thecountryblues.com sponsors ‘Women in the Blues’ Concert at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY

Guitarist and singer Valerie Turner carries on the Piedmont Blues tradition

Guitarist and singer Valerie Turner carries on the Piedmont Blues tradition

The landmark Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, celebrates Woman’s Month in March with a range of events to highlight both the celebration and lament of women worldwide, who have come so far but have so far to go to achieve equality and emancipation.

Hats off to Howland Cultural Center director Florence Northcut for more than 25 years, who never misses a beat. This year, the Center featured 33 Hudson Valley women artists in a special art show to commemorate the event and a special music concert ‘Women in the Blues’. One of the visual artists was Virginia based Jackie Merritt, who exhibited two drawings, one a self-portrait, the other a portrait of the artist with her aging mother. Jackie Merritt was the only artist evidently not from the region, but she was made eligible because of her musical performance on Sunday, March 15 as part of the ‘Women in the Blues’ concert sponsored by thecountryblues.com.

This special afternoon concert at the Howland Cultural Center, set up in coffee house style, combined two acoustic blues ensembles that feature women in leading roles, the duo ‘Piedmont Bluz’, of Queens, New York and the ‘MSG Acoustic Blues Trio’, of Virginia and Maryland. The musicians had just played three nights in a row in New York City, the night before they had a packed house in Brooklyn’s famed Jalopy Theater, and this was their fourth gig on this mini-tour. The three primary women joined forces in a songwriter-in-the-round format, mostly playing songs by, for or about women, in an intimate concert where the audience was able to closely interact with the artists.

The change in constellation by combining the two ensembles and placing the women up front, created a new dynamic. The songwriter-in-the-round format shifted their regular paradigm and as the women interchanged and interplayed, their individuality emerged, and the audience was treated to a new ensemble, a new experience. Valerie Turner noted “We don’t know each other’ songs” but in this format, by taking turns and getting support from their partners, the show featured a fascinating set of arrangements. Each woman took on a role and even if subconsciously, the set of individuals formed a group, each with their own set of magic.

The enthralling chanteuse mezmerized the audience

The enthralling chanteuse Resa Gibbs mezmerized the audience

Valerie Turner, of ‘Piedmont Bluz’, was the guitarist and educator of the ensemble. Her smooth and nimble Piedmont guitar, picking with the alternating bass and simultaneous lead string virtuosity, and her lovely singing was supported by her incisive explanations and tutorials. The audience learned about the history of the blues, and the story of each song, with Valerie’s carefully articulated history and insights. She was the student of the late, great Piedmont bluesman John Cephas, and she did him justice with each beautiful rendition of the rich repertoire of the East Coast blues of the African American folk tradition. Valerie Turner is simply one of the finest Piedmont style guitarists today, and every song was a sheer delight. A true virtuoso and a superb artist, her eloquent guitar picking was a sheer delight.

Resa Gibbs, who sat center stage, was the singer. Her amazingly emotive and powerful singing was a moving experience. The multi-instrumentalist held the audience spellbound with her incomparable voice, reaching deep into the roots of African American song heritage, from spirituals to gospel, blues and folk. Her renditions of John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery and the traditional spiritual blues Going to the River were simply awe inspiring and spellbinding, giving the audience the shaking chills. The audience could feel the emotive power of this remarkable singer, as the venue felt as comfortable as a living room. For those who don’t know it, Resa Gibbs is one of the great voices in the traditional blues today. To hear her once is to feel her in the bass string of your soul. Only a heart of stone could sit through her show and not be moved.WomenBlues2

Jackie Merritt, visual artist, musician and teacher, was the songwriter of the group. Her clever compositions, witty lyrics and ability to connect with the audience, the multi-instrumentalist rounded out the ensemble beautifully. Bass ukelele, harmonica, guitar, whatever she touched enhanced the sound, but her greatest contribution were her original songs. As if she was ordered on a sliver platter for Women’s month, Jackie exuded a certain power and inner strength that affected the ensemble in a special way. It was as if she was the source of power, confidence and wisdom. Jackie’s original songs were highlights of the evening: the witty and funny Mean Church People; the sad but true social commentary, Do You See Me Now? about the homeless; and Money Makes You Crazy, an acapella stomp about family fighting over inheritance.

Maryland based guitarist Miles Spicer, bandmate of the ‘MSG Acoustic Blues Trio’ a key member of the Archie Edwards Barbershop scene, tied down the ensemble with his Takamine acoustic guitar, aptly holding rhythm & lead. He is a well known and respected bluesman in and around Washington, D.C. carrying on the Piedmont tradition. On this night he supported his women friends and bandmates with a confident touch, always playing it just right.

Percussionist and washboard player Benedict Turner, who designs and builds some of the nicest washboards anywhere, rounded out the sound of the ensemble as he sat in behind the women with his characteristic gentle touch, never too much, never too little. Ben Turner and his wife Valerie Turner form ‘Piedmont Bluz’, and they are the only performers in this genre combining Piedmont style guitar picking with washboard percussion. An interesting and wonderful combination.

The coffeehouse audience was ecstatic, offering a standing ovation to the ensemble. More than one person declared it an unforgettable concert, not in small part because the musicians put their heart and soul into it.

If you missed this show, don’t despair. There will be another significant ‘Women in the Blues’ concert, also sponsored by thecountryblues.com, coming up at the ArtsWestchester gallery on the evening of Sept. 25, 2015 as part of the White Plains, New York, Jazz & Blues Festival. The above ensemble will be joined by the great acoustic blues artist Eleanor Ellis for that show, and Poughkeepsie based performing artist Poet Gold will be the opener.

The superb singer/songwriter Jackie Merritt

The superb singer/songwriter Jackie MerrittWomenBlues1

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