By J. L. Brian

            On July 26 and 27, 2013, an eclectic crowd of music lovers gathered in northern Ferry County to enjoy a festival of music celebrating its 15th anniversary. 

Rock Cut Campground, four miles north of the small town of Orient in Washington State is ten pristine acres of grass and trees nestled between highway 395 and the scenic Kettle River.  Bill and Tara Holmes, who own and operate the campground, spent a lot of time travelling to blues festivals all over the Pacific Northwest during the 1990s. In 1998, Bill decided to organize his own blues festival and in 1999, Rock Cut Blues Festival became a reality.  The festival has grown over the years because Bill always books a variety of the best of the best blues musicians to keep the festival fresh.  The list of performers this year was impressive.  All the more so, considering the modest $40 price of admission for two days of musical bliss delivered during nine, hour and a half performances by eight absolutely magnificent bands. 

People from all over the Pacific Northwest travelled to Rock Cut to camp, swim, socialize, and most of all, immerse themselves in sweet vibrations, vibrations of strummed guitars, thundering drums, exuberant fingers on keyboards, and air blown through harmonicas, flutes, and saxophones. 

The musicians at this festival liberally share their talent and the story of their music.  Sharing, I think is a key part of any Blues Festival experience, and that noble spirit was in abundance at Rock Cut this year.  The experience begins with Bill and Tara Holmes who spend a great deal of time procuring sponsors, bands, vendors, and a host of volunteers to create a mind blowing two day event.  It continues as people gather in front of the rustic outdoor stage to reflect the mood generated by the performers.  The dynamic between audience and musicians is palpable, an exchange of emotions, a kind of telepathy in action!  Most pleasing of all is the bighearted spirit of the people who attend the festival.  The crowd is diverse, in every way, but all share a common bond born of an appreciation of the smooth rhythm of the beat. 

While the performers on stage are the focus of attention, sound engineers work behind the scene to ensure the music at the festival is perfectly in tune.  Jeremy Oswin and crew of Oswin Sound out of Colville know the acoustics of Rock Cut and they are spot on when it comes to ensuring a great experience for listeners. 

Opening the festival at 6 o’clock Friday evening, Kenny James Miller Band whet and then sated the appetite of a music-starved crowd of enthusiastic blues fans.  The three-piece group, winners of the Inland Empire Blues Society’s coveted Empire Award for Best New Blues Band or Artist in 2011, delivered a performance worthy of the accolade.

David Jacobs-Strain with Bob Beach took the stage next.  David has enjoyed great success over the course of his young career and has toured with the like of Boz Scaggs.  The combination of David Jacobs-Strain “A Jewish blues musician from Eugene Oregon” and Bob Beach a world-renowned harmonica and flute player from Philadelphia, was perfect, soulful and soaring.  Beach’s harmonica with Jacobs incredible voice and guitar really connected with the audience and left us all wishing each and every note could linger on forever.

The Fat Tones, a massively talented group out of Spokane closed out the first night of entertainment when they took the stage at 9:30 pm.  If you are embarrassed to get up and dance or move to the music, you had best avoid a performance by the Fat Tones!  Bobby Patterson, Bob Ehrgott and Zach Cooper are masters of the music they play.  Their sound is so rich, so absolutely moving that not dancing to it is nearly impossible!

Saturday morning was peaceful and quiet under a hot July sun.  Many in the campground spent some time hiking down the 84 steps to the bank of the Kettle River for a swim.  Lane, One of many great people we met said, “Its 84 steps down but 85 up since no one counts the top step on the way down.”  The river is clean, but the river bottom is rocky, so if you plan to swim its best to put on some type of waterproof footwear.

At noon, John “Scooch” Cugno and the 88’s took the stage to get the campground rocking for a second great day.  Cugno has played with many well-known musicians including John Lee Hooker. 

The Jesse Weston Trio with Weston on piano, Randolph Knowles on bass and Gary Smith on drums continued to drive the crowd to new heights of auditory enjoyment.  The trio are some of very best piano, bass, and percussion musicians playing today. 

Following Weston, David Jacobs-Strain and Bob Beach returned for a second performance much to the delight of everyone in the campground.  Jacobs personal, often humorous narrative sets the mood for nearly every song he performs.  His stories charm the audience and then he blows them away with his great voice and incredible guitar accompanied by the scintillating sound of Bob Beach’s harmonica.   

Sara Brown Band, a local and widely renowned group featuring its namesake is highly acclaimed.  That so many in the audience know Sara’s music by heart is testament to how popular she is.  Sara’s voice is powerful, her range, wide.  Much of the music she performs is original and written by herself or her husband, Jesse.  Among the crowd’s favorites were “Pretty Penny Shoes” and “Black Rainbow”. 

At 7:30 pm, Tommy Hogan band leapt onto the scene, and I mean literally!  Hogan’s energy on stage is remarkable; he leaps high into the air, twists and pivots without missing a beat.  Tommy is an international award-winning performer whose sound took the crowd to boogie town.  He played until everyone nearly dropped from exhaustion!

The final performer of the festival was Tommy Castro and the Painkillers.  Castro is an award winning vocalist, guitarist and songwriter who has released a dozen records over the course of twenty-five years as an entertainer.  Tommy let everyone know that he understands the struggle so many face daily.  He assured us that he and the painkillers would “kill the pain”.  Tommy is a wickedly talented guitarist whose fingers must be as tough as the strings of the guitar he enslaves and whips half to death during his performances, lest he shred them. 

On Sunday morning, an exhausted but thoroughly sated crowd of blues fans said goodbye to friends old and new, packed away their tents, RV’s, trailers, campers and made their way to their next destination.  All of them savoring the delicious sounds of an aural feast, an aftertaste of talent so pronounced it would surely linger until it is time for the 16th annual Rock Cut Blues Festival next summer.