Friday 16.8.13  SPAH Festival

Playing tasteful fills         Bass        Band in a box        Doo-wop/jazz        John Sebastian Jr on his famous fatherIrish Music        Chord workshop        Chromatic harmonica 101        Add variety to your act        Tone, Vibrato, BendingBasic diatonic        Can playing harmonica improve your health and athletic performance?       Classical harmonica        Rock harp        Why harmonica?       Reading music       Al and Judy Smith workshop

…are the seminars I missed today – I don’t quite remember why now, it’s all somewhat of a blur, but after my teaching session I went to a truly outstanding session with Buddy Greene and Charlie McCoy. Buddy is best known for his video that went viral.  Buddy’s solo performance, at Carnegie Hall I think, of the William Tell overture is worth a Google search if you would like to see an extraordinary performance.   Buddy and Charlie are old friends and started by telling jokes – it was quite a routine – and gradually it turned into an hilarious interview with jokes and music throughout. Boy, can they both play!  Steve Baker had a seminar followed by Deak Harp, which sadly I missed, and the movie ‘Pocket full of soul’ was shown and I managed to catch the end of that.

The Windy City Trio caught my attention in the evening shows and then the amazing Stan Harper who I must confess I hadn’t known about until SPAH. I loved his start; something like (and I’m paraphrasing here)…what an amazing festival, all these great people, I’ve enjoyed every minute…until now.   What an outstanding player, I’ll need to find out more about him.The youth cameo produced more great young players reassuring me the harmonica is being preserved and advanced all the time.  Koei Tanaka knocked everybody out with his beautiful lyrical playing on the chromatic. An exceptional jazz player who will surely become world-famous if he isn’t already. You won’t find many better players than him in my opinion.  After the break Filip Jers came on and played a wonderful set using diatonic and chromatic, sometimes with guitar. He is also a great front man interacting well with the audience.   His story about meeting Toots had great effect on the person who won a drawing of Toots in the raffle on the final day –  he kindly and fittingly gave it to a very proud Filip.  Madcat and Kane played a fantastic set after that. It’s hard to get used to such an amazing talent one after another, all the time!  Sandy Weltman finished the concert off with a dazzling performance of jazz, klezmer, latin and gypsy jazz; and once again the audience was blown away by the talents of Sandy and his band.

I seemed to run out of energy and didn’t really make it to the blues jam, the bluegrass jam, the country jam, all the jazz jam, all of which seemed to go on till very late every night. I guess I caught the jazz jam a few times as it was very close to the source of beer and the quality was very high each time I saw it (the music that is!)

Saturday 17.8.13

Early start with the ‘Presidents Breakfast’. I was able to meet all the other presidents and vice presidents of local harmonica clubs and tell people about the National Harmonica League ( so it was a great opportunity to network plus we got to meet the instrument manufacturers, most of whom I already knew, but it was a treat to meet the President of Hohner Inc. worldwide.

Unfortunately that meant I had to miss Buddy Greene’s bluegrass, Celtic and old-time seminar, the Sgro Bros, Joe Filisko’s country blues tradition, and Harmonica fun 101. Maybe each seminar needs to be videoed so people like me who are hungry for information can get to see everything?  Following that there was a gospel show, the legacy of Stevie Wonder, Breathe easy MD harmonicas in therapy, melodic approach to diatonic with Michel Herblin, patterns and arpeggios for improvisation with Sandy Weltman, Harmonikids with Gary Alegretto, jazz harmonica – chromatic, diatonic or both? With Filip Jers, breathing secrets – using your third lung, with James Conway and Richard Sleigh, rock effects for the harmonica with Marko Balland. I managed to get to quite a few of these but only a few minutes in each as I had the Filisko teach–in to attend between 12 and 2.  That was the first time I had taught at SPAH in Joe’s teach-in and I must say I enjoyed doing it and was able to give quite a lot of people some help.

The people I was competing with to get customers were Steve Baker, Madcat Ruth, Buddy Greene, Jerry Devillier, Brandan Bailey, Ronnie Shellist, David Barrett, Michael Peloquin, Buzz Krantz, Dennis Oellig, Will Scarlett, PT Gazell, Jellyroll Johnson, Lonnie Joe Howell, Cara Cook, Jimmy Gordon, James Conway, Michael Rubin, Adam Hamil. It was amazing that I managed to get anybody to sit on my table!  Later there were cocktails, the grand dinner, the award ceremony, and then the final concert was started by Robert Bonfiglio showing why he is regarded as one of the finest classical players of the chromatic harmonica. I recall him introducing one piece saying he had played it 440 times with different orchestras in pretty much all the classical venues in the world.  Another youth cameo came next with some more brilliant playing followed by harmonica express featuring Al and Judy Smith with Tom Stryker. Finally Charlie McCoy and a magnificent group of Nashville stalwarts finished the evening off with standing ovations throughout, and thinking about it, standing ovations have been a very common sight during every concert.  He even played the ‘stone fox chase’ as a special favour for the British contingent!   As I did not win anything in the raffle I don’t really want to talk about it.   I managed to get away from all of the wonderful jams going on at about 1:30 AM but had to get up at 4 AM for my flight out. You might think that at 4 AM on the last night of SPAH after spending five days immersed in the harmonica world people would want to take a break, but no, outside were six people standing in a circle playing crazy stuff to each other all jamming along and on a bench two guys were talking and playing as if the harmonica had just been released from prohibition. And that was my exit from SPAH 2013 leaving in the shuttle bus to the quietening sounds of the harmonica…

I forgot to mention the shops and stalls that were a constant source of interest. All the main manufacturers were present: Seydel, Hohner, Suzuki, the SPAH shop, Richard Sleigh, Harmonica Einstein, Blue Moon harmonicas, Brendan Power and his X-reed harmonicas, Martin Haeffner’s harmonica museum, PT Gazell and more (sorry I didn’t name everyone – there was too much going on).

The SPAH festival over I wnet on to Denver and after 2.5 hours sleep and a bit of driving found myself on a 4 mile hike in the Rockies with a 1,000 foot elevation change up and back. Denver is already a mile high so I had to stop every 100ft to get my breath back and settle the heartbeat. I also drank a gallon of water on the hike.  I don’t know if SPAH will be held in Denver anytime soon but as dry mouths and inability to breathe would be really tough for any low altitude folks, it might not be such a good idea!

That’s enough from me.  It’s an amazing festival which it would behove any harmonica player to attend, and even though I was overwhelmed by the talent, skills, numbers of great players, and the incredible opportunities – I’ll be back.

Thanks to Winslow, LJ, Deb, Elizabeth, Phil, JP, Paul, Tom and the convention staff, plus the performers, teachers and attendees for a wild time.

Ben Hewlett

Chairman NHL