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Blues Festival kicks off with nod to many roots

The old Ashland Armory on Friday night wound up deep in the Harry Zone. That's what fans of genre-bending bluesman Harry Manx call the space transformed by the man's soulful singing and deep musical grooves.

Opening night of the ninth annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival was acoustic night, with a plethora of players exploring differing musical roads that all led to Manx.

After a full slate of performances and workshops Friday and Saturday, the festival continues today with a youth program of Gabe Young and Friends and the Portland Blues Juniors starting at 6 p.m. at the Armory, 208 Oak St.

You almost have to see Harry Manx play to get it. This is a guy who plays the Mohan Veena, a guitar/sitar hybrid invented by master Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, plays an honest-to-God cigar box guitar he built himself, and plays Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" on the banjo.

It doesn't come off as weird as it sounds. Manx's show is not a novelty act but a deeply felt synthesis of music from East and West and soulful vocals that fill the room with a big sound, all leavened with a wry humor.

"The blues is not about feeling bad," he deadpanned. "It's about making other people feel bad."

Manx accompanied himself on acoustic guitar on the exquisite "Humble Me," went back to banjo for the gently rolling "Don't Forget to Miss Me," played slide lap steel for "Baby Please Don't Go," which also was punctuated by some hot and funky mouthharp. Bruce Springteen's "I'm On Fire" on cigar box guitar reeked of conviction.

Manx is a Canadian (he lives on Saltspring Island in British Columbia) who lived in India and Japan for many years and didn't return to the West to start an actual music career until he was in his 40s. He said you can think of Canadians as "unarmed Americans with health insurance."

The Mohan Veena has 20 strings, eight of which are played by the musician and a dozen that vibrate sympathetically, adding occasional sitar-like crescendos to the mix. The East/West flavor of Manx's playing has been called Mysticssippi blues.

He tried to leave after a kickin' go at Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" on guitar, but the crowd brought him back for an encore of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" on the Mohan Veena.

Pete Herzog, Jerry Zybach, Rick Di Dia and Aireene Espiritu opened the evening with varied set, and Mac Potts followed on keyboards. Potts is a young musician who was born blind and rocks out on electronic keyboards in styles from Meade Lux Lewis, Professor Longhair and Amos Milburn to Dr. John and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's not an easy trick to rock a room with a solo take on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," but Potts has the chops.

Also on tap today are a series of workshops. A guitar session with Tim "Too Slim" Langford is set for 11 a.m., guitar with Vyasa Dodson of The Insomniacs at 12:30 p.m. and "Women in the Blues" with Karen Lovely at 2 p.m.

Free performances in connection with the festival continue today from noon to 4 p.m. at Alex's, Standing Stone and La Baguette in Ashland and the Avalon in Talent. Visit stclairevents.com.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.