Downtown Charlie Brown changed the words of the blues standard “Sweet Home Chicago” to “Sweet Home Morristown” when he performed it at the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, Sept. 22. And he didn’t do it just to please the crowd: Brown is now based in the Chicago area, but he grew up in Morristown, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Morristown High School. Many of his old friends turned out for the show, and he actually reassembled his high school band, Elusions, for that one song, “Sweet Home Morristown.”
For the rest of the show, he played with his own Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band (guitarist Harry Binford, bassist Reggie Harrington and drummer Glover Washington), who perform regularly in Chicago and occasionally tour. (For his day job, Brown is a schoolteacher in Aurora, Ill.). And it was as triumphant a return as anyone could have hoped for, giving regular attendees of this festival, which has been presented annually since 1991, something to remember in what otherwise might have been a year to forget.
You see, the main part of the festival, which had been scheduled for Sat., Sept. 23 at Morristown Green, had to be cancelled because of the probability of bad weather. (A good move, since Sept. 23 turned out to be a soggy mess.) But the festival had expanded, this year, to a two-day format, with a Friday night program at the smaller, nearby Pioneer Plaza. So with clear skies, that night, at least that could take place as planned.
There were four artists on the bill. Morristown High School’s Spectrum Jazz Band kicked off the music with a set at 4 p.m. Next came Ty Stephens & (The) SoulJaazz, who, living up to their name, played some accomplished soul-jazz, showcasing frontman Stephens’ big personality and often buoyant vocal style. The Debra Devi group, featuring New Jersey rock scene veteran Matt Wade on keyboards, provided an earthy complement to Ty Stephens & (The) SoulJaazz’ somewhat airy sound, with Devi often taking dynamic, slashing blues-rock guitar solos; their material was dominated by originals but also included covers of songs such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and, as the feel-good set-closer, the soaring Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule anthem, “Soulshine.”
The Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band then proved to be a more-than-worthy headliner, with a high-energy mix of Chicago blues, Delta blues and blues-rock. I didn’t go this show expecting to see a crowd up and dancing, enthusiastically, to songs like “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and its musical cousin, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” — both recorded some 85 years ago, by Robert Johnson — but that’s what happened, due to the band’s driving grooves and guitarist-pianist Brown’s animated singing.
A lot of the set was devoted to well-known songs from the worlds of both blues (“Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Got My Mojo Working”) and rock (ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” The Beatles’ “Come Together,” with this last song sung by Harrington). But the group ventured into somewhat less well-traveled territory, too, for songs such as Pinetop Perkins’ “Big Fat Mama” and Elvin Bishop’s “Don’t Let the Bossman Get You Down.”
The only misstep, I thought, was a version of the optimistic ballad “What a Wonderful World,” sung in an imitation of Louis Armstrong, with Brown walking through the crowd and interacting with audience members. Just “What a Wonderful World” would have been fine. But the imitation pushed it into the realm of corniness.
And as Brown proved in every other number he performed, he doesn’t need that to connect with an audience.
Introducing Brown’s set, Morristown mayor Timothy P. Dougherty sounded hopeful that the festival can continue as a two-day event in the future. “We’re going to, hopefully, have many years of this,” he said.
Here is a video of festival highlights made by Kevin Coughlin for his website, morristowngreen.com:
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