Written by James Killen

You know, the first year of any new festival is ether a boom or a bust. Either you get to enjoy all of the great talent without the huge crowds that flood the more established festivals or the organization is trying to find its feet and confusion reigns supreme. The fact is that Conroe has been producing the Catfish Festival for years and there is a well-established music appreciation community in that area. It was no surprise to me that the folks in Conroe had this one worked out to a tee.

There were two outdoor tent stages and four indoor stages at venues within easy walking distance (two or three blocks). Parking was handy and the streets were clear. There was a lot dedicated to a variety of food trucks and a few local arts and crafts vendors set up on the city square. The talent listed was stellar (thank you, Ms. Tracy Brandon) and the promotion team (Taylorized PR, courtesy of Ms. Margie Taylor) was active and energetic.

DSC02670I got in early on Friday afternoon, checked into my hotel room, drove down to park in the events parking garage and walked the area in a short time to get my bearings. I sat in the city square watching the goings on at the vendors’ booths and listening to Mike Amabile’s sound check at the main stage, sponsored by Southern Star Brewing Company.

I had seen Mike Amabile several years back at a benefit song swap at the Cypress Saloon and he had impressed me with his solo acoustic rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah”. There was very little of that mellow folky feel in the bluesy rock and roll set that Mike had for that Friday evening with a full band that included Christian vocalist and keyboard man, James Zimmerman. It was a mix of original tunes, like “John and Marianne” and “Blind’ with covers of “Stuck in Lodi, Again” and “Friend of the Devil” (an often covered Grateful Dead tune that will keep any old deadhead’s attention). Amabile showed off his vocal talents on “House of the Rising Sun”, dipped into country roots with “Luckenbach, Texas” and produced a psychedelic feel on “Saint Charles Street” from his new CD.

From there, I took the short walk to Martin’s to get a good seat for Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines. The venue is a combination art gallery and music venue founded by the late J. Ross Martin. The stage was lit by an array of red LED lights and Terri started off the show with a recitation of “This is my Prayer for You” dedicated to J. Ross. There was a statement of inclusion in an emotional rendition of “Bring ‘Em All In” and Lloyd really let loose on “Wallet”. They visited the Slaughter House Session CD with “Call You to the Carpet” and the Love You Strong CD with the title track and “Fifty Shades of Hey” which turned out to be a great sing-a-long with the audience shouting out “Hey” and “Born to be Wild” in the chorus. The duo went back to some of the older standards with “Spiritual Kind”, “Hole in My Pocket” (another great sing along) and “I Found the Lions”, which was a wonderful display of Terri’s vocal talents, Lloyd’s acumen on the little guitar and a general excellent sense of timing. They closed out the show with “If I had a Daughter” and “Ain’t it a Shame”. Terri and Lloyd’s energy is always contagious and I had a spring in my step to head for the next venue.

I made my way in short order to the Sparkle Ice House for the Billy Joe Shaver show. What could be more fitting than the great Honky-Tonk Hero in an ice house venue? The only thing not fitting comfortably were the number of people that wanted to see Billy Joe. I stuck around for the first five numbers which included “Smack Dab in the Heart of Texas”, “Honky-Tonk Heroes” and “Chunk of Coal”. Shaver was in his element and the band, as always, was tight.

DSC02748I also had Carolyn Wonderland on my wish list for the evening, so I walked around the corner to the main stage. It was like changing the radio from a country to a rocking blues station. I ran into singer/songwriter, Charles Bryant at the back of the crowd and we talked about the festival and who was next on our lists for the Saturday show (John Fullbright being high on both of our lists) while Carolyn tore it up on “Two Trains”. She stayed true to the blues with “Nobody Hides from God” and a cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It”. She also covered Janis Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinking Do?” in a fashion that would have made the Port Arthur girl proud. Carolyn continued her set with the slow blues crooner, “Is There Room at the Inn” (another song of inclusion) and ended the set with a tune that she had written in collaboration with Ruthie Foster, “Come Together”.

It was back to the hotel (Some folks get back to nature, others get back to the Holiday Inn) after the Carolyn Wonderland show to begin the process of editing pictures from the evening. The next morning, I had a nice conversation with Sue from Highlands, Texas about the event. She was a big Carolyn Wonderland fan, had seen her the night before and couldn’t wait for her second appearance on Sunday.

I got out early again and headed to the main stage in time to see Caleb and the Homegrown Tomatoes do The Eagles’ “Take it Easy” for their sound check. They are a local (Conroe) country rock band that do a steady gig at The Corner Pub on Mondays. They started out the set with a cover of American Aquarium’s “Casualties”. The band worked very hard to put out an active stage persona, reeling through original songs like, “Summer”, “Chloe”, and “Worth the Ride” about those people that stick it out in the music business, proclaiming “I ain’t here for the money. I’m here for the lonely, one song at a time.” They closed out the set with a guitar rocking version of The James Gang’s “Funk 49”.

DSC02801From the main stage to the CDAA stage was a short walk to catch Uncle Lucius. I’m a sucker for a jam band and I’ve had Uncle Lucius on my radar for some time, but had not grabbed the chance to see them.  By far and away, I was not disappointed. Kevin Galloway’s smooth voice from the back of his throat and Mike Carpenter’s guitar work (something between Dicky Betts and Jerry Garcia) on top of the rhythm section and keyboard themes put this band toward the top of my list for the weekend. From the jam stylings of “Someday is a Far Cry away” to a medley of three songs connected by free improvisation and ending with “We Don’t Own the Right”, I was hooked. UL played original tunes “Age of Reason”, “Somewhere Else” and “Taking in the View”. They covered The Band’s “Caledonia Mission” following that up with originals, “Pocket Full of Misery” and “Keeping the Wolves Away”. The set ended with “Ouroboros” featuring the line “It’s time that you tell the right from the wrong” in a tone that brought back memories of old Traffic tunes.

I left Uncle Lucius pumped and inspired, but also seeking a bit of air conditioning at Martin’s for Little Outfit. This afternoon the LED’s were blue. Little Outfit is Nathan Taylor, Amie Krebbs and Randy Hill that came out of The Front Porch Society that used to have a regular gig at McGonagall’s Mucky Duck on the patio on Friday nights. They play a bare bones folk/blues style and cover songs from various artists as well as performing original compositions. They started off the set with Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and led into original composition, “Cutting Hair”. Amie’s voice is full and soulful. Randy displayed a strong vocal talent on a cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” with Nathan throwing in some great lead guitar licks. Nathan Taylor provided a great folksy vocal for his original, “Flatlands”. The band covered Matt Harlan’s (also a former member of The Front Porch Society) “Dresses”, Patty Griffith’s “Long ride Home” and Warren Haynes’ soulful “Soulshine”. They continued in kind, covering Jason Isbell’s “Go it Alone” and “Hurricane”, originally recorded by Levon Helm, as well as what they consider their first Little Outfit song, “Good Morning Captain”.

DSC02930I left Martin’s headed for the Red Brick Tavern to catch Matt Harlan and Rachel Jones, but they were already full and taking numbers for seating. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen a Matt and Rachel show, but one of my objectives for the evening was to get in for John Fullbright, whom I haven’t seen in years, so I redirected to the Corner Pub, across the street. I stopped for a minute to talk to Eric Burns that runs the Lodge House Concert series and noticed a gathering on the street outside of the Corner Pub. No place else in the world that weekend (or most other weekends) would you see William Michael Smith, editor of Texas Music magazine, Larry Winters, KPFT DJ and songwriters Matt Harlan and Charles Bryant in conversation on the street.

I walked into the Corner Pub soon after the Lost and Nameless Orchestra had started their set and there was a comfortable seat right in front of the stage. This photo opportunity was just meant to be. It became obvious very soon that the Saturday only ticket holders were out in force and the indoor venues were filling up fast.

The Lost and Nameless Orchestra are Patrick Conway on guitar and vocals, Chris Peterson on fiddle and mandolin, Kimberly Zielnicki on fiddle, bass and vocals and Nathan Quiring on keyboards and accordion. They play a lively bluegrass rock that exhibits amazing timing between the musicians. Some of the double fiddle work was awe inspiring. The covered some Bill Monroe compositions and a lot of originals, “Have We Lost” and “Rabid Heart” and even an old banjo tune written by Ralph McTell called “The Red Apple Juice Song”.

The Pub filled up fast and folks in the back jockeyed for closer seating as the time for John Fullbright to start approached. In the audience I noticed Larry Winters, Charles Bryant, Eric Taylor, and Amie Krebbs. As the band was setting up the crowd reached capacity and folks were being told that they had to line up and wait for someone to leave before they could get in. Fullbright and band did Leadbelly’s “Take this Hammer” for the sound check, with John on the piano and stretching out that amazing voice of his.

He started off his set, alone and acoustic, with “Until You Were Gone”. He stopped long enough to tell a few Texas-Oklahoma jokes bringing to mind that Woody Guthrie tradition that is particular to Oklahoma. He went straight into “Daydreamer” and made the audience feel every word. What a voice! After that came “Blameless” and the Townes Van Zandt song “The Catfish Song”. Taking the opportunity to make a social statement he sang a Dan Bern song about a disabled vet, “After the Parade”, with the line, “Maybe someone can push my chair after the parade is over.”

The band came back to the stage for the second part of the set, kicking off with “Gawd Above” and “Satan & St. Paul”. They did “I Don’t Have Social Skills”, which had a Steve Earle feel to it, followed by “Happy”. Fullbright broke out the harmonica for the bluesy “All the Time in the World” and then moved to the piano for the rest of the set kicking into “When You Are Here”. From there they went on to play “Jericho” and end the set with “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business”.

It has been a long time since I first saw John Fullbright at a KPFT benefit with a short set. I remember being impressed and now I remember why. What a great songwriter, singer and musician! But, no time to dally, as I knew that Ruthie Foster’s show at Martin’s would be filling up. I was right and had to take fifth place in line, but luckily, six people eventually came out and I was in before the show started!

DSC03030Tonight, Martin’s stage was lit by all yellow LED’s. Ruthie’s band for the evening included percussionist, Samantha Banks, Taj Mahal’s bass player, Larry Fulcher, and keyboardist Scottie Miller, who had brought a full sized Hammond organ all the way down from Minneapolis. The band kicked off with the title track to “Brand New Day” and summoned up a reggae beat for “Singing the Blues”.

Ruthie invited Mike Ferris, the artist that had played just previous to this show and he summoned up a pretty amazing gospel vocal to join Ruthie on “Joy Comes Back”. That was followed up by a very bluesy “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)”, followed by “Small Town Blues” with Scottie Miller on mandolin. She dug into a few covers like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues”, Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To”, and Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of my Labor”, which featured an absolutely stunning keyboard performance by Scottie Miller.

Ms. Foster took the audience to church with a gospel A Capella, “Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face”. She followed that up with Terri Hendrix’s “Hole in My Pocket” bringing that sing-a-long back to Martin’s for the second night in a row, with an enthusiastic audience participation. Searching for a song to follow that up, Ruthie landed on “Phenomenal Woman” and ended her set by dedicating “Stayed on Freedom!” to the late gospel folk singer, Odetta. Ruthie Foster remains one of my favorite talents from Texas. I am in awe of her ability to capture an audience with her voice and inspirational message.

It was back to the hotel room after midnight for some more photo editing and a short night’s sleep. When I woke up Sunday morning I had that line from the Grateful Dead song, “Brown Eyed Women” going through my head, “and it looks like the old man’s getting on”. I was glad that I had scheduled most of the day at the Red Brick Tavern for some sit down folk music. First though, I was off to the Sparkle Ice House to catch The Great Trumpet.

DSC03070The Great Trumpet is Chris Shotiff, Sarah Haug and Andrew Smythe and they call their style of music, “spirit country”, not a bad way to start a Sunday afternoon. Sarah has a strong bluesy voice and the band as a whole can produce some awesome harmonies. They did an A Capella gospel song called “The Love Song” that used the echo of the concrete structure to fill the room with their voices. They also sang one called “The Deepest Chamber” (the deepest chamber being the heart) and “The Murder of a Crow”. Sarah donned the washboard for a Cajun feel to “Sunshine, Shine on Me”. The band did a few songs that had been written by Sarah’s mother including a swamp-grass tune called “Someday our Fears will Go Away”. They also went on to play the bluegrass tune, “Too Many Folks Around Here” that featured a pretty impressive bang box percussion solo.

I decided to get to the Red Brick Tavern early so as to get a good seat and was seated right in front of the stage. The RBT is a restaurant/pizza parlor/listening room that boasts an award winning chef (I can personally recommend the bacon fried oysters) and a cozy setting for singer/songwriters to perform. It is owned and operated by a most gracious Debbie Glenn, gracious that is unless you decide to start a conversation while the artist is performing.

I was pleasantly surprised by a performer that had not been listed on the schedule, a folk singer from Longview, named Keith Rea. He played a set of mixed covers and original compositions. His voice reminds me a bit of Willie Nelson. He started out with Jim Croce’s “Dirt Track Demon” followed by “Paradise Shoes” and Roger Miller’s, “King of the Road”. He donned a harmonica for a walking blues song called “My Sweet Loretta”. He continued to mix the set up with originals and covers, ending his performance with an excellent version of Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition my Condition was in”.

DSC03101Ray Bonneville, a native of French Canada, now resident of Austin, Texas was next on the bill. He plays what I would call a Big Easy style of blues with a rich full voice and finger-picked electric guitar (think JJ Cale with a slower tempo). His set draws from his immense catalogue of original tunes, starting the show out with “Dark Blue Night”. He played eighteen songs including several requests. Some of my favorites were “What Was I to do?”, “Fly All Over, But Come Back Home” (sung partly in Franglais), “Think about the Good Times”, “Darlin’ Put Your Suitcase Down”, “The Day They Let Me Out”, “Tip Toe Spider” and “Funny ‘Bout Love”. Ray has a wonderful laid back cordial stage presence and unique guitar style. He has always put on an entertaining show.

Jon Dee Graham stepped up to the stage to fill the last slot on my schedule for the festival. When you see him live, he tells stories behind the songs that fill in the gaps for listeners to better understand. His stage presence is raucous and humorous and always entertaining. He kicked off the set with “Tamale House #1”, leading into “The Orphan’s Song” followed by the encouraging “Faithless”. He followed that with his Halloween tune, “October”. Jon then landed on a song from his latest CD, “Knoxville Skyline” (a play on the Dylan classic “Nashville Skyline”), and called “Things Might Turn out Right”. It is a bluesy number in which he claimed to be aiming for something like a fistfight between Leonard Cohen and JJ Cale. After a heartfelt rendition of “The Change”, Graham took the audience to “a deep dark place” with “Bobby Dunbar”, a song involving a missing toddler, a case of mistaken identity and a wrongly hanged man. He gradually brought the audience up from that darkness with “Butterfly Wing” to an immensely positive “Big Sweet Life” (which was ironically featured in a film called “Ladder 49” about a dying fireman’s life passing before his eyes).

DSC03114 Next up were “Amsterdam” and “Majesty of Love”. Jon’s shows can border on bawdy at times and while I found his stories hilarious, some of them went well past the “G” rating, not quite to “R” but on the high side of “PG”. This was certainly a show prepared for an adult audience, and very entertaining as that.  He went on to play “$100 Bill” about spending time with his young son and two character studies from his latest CD, “Can of Worms” (about Dan Stuart) and “Shoeshine Charlie” a colorful character that shined shoes at the Austin Continental Club.

At the end of the set, Jon Dee had us all hustle down to the main stage for a surprise jam session to end the festival. We arrived at the stage just as Ray Benson and Dale Watson were finishing up a rousing version of “Hot Rod Lincoln”. They were joined on stage by Guy Forsythe, Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Robeson and Kelly Willis, among others. The group swapped guitar licks and shared microphones through Bob Wills’ “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank did it This Way?” It was an exciting and fitting way to conclude such a wonderful festival dedicated to Americana music.

I can only offer my perspective for about one sixth of the festival, as there were six venues continuously operating with artists like Eric Taylor, Mike Stinson, Band of Heathens, Two Tons of Steel, The O’s, John Evans and so many more. The big pluses that I noticed were that the stages and venues were within easy walking distance, as opposed to another great festival, The Big Bend Music Festival, where venues were miles apart. The outdoor stages did not face each other, causing bleed over from louder bands, unlike the Austin City Limits Festival. For the most part, the schedules ran parallel with a half hour in between for stage set up and to allow attendees to move from one venue to another without missing any of the music. The selection of artists was stellar. Tracy Brandon asked me later who to line up for next year and my reply was, to bring the same ones so that I could catch the ones that I missed this year. The buzz on Facebook amongst the musicians involved was that this festival was a great experience. I can only shower kudos on the organizers and volunteers that made this event run so smoothly. Their only problem for next year will be how to accommodate the greater influx of attendees that are certain to be clamoring to get in.