Introducing Charlie Musselwhite’s set at the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival Saturday, writer, record producer and WBGO-FM host Bob Porter mentioned that Musselwhite released his first album in 1967, the same year that Roomful of Blues, which played immediately before him, first came together in Providence, R.I.
Granted, Roomful of Blues’ lineup is very different from what it was 48 years ago, but still — and especially if you factor in 89-year-old guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who performed earlier in the day with his Guitar Summit — there was an awful lot of experience on that stage on Saturday.
This is the festival’s fifth year, and music lovers filled Morristown Green for the free, all-day event. Morristown mayor Tim Dougherty told MorristownGreen.com that he believed about 6,000 people were there for at least some portion of the show. It was very hot in the afternoon, but still, the area closest to the stage was filled with people who brought lawn chairs and stuck around all day, or at least for quite a few hours, and even got up and danced, occasionally, on the grass, when the music called for it.
There were only five acts, but they got plenty of room to stretch out, with more than 90 minutes onstage apiece.
Musselwhite is 71, and it’s no exaggeration to call him one of the greatest living masters of the blues. He sang and played harmonica, and switched to slide guitar for one song (“Crying Won’t Help You”), with backing by guitarist Matt Stubbs, bassist Mike Phillips and drummer June Core. This isn’t a particularly flashy group, but it is still a tight and tasteful unit; the rhythm section would set up a steady but buoyant groove, Musselwhite and Stubbs would add some stinging harmonica and guitar riffs, and you’d be hooked. Musselwhite changed pace, most dramatically, on his encore, the slow, stately “Christo Redemptor,” which put a nice, understated cap on the show.
Roomful of Blues swung harder, but seemed more ordinary in comparison: A solid bar band that can attribute is longevity to persistence more than true greatness. Still, the band had some very satisfying moments, including its feverish “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” and its celebratory show-closing cover of Gary U.S. Bonds’ “New Orleans.”
Bria Skonberg, billed third, was more impressive, as well as more versatile. She and her band paid tribute to Louis Armstrong (“Cornet Chop Suey”) and Frank Sinatra (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) with authority, but also remade “Mercedes Benz” (famously sung by Janis Joplin) as a fast party song. Most importantly, Skonberg was as engaging on original tunes like the social anthem “Go Tell It” and the explosive heartbreak ballad “So Is the Day” as she was on the more famous songs in her set.
Pizzarelli — trading guitar riffs with Ed Laub, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo — continues to marvel as he approaches his 90th birthday, in January. And the 11-piece opener Swingadelic, who welcomed guest vocalist Vanessa Perea on some songs, set the stage nicely with a sturdy set of both well known material (“Just a Gigolo,” “T-Bone Shuffle,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) and more obscure song, including crowd-pleasers such as Allen Toussaint’s manic “Java” and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ catchy British Invasion Era hit, “Yeh Yeh.”