BETHLEHEM, PA—The legendary James Cotton may be hitting 80 in July but when he was helped to the stage and sat down to blow his historic harp, it totally transcended bassist Noel Neal, drummer Jerry Porter, new guitarist Mike Williams and the rest of The Musikfest Café into a Beale Street juke joint on a Memphis Saturday night circa 1958. Prior to that, the band had been playing a strong set of blues progressions that permeated the atmosphere sweetly but lightly. Cotton’s very presence added drama, verve, alacrity and old-school show-biz charm. Man, the cat can still blow!

But we were in for a surprise.

Vocalist Darrell Nulisch casually sauntered onstage and then proceeded to knock the crowd on their collective ass as he slurred his way Jimmy Reed-style through song after song of the sexiest, slinkiest, soul one could possibly hope to hear. And with Cotton behind him (who lost his voice years ago but not his chops), the band was instantly elevated up yet another notch so it all coalesced into one of those moments-in-time that you remember forever.

“Rocket 88” is generally regarded as the very first rock ‘n’ roll song. Recorded in 1951 for Chess Records in Chicago, it’s credited to Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats but it was, in reality, Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm (yeah, that Ike Turner). As performed on this night, it was transfixing, boppin’ along on a rhythm stick that was so true and so real, it was mesmerizing…hypnotizing…like a strong narcotic.

“Honest I Do” is a Jimmy Reed song that reached all the way to #4 on the R&B Billboard chart in 1957, then popularized even further by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 debut. It slips, slides and sashays through your gut with a sensual swoon.

Numerous encores later, Cotton was helped off the stage and out to a table where he met the fans. I was first on line and gushed like a little fan boy.

The very next night, with the Café considerably more packed, the two-time Blues Foundation Entertainer Of The Year Tab Benoit, on a Northeast tour from his Louisiana home, blew the house away with his gumbo of Cajun, soul, funk, blues and rock. Taking requests from a crowd that had obviously seen him in this room before, he tore Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine” into shreds, testifying, emotionalizing and soloing atop his power trio like a man summoning up that Otis fervor in righteous style.

He lit up Hank Williams too, romping through “Jambalaya” and “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.”

Referencing his Crescent City roots, he rocked the hell out of “Iko Iko” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Then he got deeeeeeeep down into the tar pit of the blues, stinging his ax like Stevie Ray or Buddy Guy while the hot crowd hooted and hollered for more.

Kudos to Musikfest Café booker Patrick Brogan who has been consistently, for years now, bringing the kind of talent to this gorgeous room that is salivatingly pure. On March 27, 28 and 29, the Annual Blast Furnace Blues Festival will take place with Shemekia Copeland, Tommy Castro, The Heritage Blues Orchestra, John Nemeth & The Bo-Keys, Shawn Holt & The Teardrops, Edward David Anderson, James Supra, Mike Dugan, Roddy Barnes, Gaye Adegbalola, Joe Filisko and Eric Noden, Friar’s Point, Maria Spillane, Nick Andrew Staver, Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble, Carolyn Wonderland, Johnny Never and Zep Harpo, The BC Combo, The Freddie King Reunion band, Mike Mettalia & Midnight Shift, Maria Woodford, The Chris O’Leary Band, Roddy Barnes and The Craig Thatcher Band. There will be three days of workshops, a Blues Brunch and more artists to be announced. This is the real March Madness!

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