The spirit and the beat are alive at Hayti, transmitted from the stage down through the floorboards of the old church, the joists throbbing with the rhythms. The former St. Joseph’s AME house of worship, now the home of the Hayti Heritage Center, hosted the first night of the 2014 Bull Durham Festival, in conjunction with Duke Performances.
The Rousters kicked off the secular portion of Friday’s show with Elmore James’ version of “It Hurts Me Too,” guitarist Luke Congleton deftly alternating clean fingerpicking and greasy, searing slide. On the Rouster original “Get What You Deserve,” Congleton tossed around some Duane Allman licks, including a brief snippet of “One Way Out.”
Piedmont blues icon John Dee Holeman’s precise, deliberate style graced Brownie and Sonny’s “I’m A Stranger Here”and “Sugar Mama.” Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Tim Duffy accompanied him on guitar, never taking his eyes off Holeman. Midset, Duffy swapped places with Phil Cook, who brought an array of effects pedals suitable for a rock god. Holeman kept it basic, with just his fingers and an amp. Still, the pairing was good, as Cook weaved around Holeman, his work on “Mojo Hand” even eliciting a rare smile from the generally stone-faced elder.
Cook came back out for a solo set, quickly winning over the crowd with a shimmery, Pops Staples-infused version of “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There.” He channeled Ry Cooder on “Crow Black Chicken” and offered up one of his own, the churchy instrumental “Hungry Mother Blues.”
“We bring the church with us,” Phil Campbell said, as brothers Chuck on pedal steel and Darik on lap steel launched a torrent of celestial, fiery funk—a sacred steel wire choir, if you will. The Campbell Brothers’ House of God Church, Keith Dominion replaced the organ in worship services with steel and electric guitars, and the Campbells are now one of the church’s main ambassadors, bringing the sound to secular venues.
The centerpiece of the Campbell’s set came with their 25-minute adaptation of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, commissioned by Duke Performances and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. It’s a complete reconstruction, the guitars bringing fuller, weightier wails of worship to Coltrane’s hymn, Chuck’s pedal work added a Hendrix-like psychedelia above the relentless, chugging, praise-train melody. The Brothers continued with devil-banishing gospel, Chuck’s pedal steel emanating otherworldly Theremin-like howls. Meanwhile, Darik’s lap steel skated curlicues around the edges. By the encore’s end, the crowd rose to its feet, shouting less for Jesus and more for the Campbells to continue.
Saturday night, the festival returned to the Durham Athletic Park with some changes. The stage sat against the fence, with no barricades and a synthetic dance floor. The field had recently been groomed, too, so chair toters were asked to put something beneath their chair legs to keep from poking holes in the sod.
The Red Dirt Revelators only had time for three songs, but frontman Willie Shane Johnson made them count, delivering the rough and rowdy goods with heat and a sense of humor. “Fat men don’t sweat,” he said, beads of perspiration pouring down his cheeks. “We render.” The Grenada, Mississippi native vowed to replenish his fluid loss with some chicken skins from a vendor across the way after a set of thudding, swampy blues, punctuated by his cutthroat growls and searing harp.
Calvin Edwards followed, and he seemed out of place at a blues festival, as his soft-core jazz and scat singing left most of the crowd puzzled. Flustered by the lack of response, Edwards threatened to play some Michael Jackson, or some Al Green “to make you start hollerin’.” He made good on the latter with an elevator music version of “Let’s Stay Together.” It was more Benson than Green.
Memphis-by-way-of-Israel’s Ori Naftaly Band features Joss Stone-soundalike Eleanor Tsaig. A wailing belter, she’s surrounded by Naftaly’s swirling, psychedelic-lite guitar and Prentiss “Poyee” Yancey’s funk bass. In Durham, her hair-tossing effects and big delivery were worthy of headliner status. Grady Champion subsequently added raspy soul to Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” Champion liked to mingle, going out in the crowd with some in-your-face vocal and harmonica work and egging on line dancers during “Make That Monkey Jump.”
From the second she set foot on stage, Shemekia Copeland owned the festival. She’s a true blues diva, not because of her attitude—she talked to the audience like they were old friends—but because of her raw power, impeccable phrasing and control. “Somebody Else’s Jesus,” from her 2012 Grammy-nominated release 33 1/3, is about “people who say I love God so much but I hate everybody else.” It has a hot-rod heartbeat and a gospel soul, thanks in part to 16-year-vet Arthur Neilson’s guitar work, which blended Robin Trower and Jimi Hendrix.
“I’m vibrating up here in places I shouldn’t be vibrating,” Copeland said, asking the engineer to turn down the bass. But even with it lowered, she, the stage and the crowd still shook with her power. On “The Other Woman,” she backed up to the drum kit and away from the microphone. You could still hear her all the way across the field. Copeland closed with “Life’s a Rainbow,” a bluesy hymn she sang at Hubert Sumlin’s graveside service. It was a heart-wrenching performance and a hard act to follow—which many in the crowd realized, as nearly half of the audience left as she stepped from the stage.
Kermit Ruffins is a strong performer, but his set in Durham seemed geared more toward a tourist club on Bourbon Street rather than a blues festival. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “Sunny Side Of the Street” are great Louis Armstrong show pieces for trumpet, but one would hope for something livelier from Ruffins’ Rebirth days for a blues show. He did amp up the energy level with “Iko Iko” and Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles,” but things soon went back down again. By the time Ruffins got to the only blues of his set—a mashup of “Caldonia,” “Flip Flop, Fly” and “Raggmopp”—most of the 450 who had shown up for the festival were long gone.
The old Athletic Park remains a great venue for a wonderful tradition. But the Bull Durham Blues Festival still needs a bit of work and some support from the community to allow the Bull to continue to run.