar & Grill, and Dean was doing his usual imitation of a human jukebox. The audience was taking turns asking him to play forgotten songs from the past John Prine’s “Paradise,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and Dean pulled each tune out of his musical hat like a magician. No one stumped him the whole time I was eating dinner. Dean epitomizes the craftsman blues musician, toiling away in anonymity most of the time, but a real master of his craft. Because it ain’t about the glory. It’s about living the blues.
As I went up to put some money in his tip jar, Dean said, “Someone should do a Bay Weekly story about the local music connection to the Bay Blues Festival.”
“There are some really great local musicians playing the club scene every night,” Rosenthal said. “But they don’t get the attention they deserve. I wanted to use the Bay Blues Festival to change that. To give local musicians an opportunity to play with the big boys and girls.”
For the first Annapolis team, Dean made a few calls and pulled in his own band, the Resophonics, plus Deanna Bogart and the group Mama Jama.
Dean’s band opened the festival. Then he and his friends got to hang out backstage for the rest of the time, meeting their musical heroes, like Little Feat and Howard Sumlin, who played with Muddy Waters, B.B. King and other blues legends. It was like musical heaven, and Dean wanted to share it with more local players.
Birth of the Chesapeake Bay Blues Band
The next year, festival organizers asked for a Battle of the Bands to determine which local band would represent the Annapolis music scene at the festival.
Dean proposed instead an all-star band of local blues musicians. Larry Griffin, the musician-founder of We Care, supported Dean’s idea, and the Chesapeake Bay Blues Band was born.
In its first incarnation, the Chesapeake Bay Blues Band consisted of local sax master Ron Holloway, guitar champ Tom Principato, the late Wade Matthews on bass, Andy Hamburger on drums and Tommy Lepson on keyboards.
“All of these musicians had played with many of the blues giants before,” Rosenthal explained. “Some were session musicians, and they were pretty well known nationally, even internationally. They just happen to all live in this area and thought it would be fun to play together on the same stage at an event in their own hometown where some of the greatest blues musicians in the world were performing.”
But Rosenthal wasn’t through pushing for more local musician involvement in the Bay Blues Festival. Many other bands around Annapolis weren’t yet a part of that scene.
In between songs in the third year of the festival, Rosenthal told the audience how grateful his band was to share the same stage with such awesome talent. But, he added, “Wouldn’t it be wild if we had another stage right here where people could check out some of the homegrown bands who play at the local clubs?”
The audience erupted with howls of approval.
From that offhand remark, a dream was born.
A Stage of Their Own
The following year, the concert organizers erected a stage to the side of the main venue where local bands played in between the premiere acts. It was an instant success for the performers and the concert-goers alike because it made for non-stop music and showcased local talent to a much wider audience.
Over the years, many local musicians have played the Bay Blues Festival as a stepping stone for their careers. The Reverend Billy C. Wirts, Tommy Castro, Automatic Slim, Catfish Hodge and Meg Murray have all gone on to become favorites at clubs throughout the Baltimore/Washington/Annapolis area. All cut their musical teeth at the Bay Blues Festival.
This year, the next generation of local musical favorites plays the North Stage at the festival, including the Junkyard Saints, Johnny & the Headhunters and Nadine Rae.
“Giving our local musicians a chance to play and hang out with musical icons like Aretha Franklin or Buddy Guy is what the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival is all about,” Rosenthal said.
The Chesapeake Bay Blues Band still plays the main stage on the first day of the show, Saturday, August 4. This year’s lineup is killer: Rosenthal, the Nighthawks, Paul Reed Smith, Ron Holloway and Jimmy Jacobs will blow the place away.
“We never practice for the show,” Rosenthal said. “We all just show up about an hour before the gig and each guy says what song they are going to do. We’re all professional musicians who have been playing blues music our whole lives. So you just tell the other guys that you want to play a song in a particular key, and that it’ll have, say, a Texas Shuffle feel to it, and when I stomp my foot, you stop playing. Basically, it’s unrehearsed, spontaneous, bar-room blues at 11 in the morning.”
Rosenthal and his colleagues pride themselves on staying true to the music. It may be a blues jam, but never stray far from their traditional blues roots.
The audience approves.
“I’ve seen blues acts all over the world,” an out-of-town festival-goer told Rosenthal a few years back. “I want you to know that I really like what you guys do. A lot of these bands play watered-down blues-rock. But you guys just play straight-ahead, raw blues.”
The Big Time Is Coming
The big time is coming to Sandy Point. Our local team, the Chesapeake Bay Blues Band, along with a host of other local artists, will be there strutting their stuff. We owe it to the musicians, the charities and ourselves to be there.
Steve Carr writes Bay Weekly’s Where We Live column.