Some bands have all the luck. Despite forecasts predicting a good chance of thunderstorms, all afternoon, the rain held out at the Aug. 18 Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival until “Move On Up,” the last song of La Bamba & the Hubcaps’ set, at around 5:30 p.m.
The two acts that were scheduled to follow the Hubcaps, though, were not so lucky. Sets by Davy Knowles and The Bernard Allison Group were not immediately cancelled, but as the rain continued to fall, quite heavily at times, many of those assembled on Morristown Green for the free festival decided to seek shelter in town, or simply go home. And when it became clear that the rain was not going to let up, the rest of the festival was indeed cancelled.
But attendees still got to see three-fifths of the scheduled performers, and all of the jazz-oriented acts.
The festival has developed a sort of template for the way its music flows, over its eight years, and stuck to it this year, with a large jazz ensemble (the Air Force’s Rhythm in Blue big band) to start, another jazz-oriented act (Bria Skonberg), then a high-energy R&B/rock group (LaBamba & the Hubcaps) as a kind of transition before a heavy dose of blues-rock with the final two artists (Allison and Knowles). It’s almost like two festivals in one, with jazz in the afternoon and blues at night.
Former mainstays of the Jersey club scene, LaBamba & the Hubcaps haven’t performed in the state very often since singer-trombonist Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg got a fulltime job as a member of Conan O’Brien’s house band, 25 years ago. Though the band’s lineup s very different from what it was in the ’80s, the current version stays true to the band’s original intention: To perform classic rock, soul and blues material with first-rate chops and loads of energy.
Rosenberg and trumpeter Mark Pender sang many of the songs together, including Sam & Dave’s “I Take What I Want” and “When You Dance” (written by Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, and recorded by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes when LaBamba was a band member). Saxophonist Tim Cappello also contributed animated lead vocals to a few songs, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” (emphasizing the absurd humor of the lyrics) and the dance anthem “Shake a Tail Feather.”
Other material included Bobby Womack’s vividly atmospheric “Across 110th Street” (which also used to be part of the Jukes’ repertoire, LaBamba mentioned), Springsteen’s “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” (sung by Pender), Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (during which LaBamba ventured into the audience) and a sizzling version of Santana’s “Everybody’s Everything.”
Singer-trumpeter Skonberg and her band offered a set that reached out to both traditionalists (as it featured lots of expertly played standards) and those looking for something a little more unpredictable (with numbers like the theatrically eccentric original “Same Kind of Crazy” and an extended exploration of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”).
Rhythm in Blue was tight and polished, offering genial versions of songs such as “Rhythm Is Our Business” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” as well as a take on the Gershwins’ “Summertime” that was so fast it was almost unrecognizable. The band got a bit adventurous on a mashup of “Sunny Side of the Street” and Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” and welcomed Pender — whom they know from working on O’Brien’s show — to guest with them.
“Fields of Home,” an original composition by their guitarist, Jason Cale, added some airy jazz-fusion to the mix, but the show-stopper was a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin: “Respect,” sung with grit and authority by Melissa Lackore.
Thanks to Kevin Coughlin of MorristownGreen.com for posting these videos to YouTube: