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Warehouse Blues Series Draws Musicians, Fans

July 26, 2008

By Dan E. Way, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Jul. 26–DURHAM — It was decidedly Durham in its eclectic character, this mini-blues concert. It featured life-tossed musicians on a stage of grass spinning guitar tales of pain and redemption. Over there were working stiffs selling vegetables from their gardens and mothers pushing baby carriages. Interspersed among the throaty beer guzzlers were wine-sipping connoisseurs taking it all in.

“If you don’t stop your drinking, someday you’ll turn out just like me, spending your time in the penitentiary,” bluesman Lightnin’ Wells growled to the cheery approval of his fans in the courtyard of West Village Apartments on a recent steamy evening.

The Friday night fun was part of The 5th Annual Warehouse Blues musical series co-sponsored by Durham Parks and Recreation and the Music Maker Relief Foundation.

Resplendent in his workday extremely casual attire — sandals, a short-sleeve blue shirt with white polka dots and gray pants — bluesman Lightnin’ Wells was so well received as he switched from guitar to banjo to mandolin and harmonica that he even got applause for his cornpone jokes.

“How can you tell a banjo’s in tune,” he asked. “You can’t,” he answered himself, before launching into a song about drinking and shooting and gambling.

To fully appreciate one of these lively events, attendance is essential.

Staged in a narrow canyon of red brick buildings that once housed tobacco warehouses and factories, the mournful notes of da blues seem to gather poignance and form from the stout columns surrounding them.

Scanning the blanket of humanity — a couple of hundred strong — for arm movements reveals flickering fans battling the heat, jugs of sun tea being poured into glasses, long-stemmed glasses for sipping wine, and brown, green and clear bottles from which golden beverages pour onto thirsty lips.

Dead-set in the middle of the lively lawn party is Toni Fesel, who is getting some help from her son selling home-grown tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, green peppers and onions.

“The prices are really good,” Fesel says, encouraging her visitor to put some product on a scale and fill a sack.

“I don’t like sitting on a Saturday at a farmers market. I have a musical farmers market,” she said, sweeping her arm towards Lightnin’ Wells.

A stone’s throw away sits bluesman George Higgs, waiting to take the stage.

“I love it,” the 79-year-old Tarrboro resident said of the venue. Even kidney dialysis couldn’t keep him away.

“This is something I love to come to. I come every year,” he said.

It wasn’t always like that for the native of Speed, N.C., “a slow town with a fast name,” Higgs said.

“I started playing [blues] when I was about 12 years old, blowing the harmonica,” he said. I picked up the guitar when I was 13. Then I quit for about 10 or 12 years. I got disgusted with it and drank corn liquor and ran around.”

That was before he met his wife of now 56 years, became a farmer, and later a carpenter for 32 years as he resumed his singing and touring, going overseas three times, the last occasion to Australia.

But that musical movement pales in comparison to that of Durham’s flashy Piedmont bluesman John Dee Holeman. When he rattles off the places he’s seen, one can imagine Johnny Cash’s song in the background, “I’ve been everywhere, man.”

“I’ve been about all over the world to tell you the truth,” Holeman said. “Africa, Bangkok, Asia, Honolulu, Hong Kong, China, Winnipeg, Jakarta …”

“I used to work all of this … back in the ’50s,” Holeman said, admiring the look of the refurbished West Village compared to the tobacco factory it was when he toiled there.

Between selling CDs of his music for $10 and educating a young admirer about how to eat a watermelon — “You take and cut the heart out of it and then just put your whole head in there. . . That’s country style.” — the former tobacco farmer talks about how the Warehouse Blues series parallels his desire.

“I’m trying to keep it going as much as I can. It was dead at one time, the Piedmont Blues,” he said of the genre for which this area is famous.

Meanwhile, Durham resident Kristen Rosselli is munching hors d’oeuvres with friends and gushing enthusiasm for the concert series.

“It’s a great setting. The musicians are wonderful, and it’s really authentic,” Rosselli said. “When I think of Durham, I do think about blues. It’s just unassuming.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

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