The annual Decatur BBQ Blues & Bluegrass Festival was held at Harmony Park at the center of the Oakhurst Community Saturday, with over seven hours of music on two stages that included such Georgia-based performers as Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Donna Hopkins and the Porch Bottom Boys. Although it was a hot and exceptionally muggy day, Mother Nature thankfully held off on the rain.
Beginning at 2:30 p.m., performances by eight bands were divided between the two stages — a main stage at the end of the parking lot fronting the local Dollar Tree and a second, smaller stage in the grassy park itself — with mostly overlapping sets. While it was impossible for any single attendee to hear every song by every band, the stages were close enough to allow at least a sampling of each with a short walk between, yet separated enough for the music of one to not interfere with the other.
The music kicked off on the second stage with the Porch Bottom Boys, a Decatur-based string band playing original and traditional music. The band hit a watershed earlier this year with the sudden death of mandolinist Denis Gainty. Guest mandolinist Andy Willoughby joined regulars Steve Gorbatkin, Jim Thompson, Charlie O’Neill and Joel Glogowski for this performance, which included Gainty’s song “Oregone.”
The Greg Humphries Electric Trio started over on the main stage a half hour later. A guitarist and singer-songwriter, Humphries previously fronted North Carolina rock band Dillon Fence and funky soul band Hobex. He formed his genre-hopping Electric Trio in New York in 2014 with fellow Southern expatriates, drummer Keith Robinson and bassist Matt Brandau. Their Lucky Guy album was released in 2016.
Next up over at the second stage was the Donna Hopkins Band. Raised on a northwest Alabama farm, Hopkins earned her Southern creds firsthand, both from the land and family members who were active musicians. Working out of the Atlanta area, Hopkins’ engagingly earthy vocals complemented her band’s rockin’ blues foundation.
Vista String Band took the main stage in an acoustic quartet configuration: fiddle, mandolin, guitar and upright bass that drew from bluegrass and country swing. Among their songs was a cover of the Harlan Howard tune, “I’m Busted,” first covered by Johnny Cash in 1963 but turned into a hit by Ray Charles. In tribute to the recently deceased Glen Campbell, the group also included covers of the Campbell hit “Gentle on My Mind,” which won two Grammys for songwriter John Hartford and another two for Campbell’s performance, and “Everybody’s Talking at Me,” the Fred Neil song that Harry Nilsson sang on the soundtrack of the motion picture Midnight Cowboy.
Heavy grooves and guitar riffs marked the music of The Georgia Flood over on the main stage as the day wore on and the heat peaked. Two of the New Belgian beer tents still had plenty of beer on tap, but had run out of bottled water and were waiting for more to arrive. Fortunately, the Dollar Tree, which was completely enclosed by the festival’s barrier fences, was nonetheless open, so people were able to duck in for a while to buy water or a chilled Gatorade and take in a few blessed moments of air conditioning.
After a cooling-off, it was back to the second stage to hear an elder Atlanta blues legend, 78-year-old Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. With her trusty black Fender Squire Stratocaster and her gritty authenticity in both her playing and vocals, Watkins was the most honestly bluesy of all the acts in the festival. She is a genuine treasure within the genre, with nearly 60 years of career under her belt and is the genuine envy of blues musicians half her age. Watkins’ searing guitar and vocals sounded the way the best down-home cooking tastes: the flavor and memory won’t leave you.
After a 15-minute break with no overlapping of bands, the festival closed back on the main stage with the Nashville-based Farewell Angelina. Named after the Bob Dylan song, Farewell Angelina is fronted by four women who are longtime friends – Nicole Witt, Andrea Young, Lisa Torres and Lauren Lucas – two of whom play violin and two who play guitars. Polished production and deft instrumental work underscore their remarkably well-matched voices, which lock into an attractively sleek four-part harmony.
While they played a few well-known covers, like “House of the Rising Sun” and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishing in the Dark,” much of Farewell Angelina’s repertoire is original, including “Shotgun Summer,” “American Fathers” and their set-closer, “Revolution” — all from their self-titled EP produced by country music industry veteran Keith Stegall. Farewell Angelina will return this coming weekend for a show Saturday at Matilda’s in Alpharetta and another Sunday at the Red Light Cafe in Midtown.