Ever since making his commercial breakthrough in 1986 with the masterful collection of suavely appointed, anguished bedroom deceits Strong Persuader, Cray has been blues and Stax-style R & B's most visible star. Cray weighed in last year with Shame + A Sin (Mercury), a tougher-than-usual platter that displayed his choice, thorny guitar-playing and always tense, emotive vocals. Cray's last RiverBlues appearance in 1992 was marred by rain; he's hoping to stay dry at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Same time Sunday is Little Feat, the rootsy party-band institution once led by the great Lowell George. (Deadheads may be sorry: Little Feat replaces Weir/Wasserman on the bill, the duo of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and bassist extraordinaire Rob Wasserman, who canceled because of Weir's tour fatigue.) The Feats may not be a blues band, but then neither are Weir/ Wasserman - and they will surely close the weekend in style.
Leading the list of not-quite-so-widely-knowns are the great Otis Rush (more on him later) as well as classy pianist Charles Brown; cagey harmonica master Junior Wells; gospel-blues treasures the Holmes Brothers; New Orleans R & B powerhouse Marva Wright; Chicago slide guitar crowd-pleaser Lil' Ed; guitar wizard Danny Gatton; Crescent City funky blues man John Mooney; young blues siren Keri Leigh; longtime Delta blues devotee John Hammond, and locally based Hawaiian steel guitar one-of-a-kind Sonny Rhodes. It may be an unsurprising list, bit it's a long one, and all of the above can deliver live. A quick peek at the schedule reveals that most of the worthwhile acts will be on one or more of the festival's four stages on Saturday. That's the day to go.
But before we get any further into this weekend's goings-on, aren't we wondering why RiverBlues is going on this weekend in the first place? Wasn't the festival a big success in its midsummer slot?
Sure it was, said Meryl Levitz of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, but moving RiverBlues to May is more than just a cost-cutting effort - it halves the staging and set-up costs by throwing the party back-to-back with Jambalaya Jam - and an attempt to target the folks who were bound to be down the Shore in late July. It's also the beginning of a grand experiment.
Using the wildly popular two-weekend-long New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Penn's Landing's own 10-day Welcome America Festival as the models, Levitz wants to turn RiverBlues and Jambalaya Jam into one big festival with a new name - "something like American Heritage Music Festival," she said.
"When we first started, people didn't know whether to eat zydeco or listen to it," Levitz said. "But now we've got a pretty educated audience, and we'd like to really dig into the roots of both."
Eventually, Levitz hopes to put on shows at Penn's Landing in the week between RiverBlues and Jambalaya Jam, and also to sponsor concerts around town, cruises along the Delaware and music workshops in the schools.
"It's a permanent move," she said - "unless we give the party this year and no one comes."
That's not likely, considering RiverBlues' track record of pulling in about 25,000 people for a weekend. In addition to the music, festivalgoers will find crafts, Marc Norberg's "Portraits From Blues Heaven" photo exhibit, and of course, plenty of "blues food." This year, many out-of-town vendors will be in for both weekends: That means more opportunities to chow down on blackened chicken wings and Cajun corn on the cob from the Red Sage restaurant in Washington, or flounder Mardi Gras and shrimp remoulade direct from Miss Irene's of Louisiana. Philadelphia's Magnolia Cafe has po' boys and chicken sandwiches, and there's southern fried chicken from James Banks and Co.
And then there's Otis Rush. The 60-year-old Philadelphia, Miss.-born left- handed guitarist - he plays his ax upside down, without the benefit of restringing - is making his first RiverBlues appearance Saturday afternoon and evening, in support of Ain't Enough Comin' In (This Way Up/Mercury), his first new studio album in 16 years.
Rush earned his place in the history books with a series of recordings he made with producer Willie Dixon for the legendary Cobra label in the late '50s. Songs like "Double Trouble" and "Keep On Loving me Baby" were complex, jazz- and gospel-influenced minor-key masterpieces that were as deeply emotional as the most brutal Robert Johnson blues.
But after Cobra owner Eli Toscano's death, Rush - whose songs have been covered and copped by Led Zeppelin and many others, started to bounce from one unhappy record-relationship to another and grew bitter. "I started to get fed up," he said last week from his Chicago home, citing his classic album Right Place, Wrong Time as a particularly frustrating example. The album was recorded for Capitol in 1971 but was held in the vaults and didn't see the light of day until 1976, when it was nominated for a Grammy.
For Ain't Enough Comin' In, Rush benefited from hooking up with Buddy Guy producer John Porter. The album explores Rush's wide array of influences, from Ray Charles to Sam Cook to Muddy Waters, and displays a slow-burning and satisfying guitar technique still at the top of his field.
"There's a lot of heartaches and pain in my music," Rush said. "And believe me, I put my hands and my heart into this album. Every time I pick up the guitar, I try to show respect for the music. Music is bigger than any musician, and I try to remember that."