Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Callahan caps Rockin' the Bay

Singer Deb Callahan closed the
2nd annual Rockin' the Bay Music Festival
in Gladstone on Saturday with an
attention-grabbing set of blues originals
and cover songs.


Blues singer Deb Callahan made an auspicious debut in the Upper Peninsula last weekend.

The Philadelphia-based musician delivered a captivating 100-minute performance as headliner for the 2nd annual Rockin' the Bay music festival in Gladstone.

Callahan led her crack band through a blues set with plenty of soul and a touch of rock 'n' roll to cap-off a day of music presented by the Gladstone Yacht Club.

Also appearing at the June 19 event were Deaf Man's Radio, an ensemble of four northern Minnesota musicians; and the Honky Tonk Twisters from Hortonville, WI.

Earlier in the day, music fans heard sets by local acts Scotch and Soda, Grassfire, Travis and the St. Lou's, Bad Dog, the Lark Brothers Band and Jeff Krebs & John D. Beck.

With three well-received compact discs to her credit, Callahan is a rising star on the national blues scene. She has captivated audiences at a growing number of blues festivals while her CDs have been critically acclaimed in the music media.

Announcing that she was on her first trip to the U. P., Callahan launched her set with "Hallelujah, I Love Him So." The song Ray Charles wrote and recorded in 1955 as "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" was the first of three
tracks by the Georgia musical genius in Callahan's program.

Callahan saluted the late Texas bluesman and guitar-slinger Albert Collins with "If You Love Me Like You Say," before delving into three tracks from her "Grace & Grit" CD, released in 2008.

"Food on the Table," "Get It Right" and "Obstacle to Love" ably demonstrated Callhan's abilities as both a songwriter and singer.

She tapped a tambourine on her thigh as the audience got into the groove.

Callahan introduced "Coffee Grind," a stand-out number from her first CD, "If the Blues Had Wings," issued in 2002. The song, which she wrote with Randy Lippincott, recalls early blues by the likes of Billy Holiday and Bessie Smith, two of Callahan's biggest influences.

"What'd I Say," the first Top Ten pop hit for Ray Charles, slotted next.

"Tell your mama, tell your pa. I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas," Callahan shouted, firing up the crowd.

Next Callahan performed "Blue Pearl Moon" and "Credit Card Blues" two originals from her second CD, "The Blue Pearl," released in 2005.

The audience clapped along as Callahan sang the chorus: "I've got the credit card blues, it's the American way." Both songs were composed by Callahan and Chris Arms.

Callahan paid tribute to bluesman Fenton Robinson with "Somebody Loan Me a Dime," which she explained was about the era before cellphones.

Guitarist Allen James added some impressive fretwork to the song.

Rock fans may remember Boz Scaggs' lengthy version of the tune from his 1969 debut album which included Duane Allman on dobro and slide guitar.

Next on the bill came Callahan's observations on relationships with "Romance Over Finance" and "If Your Man Messes Up."

The talented vocalist performed the latter song as an effective duet with bass player Garry Lee. "If your man messes up, can I submit my resume," Lee sang in the chorus to the song which evolved from a comment a street sweeper made to Callahan in the City of Brotherly Love.

Callahan added some powerful rhythm and blues to the setlist with "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter," written by Alline Bullock, Tina Turner's older sister. The song served as the opening selection of an Ike & Tina Turner compilation album issued in 2002.

Returning to her most recent disc, Callahan sang "Work a Little Harder" and ended her set with "Lovin' Cup" a chestnut from the late Paul Butterfield's songbook.

The audience demanded an encore and Callahan returned to the stage with the insistent "I Don't Need No Doctor." The song, written by Ashford & Simpson, was a hit for Ray Charles and his Orchestra in 1966 and later covered by Humble Pie and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Callahan's exciting live shows have drawn legitimate comparisons to Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Of course, Callahan admires those singers as well as contemporaries like Tina Turner, Marvis Staples and Joan Osborne.

Blues Revue Magazine praised Callahan's songwriting and vocal abilities, saying she "possesses an instinctive feel for the blues."

Callahan grew up in a musical environment and joined her first band, a blues rock combo, at age 20. She moved from Boston to Philly in 1990 to study social work, learning about real-life blues firsthand.

She returned to performing five years later with a group called the Blue Root, performing material by blues legends such as Victoria Spivey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Blind Blake.

Bitten by the blues bug, Callahan formed her own band with keyboard player Walter Runge when Blue Root disbanded in 1997.

Today's version of the Deb Callahan Band consists of veteran Philadelphia musicians Allen James (guitar), Garry Lee (bass) and Tom Walling (drums).

As Callahan vacated the stage, music fans trickled away after enjoying 11 hours of top-notch entertainment on the Gladstone waterfront.

In all, nine bands were presented on two stages with proceeds benefiting the Gladstone Youth Wrestling Association.

Attendance was "much better" than last year, according to organizer Craig Johnson.

The well-run 2010 version of Rockin' the Bay should only enhance the reputation of the Gladstone yachting facility, already known as the "friendliest club on the lakes."

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